Travel Michigan: Art show takes Grand Rapids by storm

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"La Grande Vitesse" by Alexander Calder is in Calder Plaza in Grand Rapids, Mich. (SHNS photo by Virginia Linn / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)


What would happen if you invited artists from around the world to display their work in your city?

The result would be ArtPrize, a 19-day extravaganza that has turned a 3-square-mile area in this central Michigan city into not only a giant contemporary art show but also a social experiment.

From the city's many bridges and plazas, to the walls of its hot-dog shops and pizza parlors, to its sidewalks and fountains, to its museums and green spaces, art is everywhere. For the show in 2011, the pieces by 1,582 artists displayed in 162 venues ranged from the prosaic to the whimsical to the provocative to the exquisite.

There were steel "barrel full of monkey" shapes hanging from the pedestrian Blue Bridge over the Grand River and wooden grizzly bears crafted with chain saws placed in the cascade fountain in front of the Gerald R. Ford Museum. A giant crooked door, cracked open, was placed on the grass along the Grand River, delighting children and adults alike.

Heading into its fourth year this September, ArtPrize has been a smashing success -- not only in the variety of pieces it has brought to the city, but in the way it has connected residents and visitors of all ages, to, well, art.

A study released in December estimated that the event pumped $15 million into the Grand Rapids/Kent County economy. In all, ArtPrize drew an estimated 322,000 visitors last fall who pointed, touched, inspected, laughed, frowned and oooed and ahhed. I overheard one teenage boy remark about a painting, "That's really cool. I don't really understand it, but it's cool."

For the first three years, the event was primarily nonjuried. The public judged the art pieces by voting for them online. And 38,000 registered voters did last year -- casting 383,000 total votes from their computers and smartphones.

Although changes are being made in judging for its fourth year, the show will continue to award the largest prize purse of any art show in the world -- a total of $560,000 -- as well as focus on the public's participation.

"It's a platform for engagement," Brian Burch, ArtPrize public-relations director, said about the public's role. "People who come here find they're having fun. By having fun, they're learning. ... It's creating this cycle of social change."

This year, ArtPrize officials are adding a $100,000 juried grand prize and larger juried prizes to the event.

While artists appreciated the huge audience viewing their work, Burch said, many also were eager to have their work evaluated at a professional level, so they expanded the juried opportunities.

However, "our emphasis is still very much on the public vote," Burch said. "We want to preserve that. It's the best way to engage people."

The top public vote winner will get $200,000, second prize $75,000, third $50,000 and fourth through 10th places, $5,000 each.

ArtPrize is the brainchild of Rick DeVos, the 30-something eldest grandson of Amway co-founder Rich DeVos. Amway built Grand Rapids like Carnegie and Heinz and Frick built Pittsburgh.

The younger DeVos, who considers himself a social entrepreneur and flies helicopters and races motorcycles as a hobby, announced the "urban experiment" in April 2009. The aim was to decentralize the traditional top-down art contest and bring art to the people.

The ArtPrize staff scrambled to put on a 16-day show the following October with 1,262 artists showing work in 159 locations. The event drew 200,000 visitors that first year.

What was so fun about milling about downtown Grand Rapids last fall was discovering pieces of art at every turn. Who'd expect to see Venetian watercolors lining the wall of a hot-dog shop? Or gecko sculptures hugging the lampposts along Monroe Avenue? Or a giant metal dog on the riverfront?

Each was identified by an ArtPrize sign that gave information about the artist and how to vote for the piece.

As a way of supporting downtown businesses, organizers purposely do not bring in food booths, Burch said. Festival-goers have to eat in the restaurants and cafes. While some ran out of food the first year, they've learned how to handle the larger crowds and appreciate the boost in business.

ArtPrize organizers do not curate or select pieces for various venues. They set up what could be considered a dating website for artists and venues: the artists work directly with owners of the roughly 160 venues around the city to determine where their art will be placed and what ideas would work.

As with last year's grizzly-bears display ("Grizzlies on the Ford"), the artist, Llew Tilma of Wayland, Mich., approached the Ford museum with his idea of incorporating the sculptures in its large stepped fountain and won its support.

Virtually any spot in Grand Rapids can be a stage for art -- even smack in the middle of the Grand River. During the first year, "Nessie on the Grand," a Loch Ness monster image by the Nessie Project, won sixth place.

This year, two contenders for river venues are "Fishes," a set of six independent fish arranged in a school, and "Horse Stampede," in which horse sculptures fashioned from bare tree branches and plate steel would use the water's movement to make them look as if they're galloping.

Burch expects the popularity of ArtPrize to continue to grow. And the idea of engaging the public in selecting favorite works is catching on. The Hammer Museum in Los Angeles for its Made in L.A. 2012 Biennial this summer is adding a public component in the awarding of a new $100,000 Mohn Prize. While a professional jury will select five finalists, the winner will be chosen by visitors to the exhibition through online voting.

Courtesy of Scripps Howard News Service