Grand Rapids, MI: ArtPrize

Gallery attendees looking at a bright water installation

Photo courtesy of ArtPrize

How can a radically open public art festival transform the way a city thinks of itself?

Even though Grand Rapids is set on the picturesque Grand River and has plenty of quality public spaces—parks, promenades, and plazas—residents tend to move through the city in cars, going directly to their destinations. In 2009, a local businessperson launched ArtPrize, which brought temporary art installations to sites across the downtown area. Ultimately
the project attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors to an area in the midst of urban renewal and introduced new audiences to contemporary art.


Set on the Grand River, in western Michigan, Grand Rapids is a city of fewer than 200,000 people. With a riverside park and a Midwestern sensibility, the city is big on charm, but has been unduly associated with the urban decline that has marked the stories of many Michigan cities. Unlike many of its Midwestern contemporaries, though, Grand Rapids has become a destination city, due, in part, to its burgeoning arts scene. Part of that cultural activity is driven by ArtPrize, an annual international art competition held in Grand Rapids every fall. As its Founder, Rick DeVos stated, “With an art and design legacy ensconced by names like Eames and Calder and a world-class art museum at the heart of our city, Grand Rapids was ready for a marquee, international event. ArtPrize captured the public imagination with a citywide visual arts event like no other.” According to DeVos, ArtPrize proved to the world that “Grand Rapids is ready for the international stage.”


Though it has the river and the riverside park, Grand Rapids, true to the Michigan history of automotive history, is a very car-centric city. As DeVos put it, “one of Grand Rapids’ greatest features is its walkability. The relatively recent boom in downtown arts, cultural activities, businesses and entertainment options has returned the city’s urban core to a clean, safe place to live, work, and play.” While the downtown has experienced a revitalization surpassing comparable cities, the renewal has faced its challenges. “Despite the ongoing renewal of our downtown, Grand Rapids has had to work hard to not only improve the city, but to change the negative perceptions of downtown that have evolved over decades of suburban sprawl.”


Because of this very workaday approach of driving directly from one point to another, there was a need to animate Grand Rapid’s public realm in such a way that residents and visitors would be enticed to explore the city more on foot. The downtown area needed to become a vibrant public space, and not just a barren site with anonymous towers. This shift would not only encourage civic engagement but it would also enhance economic activity coming from people dropping into places as they explore the city. There was also a need to expand exposure to art since, historically, many residents have lacked broad exposure to arts and culture.


Rick DeVos, a local entrepreneur and grandson of Richard DeVos, co-founder of Amway, launched ArtPrize in 2009 to address those local needs. ArtPrize was called a “radically open, independently organized international art competition” that would double as a “social experiment to rally a city around visual art.” Its core mission is to exhibit contemporary art installations in a public setting. The public’s exploration of the city, motivated by temporary art installations would give people added reason to walk around in the downtown, ultimately changing residents’ perception of the area. “Art changes the traditional experience of walking downtown into an unpredictable adventure of sorts, it makes the journey the destination.” DeVos said, “When you yield to the experience of contemporary Art, you are generally open to new ideas and new forms of expression. Combining this openness with an urban experience that introduces, or reconnects hundreds of thousands to downtown Grand Rapids has proven to be a powerful tool in accelerating the growth and prosperity of the city.” DeVos’ goals weren’t just in terms of the economy or urban renewal. “We’re thrilled to see the ripple effects of ArtPrize on Grand Rapids, but all of it points back to our core mission of introducing vast, new audiences to contemporary art.”


ArtPrize had full support from the City of Grand Rapids, which facilitated permitting and signage. Several city departments—Police or Planning, for example—helped with specific tasks relating to event management and planning. Downtown Grand Rapids, Inc., a governmental authority, helped invite visiting artists and facilitate the use of streets and public spaces. A large number of small businesses threw in their support, too, helping to accommodate installations and the chalk-marked path that guided visitors through the public art experience. The local ICONsign company made wayfinding markers posted along the chalk trail. DeVos helped secure significant sponsor support from large corporations, including Amway, Steelcase, and Meijer. As with so many platemaking projects, though, none of this would have been implemented had it not been for the very committed crew of over 2,000 local volunteers.


The event launches each year during the third week of September. Through March, April, and May, artists are paired with venues in an innovative way. Using matchmaking software from dating websites, any business owner whose property has public access is free to select artwork to display on his or her premises. Underscoring the democratic approach to the competition, ArtPrize does not curate entries. From March to September, organizers recruit sponsors, design event materials and merchandise and plan a series of events put on in affiliation with the competition itself.
During the very first week, ArtPrize busses in over 5,000 students, many who come from low-income backgrounds. They then host invited speakers to engage with ideas stimulated by the artwork. For the two months the art is on display, the public is invited to vote online and on apps for their favorites, and the winner receives $200,000.


ArtPrize casts a wide net. Its 2010 installment drew an audience of 250,000, including people of all demographics, ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds. “Anyone who can make it to downtown Grand Rapids can participate,” said Creamer. The event brings in people from across Michigan, too, directly appealing to audiences not only across Grand Rapids proper but also across the county and the West Michigan region. As Creamer said, “we weren’t pinpointing any particular demographic, but trying to create programming that didn’t have barriers to any.” Grand Rapids registered some impressive metrics relating to ArtPrize, too. “Although our main focus is not economic impact, we acknowledge that an important outcome is the increase in dollars spent at downtown businesses and lodging,” Creamer commented. In fact, a Grand Valley State University economic impact assessment calculated that the 2010 installment triggered a $5 million boost in economic activity. Public transportation ridership surged, too.


Those businesses that served as venues reported an uptick in business activity. This effect continued after the event. Two museums, for example, each hosted traveling exhibitions after ArtPrize ended (unrelated to ArtPrize) that sold more than 50,000 tickets, which represents a much higher volume (especially in a city of fewer than 200,000 people). But the main aspiration was to encourage walking throughout the downtown area, and on this account ArtPrize exceeded its own anticipations—even during the set-up process. “Because our walking paths crossed in front of so many businesses, there were some great encounters that developed just in the course of placing the chalk markers,” said Creamer. “The team learned more about particular areas of downtown, such as Heartside, and met many business owners in the course of marking the paths.”


ArtPrize doing its part to paint Grand Rapids as a destination
Crain's Detroit Business (Oct 13, 2013)

Online home of the art competition

ArtPrize on Vimeo
Online channel with over 190 videos (as of 11.

  • Artists -1,713 participated in the 2012 event, joining through an open registration and arrange their displays by matching with venues in a person-to-person process facilitated through the website.
  • The Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts - a long-running community organization who assisted ArtPrize with programming.
  • Several large corporations - Steelcase, Meijer, and Amway provided sponsor support.
  • Local Forprofit and Nonprofit Businesses– several small businesses and a major hotel helped in accommodating our chalk walking path markers on the sidewalks in front of their doors. In 2012, 192 businesses served as venue locations.
  • Volunteers - 2,000 volunteers helped to run the event.
  • City planning professional – a freelance city planning consulted helped get the word out about the paths and using public space during ArtPrize.
  • Pomegranate Studios and Square One Design – local technology and design firm who provided services, respectively.
  • Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation – a local family foundation provided organizational support and prize money.
  • Experts in various art-related disciplines – experts served as speakers and jurors for special awards.
  • ICONsign – a local sign company who produced the signs for our city art sites. They have been a longstanding signage partner that is able to understand ArtPrize's vision and turn around projects quickly.

Start off on a strong foot – whatever the scale: Successfully implementing the project once was a great way to ensure its future success. Widely distributed public events need a good first go in order to be seen as viable and not too disruptive to regular city life.

Ask for help, but don't rely completely on volunteers. Set aside time to work out kinks, and have willing and able people ready to go out and do the physical work of marking paths and assuring downtown stakeholders of what you're doing. It's not something you can squeeze in before or after the workday. Ask trusted companies to offer their expertise as sponsorships in order to lower costs (for instance, signmakers, builders, movers)

When doing temporary public art pieces, it’s important to coordinate with the city to ensure walking paths did not impede regular pedestrian and motor traffic.