Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Grand Rapids' Gilda's Club as a comedy venue. Gilda's Club is a nonprofit group that organizes a citywide comedy festival in Grand Rapids.
In 2010, the ArtPrize festival in Grand Rapids, Mich., brought some 162,000 people through the doors of the Grand Rapids Art Museum.
“The staff was thrilled and shocked just dealing with the crowds,” says Dana Friis-Hansen, director and chief executive officer of the museum since July of this year. “It’s like going to a blockbuster exhibit at any museum.”
This year, the museum was prepared for the rush, offering special museum members–only morning hours for the duration of the festival. With a new $75 million, 125,000-square-foot home built in 2007, the Grand Rapids Art Museum is one of the festival’s key venues. But it’s still just one of 167 participating spaces within ArtPrize’s three-square-mile area in downtown Grand Rapids. Now in its third year, the ArtPrize festival has proven that it can deliver on people.
This year’s ArtPrize, which began Sept. 22 and runs through Oct. 9, may draw 500,000 viewers in total, twice as many as it did during its inaugural run in 2009, according to ArtPrize organizers. Whether those crowds are translating to economic growth for Grand Rapids, however, remains to be seen.
ArtPrize bills itself as a leaderless coalition, a kind of "Occupy Grand Rapids" for visual artists. Founder Rick DeVos launched ArtPrize as a contest with only a few rules: Participants must be 18 years or older and must cooperate with a downtown venue to display artwork. (The ArtPrize website facilitates these “connections” for most artists.) Viewers may register to vote up or down for their favorite artworks. With a $250,000 first prize and a total $449,000 in awards up for grabs this year, those votes matter.
The biggest winner may be downtown Grand Rapids. According to Brian Burch, public relations director for ArtPrize, one study by Grand Valley State University found that ArtPrize brings $7 million to the local economy. Experience Grand Rapids, the local convention and visitors bureau, has commissioned Anderson Economic Group to perform a more robust economic impact study on this year’s ArtPrize.
“While ArtPrize is solely focused on resetting the conversation around art, economic impact has become a secondary benefit of this event. Secondary because we never imagined that this would be come the epic event it has become,” Burch says. Anecdotally speaking, the impact is pronounced. Weddings fill every church over the weekends during the festival, Burch says, and hotels have no vacancies.
“From the beginning, we've been focused on overall participation,” DeVos says. The impact is “difficult to quantify,” he says, “but it's mainly in the possibilities it opens people up to.” Artists who dress up vacant storefronts as pop-up galleries show off the possibilities of those spaces to developers and retailers, for example. The ArtPrize festival itself inspired Gilda’s LaughFest, a citywide comedy festival organized by the Grand Rapids nonprofit Gilda’s Club, DeVos says.
Some of the art from ArtPrize stays in Grand Rapids. After participating in last year’s festival, Amsterdam-based artist Cyril Lixenberg donated his artwork to Grand Valley State University, for example. The festival was also a lure for Friis-Hansen, who served as chief curator and then executive director of the Austin Museum of Art before joining the Grand Rapids Art Museum.
With such large prizes at stake, some artists are putting in the time. DeVos says that Brooklyn-based artist Alois Kronschlaeger has spent two months or more in Grand Rapids installing his entry. But it’s not clear that the ArtPrize itself has led to any visiting artists deciding to make Grand Rapids home.
A rules change going into next year’s festival will prevent any artist from making participation in the ArtPrize contest into a full-time career. Grand Rapids artist Tracy Van Duinen—currently ranking among the top 10 vote-getters in this year’s contest—won second prize with his brother Corey in 2009. If he takes home the top prize this year, he’ll have made a cool $350,000 in the contest since its founding. In 2012, he and other top-10 artists will be ineligible to compete in ArtPrize.
DeVos doesn’t consider ArtPrize in terms of its capacity to draw creative residents to Grand Rapids full-time or restore the city’s core. He describes participation with the city as minimal, and hopes that the event retains its spontaneous character even as it grows.
“It doesn’t need a master plan,” DeVos says. “You can be creative and it doesn’t need to be as disciplined.”