ArtPrize: Art, Cities and How I’ve Been Wrong About Grand Rapids All This Time. (W/ Video)

By Sean Mann

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Now I’ve spent the majority of the last twenty years in Michigan and I’ll confess that during that entire period of time I’ve been completely ambivalent to Grand Rapids. It’s been lost and relegated within my mind thanks to stereotypes of West Michigan, a land known for its conservatism and its Dutch decedents with their last names that start in ‘Van’ or end in ‘-stra’, and blonde hair and 6’2″ frames . . . . and Dutch men that are even taller. A cultural backwater that had little or nothing to offer me that I couldn’t find already in Southeast Michigan . . . well, except for easy access to sand dunes and wooden shoes.

And on a single brilliant weekday afternoon last week, ArtPrize proved all of those ill-founded notions of Grand Rapids wrong.


The Urban Institute of Contemporary Art (UICA)

Ever since ArtPrize’s announcement last spring I’ve been following its development with a degree of passive curiosity. I was intrigued by the notion of Grand Rapids trying to redefine itself through art and a twenty-something heir to a fortune trying to do something that actually improved his community through engagement and new technology. But at the end of the day it was still just an art event in Grand Rapids.

Well, realizing the competition was about to come and go before I had a chance to see it, I made the arduous journey down I-96 on a Wednesday afternoon to check out the competition and Grand Rapids.

Like the tens of thousands of people that streamed through downtown Grand Rapids the past couple weeks my motivations were varied, ranging from wanting to see great art to satisfying that basic human need or curiosity to be part of a large, or even, a ‘World’s Largest’ event.


Portraits by Eric Daigh

ArtPrize, with its 1200-plus artists and their works crammed into every nook and cranny of downtown Grand Rapids, was truly amazing. On an autumn afternoon on the middle of a weekday the sidewalks were packed with people of all ages taking in and seeking out art. The pedestrian bridges across the Grand River were occupied by seniors casually strolling and examining works. Businesspeople were rushing over to the Old Federal Building to take in some of the exhibitions during their lunch breaks. The UICA was full of school groups looking at and discussing contemporary art they likely wouldn’t be exposed to otherwise.

And while I didn’t take a survey of the folks taking in all the art, I think the impact of ArtPrize would be fairly universal; a new perspective of the Furniture City and a new appreciation of art and its potential to change our community.

While some of the art was moving and great and some of it certainly was not, what made the event enjoyable for me was seeing people enjoying their city, or exploring a new city, the best way possible; by walking around it and personally experiencing it.


Outside the B.O.B.

ArtPrize was a remarkable event in how it brought Grand Rapids to life. At the same time, ArtPrize could not have existed without Grand Rapids. This grand experiment would have undoubtedly been less successful if it was held in a cornfield or the parking lot of a box store. The contest brought people into the city but it was Grand Rapid’s beautiful historic buildings, streetscapes, and riverfront that provided a backdrop to the art as well a venue for the vibrancy of the event to take hold.

ArtPrize highlighted the fact that art and cities are intertwined. While cities are by no means an exclusive muse for the arts, they do serve as the place where we generally experience it, whether it is in museums, galleries or public spaces.

So kudos to the organizers of ArtPrize, you got me to come to Grand Rapids and develop an impression of the city that I will always keep with me and share with others. Gone, or at least relegated, within my mind are the stereotypes of old. Now my mental images of Grand Rapids will revolve around personal experiences of renovated historic structures, people enjoying public spaces, cyclists pedaling through the streets and the power or art to bring a city to life.

I was at a conference in DC this past week, where a fellow from New England stated that he had been to Grand Rapids recently for business. In near unison we both stated “it’s a surprisingly nice city”. I’m confident with the continued success of ArtPrize and renewed efforts to develop its city center, that in due time Grand Rapids will be described by those not previously familiar with it as simply a great city

The Let’s Save Michigan campaign is a new grassroots effort to get people personally involved in turning around Michigan through arts, culture and vibrant communities because we believe creating great, desirable cities is our road to renewed prosperity in the 21st century. To be a part of our campaign please sign-up.