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Rustbelt Revival

October 4, 2012

ArtPrize draws competition and crowds to Grand Rapids

An art contest is not typically what comes to mind when looking for new ways to attract a mass of visitors to a rustbelt city; yet four years into its existence, ArtPrize has proven its success by being unusual, creative, and spectacular.  Drawing national and international attention, including recent articles in the New York Times and GQ magazine, ArtPrize has transformed Grand Rapids, Michigan, into an arts destination.

Rich E. Morse, Stick-to-it-ive-ness

A cold, blustery day this September did not stop thousands of visitors from experiencing the annual event, installed in every nook and cranny of downtown Grand Rapids.  The streetscape was alive with activity from food vendors, art installations, and swarms of people.  Perhaps the most impressive element of ArtPrize was not the artwork itself, but the infinite conversations about art taking place.  The city was a chatter with opinions and art talk, an unusual sound byte within the context of a midwestern city.  Everyone had something to say, regardless of his or her previous experience with the arts.  Families and friends lined up around artworks to have their picture taken; people stood in awe, wonder, amusement, and disdain as they encountered artwork after artwork.

Now a major player in the arts world, ArtPrize has demonstrated the potential impact the arts can have on a struggling rust belt city.  It begs the question: could this event translate beyond Grand Rapids as a solution to revitalizing similar midwestern cities, such as Dayton? 

Michelle Acuff, Surrogate

ArtPrize was created by Rick DeVos and is primarily funded by the DeVos family fortune (his grandfather cofounded Amway).  The amount of money attached to the artist awards is unparalleled in the artworld—even the prestigious Turner Prize out of London is a mere $40,000 next to ArtPrize’s grand award of $200,000.

The other factor that makes ArtPrize unusual is its inclusiveness—absolutely anyone can participate.  As DeVos intended, ArtPrize is to create “the world’s largest excuse to get creative.” Any artist can apply, as can any Grand Rapids venue.  The artist will then work with a venue to create an exhibition for the annual event.  This year, over 1,500 artists participated in over 160 venues, which included parks, profit and nonprofit businesses, parking lots, museums and every space in between.   Then, anyone in the public can vote for their favorite works of art, determining who wins the cash prizes.

Leslie Friedman, Half Pipe Ideas

Voting takes place over the course of almost two weeks in September.  The top ten entries are chosen by popular vote, and a final round of voting, from September 30 through October 4, determines the winner of the ArtPrize.  The total in prize money of $360,000, with $200,000 to the top artwork. 

Critics of ArtPrize have scorned the popular vote model, seeing many important pieces of artwork overlooked for the more sensational or lowbrow artworks winning awards.  This pushback created a new trajectory in award money this year, a new purse of juried awards.  An additional $200,000 is awarded through jurors, more on par with the traditional model of art competitions.  This year’s jurors include Tom Eccles, Theaster Gates and Jerry Saltz, the crème de la crème of the contemporary art world.

Flora Metamorphicae 2012

The success of the event is undoubtedly the spectacle of it.  Estimates of over 300,000 visitors attend the event within its 19-day run to view the variety of creative endeavors.  The quality of artwork is wide ranging, and there is something for everyone.  Within just one parking lot, I viewed a life-size fairy sculpture whose wings became psychedelic colors and patterns when looked at through a special contraption; a school bus converted into a moveable artmaking classroom; a ten-foot crow made out of recycled tires; and a claw vending machine that released red eggs stuffed with carefully chosen objects by its artists.

Venturing over to the Urban Institute of Contemporary Art, a curated exhibition took the element of lowbrow art out of play, producing instead a thoughtful and serious exhibition on visual connections to other worlds.  Artists from the US, Iceland and Norway, created conceptual, visually engaging, and technically remarkable artworks.  A standout was the work of Martijn van Wagtendonk, whose piece “Song of Lift,” was activated by a quarter slot machine.  The gallery lights dim, a recorded opera begins to play, and the 30-foot structure, much like the armature of a carousel, begins to move.  Over a hundred delicate birds dangling from the arms of the armature begin to flap their wings and propel themselves forward, the sound of their wings rustling alongside the seductive operatic aria.  Children and families stopped in their tracks for long pauses to watch the performance, a nearly unheard of feat in an art gallery.

Continuing through the city, we saw an artist-created skateboard ramp, a swing-set that played several percussion instruments when in motion, as well as the installation of more traditional work including photography, painting, sculpture, fibers, glass, and so on.  Five hours in, we had only scratched the surface.

ArtPrize is also remarkable in that it costs nothing to its audience.  The museums, downtown businesses, and the parks—everywhere artwork was installed was available to anyone to interact with and to vote on. 

The beaucoup money of a private donor, the successful implementation of an unusual event, and the investment of time and resources from a city have made ArtPrize one of the most interesting models of engaging a public with art to revitalize a dying downtown.  Imagining a density of artwork installed in a similar fashion throughout a similarly sized city, such as downtown Dayton, is an attractive idea.  In a city reinventing itself, Dayton has been engaging new audiences through a plethora of terrific festivals and events.  Looking at the success of ArtPrize, the uniqueness of the event may add new dimension to our vision for new ways of seeing our city.  Dayton’s existing arts are already spectacular, so what new visions could drive swarms of visitors to experience our city?  

ArtPrize takes place every September and October in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Vote for your favorite artworks in ArtPrize by visiting the website  Voting continues through October 4, 2012.  Awards will be announced on October 5.  This article was originally published in the Dayton City Paper on October 2, 2012.

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