This message does NOT come to you from the Grand Rapids Tourism Council, but it may as well have. (Confidential to the Grand Rapids Tourism Council: Please contact me regarding an exciting sponsorship opportunity.)
I stopped by Grand Rapids on my drive north through Michigan yesterday. The city is at the tail end of a massive free art festival called ArtPrize. Put aside your impressions of fiberglass cows in Chicago, or this hideous new sculpture in … uh, Chicago again. ArtPrize is an open competition whose winner will be chosen by public vote, and it’s fantastic. More than 1,200 artists from all over the world entered, and their works — sculpture, paintings, photography, installations galore — populate 159 venues through the city’s relatively compact center.
ArtPrize has no official jury or curator. Anyone could enter, and anyone can now register to vote thumbs up or thumbs down on the competition’s entries — either online, via text, or using the ArtPrize iPhone application. This is art that’s judged by the public just as it was created for them, and the show is holding the city’s attention in part by moving quickly. It opened on September 23, the top 10 finalists were announced on October 1, and the winner will be named on Thursday. He or she will take home a $250,000 prize courtesy of the DeVos family, well-known philanthropists in Michigan. The other finalists will take home amounts between $7,000 and $100,000. ArtPrize calls itself the world’s largest art prize, and with this kind of award money on the table, I believe it.
The downtown blocks of Grand Rapids were thronged with people on Monday night: families and singles, old and young, art-y and square. The venues were clearly marked with well-designed signage, volunteers in cheery red T-shirts provide guidance, and restaurants stayed open late. On Monday night, this medium-size city in the middle of a state pushed into a serious slump by the recession was brimming with both commerce and civic engagement. It’s surely unrelated, but there are also active construction sites every other block. Grand Rapids is doing something right.
And then there’s the art itself. Some of it is showy, some of it is folk art-y, austere, mysterious. It’s not all great, but enough of it is to make ArtPrize truly impressive from an artistic standpoint, not just a civic one. The DeVos family, especially 27-year-old Rick, who conceived the project, has given a great gift to Grand Rapids. And though ArtPrize will close down Saturday, the good news is it will return next year.
I’ll leave you with this video of one of the top-25 entries, in which artist Rob Bliss released 100,000 paper planes over the city, accompanied by a live, massive, amateur performance of Sigur Rós’ “Olsen Olsen.” The piece temporarily turns downtown Grand Rapids into a mass of color and sound and happiness, which is a pretty good metaphor for ArtPrize itself.
(Seriously, tourism council, my door is always open.)