It was pure coincidence that a business trip to the great city of Grand Rapids, Michigan was also to occur during one of the biggest community events of the year – ArtPrize.
ArtPrize is an international art competition held in Grand Rapids, which first took place in 2009. The 2010 exhibition is open from September 22 to October 10. ArtPrize is unusual both for the large size of the top prize ($250,000, combined with other prizes cummulatively amounting to half a million dollars), as well as for the method of judging entries. There is no juror. The artists negotiate a venue with local exhibitors, and the works are voted on by the public using modern networking technology.
I did a little bit of research beforehand and many people told me about the competition and how great it would be for me to be there during the event. Honestly, I really didn’t pay a lot of attention and chalked it up to local excitement about a very local event. Then I arrived.
I first noticed the ArtPrize phenomenon while walking by the Gerald R. Ford Museum on a sunny, Monday morning. Rather than the expected ghost town, the Museum parking lot and most others in downtown Grand Rapids were full and hundreds of people were buzzing about town. It seemed as if a batch of moldy rye bread had been delivered to the residents of this fine town.
As I continued to walk down the street, I spent more time observing the people than the actual artwork and was shocked at the near obsessive behavior with which they visited each of the art installations, dutifully snapping pictures and jotting down notes. It became almost instantly apparent that ArtPrize wasn’t just a nice, weekend community activity, it was an EVENT.
This addiction to public art was observed throughout the trip, at all downtown locations and at practically all times of day. As a side note, it was fairly annoying that my hotel was home to several of the installations, thus providing a steady flow of gawkers in the lobby area.
Of course, just as I took out my trusty camera to snap some shots of both the people and the artwork, it broke. All pictures were taken with my iPhone, but still manage to capture the scene I hope.
Some of the art was quite good, extremely modern and experimental, while other pieces utilized tried and true techniques and subjects. One of my favorite pieces was a gigantic, flying metal pig installed in a public square downtown in front of a large restaurant complex. It was phenomenal, although I couldn’t help but wonder what would become of it once the competition was over. Not many homes can accommodate a gargantuan metal porcine.
At first, I admit, I was skeptical of the ArtPrize and thought that there was no way Grand Rapids would be able to generate the crowds necessary to make the event a success. But they did. The crowds on all days of the week, not just weekends, were steady and impressive, bringing some life to downtown. Like many downtown cores, Grand Rapids has had its ups and downs, but many unique and promising businesses seem to be opening and events such as ArtPrize not only promise a momentary jump in revenue, but more importantly, generate a habit of being downtown.
ArtPrize was a gamble, no doubt about it. It’s large, it’s expensive and requires community involvement at all levels. But they did it. Twice. And it worked.
While this particular style of event won’t work in every metropolitan area, I really hope that more cities around the country think of innovative ways of engaging people in ways that truly better the communities in which they live.