With Grand Rapids' ArtPrize in full swing, the ACLU of Michigan Western Branch has enjoyed an overwhelmingly positive response to our first ArtPrize exhibit.

The quality of the art and the power of the messages the works carry have amazed all the visitors who have come to Fountain Street Church.

Our exhibit Art and Civil Liberties focuses on the myriad of ways that art has been linked to the defense of civil liberties, from illustrating controversial social issues to encouraging revolutionary change.

Judges Deb Mankoff and ACLU of Michigan Legislative Director Shelli Weisberg chose two particularly gripping pieces to receive $1,000 Best-in-Show awards.

Chicago-area artist Dominic Sansone's piece Brand New God took the top ACLU of Michigan prize, and its power routinely garners gasps from visitors. The installation fills the church's chapel with rows of small human figures of all colors worshipping a central idol: a gilded AK-47 rifle.

The Fountain Street Chuch's Social Action Committee's top prize was awarded to Michigan artist Brad VanderMoere's We's Goin' To Washington! The oil painting decrys the disconnect between citizens and their representatives. Both pieces are among the 25 highest vote-getters in the Hillside Neighborhood in the ArtPrize area.

One of the largest pieces in the show is a triptych by Sandra Hansen. Modeled after a Medieval alter-piece, the eight-foot tall painting memorializes one of the most famous victims of racism, the young Emmett Till.

Other featured artworks deal with homophobia, violence against women, mental illness, and several pay tribute to civil liberties heroes, including Nelson Mandela of South Africa and artist Ai Weh Weh of China.

To celebrate the opening of the exhibit, we held a panel discussion focused on the role of artists in drawing attention to social issues. Some audience members felt that video and electronic media are superior at spreading social issue commentary widely. Others felt that the immediacy and strength of direct contact with an artist's work can be much more influential for individuals, even if that experience is limited to a few people. The discussion was a great introduction to the experience of viewing ArtPrize works both at the church and elsewhere in the city.

ArtPrize is already half over: I urge everyone to see as much of the art as possible, but give priority to the show put on by the ACLU and Fountain Street Church, at 24 Fountain NE, just east of Division Avenue.

By Tom Logan, Western Branch President