GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — All around me, swarms of people with faces caught between eagerness and beleaguerment are gravitating towards a giant paper blow-up of a detail of the American flag. It spans at least six feet and culminates in a portrait of a dirty-blonde-haired, blue-eyed, red-faced soldier. Titled “Hometown Hero,” the piece is a memorial to a young local soldier who died at war, as well as an entry in ArtPrize (it made the public’s top 20 list). The work’s explanatory text bills it as “touchable art” and invites viewers to add a “name, date, or tiny doodles to the stars and stripes … to commemorate the life of their hero.” People do so with such zeal — the stars and stripes so densely coated with names and doodles — that “Hometown Hero” seems just one step away from a graffiti-covered alley wall in Detroit. The main difference, perhaps, is the writing utensils. In this case they are black Sharpies, each with a small American flag attached to the end.
My volunteer ArtPrize driver had assured me, on the way into town from the airport, that the festival — the art event with the most daily visitors in the world last year — was welcomingly walkable. I took her at her word. Once I’d fought past the thicket surrounding “Hometown Hero,” put down my bags, gobbled a power bar, and sized up the ArtPrize map, I set out walking.
In the lobby again, I walked past “Seasons,” a spotlit, life-size tree sculpture made from dangling pieces of cut bamboo, Christmas ball ornaments, and artificial poinsettia leaves; set off carefully behind a series of velvet ropes, it was shiny and sentimental, but clearly not touchable. I walked past Rosa Parks Circle, where hundreds of people had gathered under gloomy skies and alongside three garishly painted cars to hear the announcement of the winners of a children’s art contest; the man onstage, discussing his company’s sponsorship of the arts, sounded like he was giving a TED talk. I walked past the Van Andel Arena, named after one of the foremost families of Grand Rapids, whose net worth was estimated at $6 billion this year by Forbes; the patriarch, Jay Van Andel, co-founded the notorious Amway company with Richard DeVos, who in turn is the grandfather of Rick DeVos, the founder of ArtPrize. I walked until the sterile new construction of downtown gave way to massive old factories that reeked of exhaustion. I walked past train tracks and the occasional person and a Guatemalan imports store and houses fronted by rickety, rotting steps.
My arrival at Rumsey Street was heralded by a burst of color and paint: red mustang stallions racing through a field of gold and black. The mural, done by Mark Dean Veca, was just one project of many on the block, all of them organized by nomadic nonprofit SiTE:LAB and all occupying or in some other way transforming the street’s abandoned buildings. A former church had become a simple, striped shrine at the hands of Nick Kline; Filippo Tagliati had wrapped a photo of the dramatically destroyed interior of a former church and school onto its exterior; Kate Gilmore had turned a former convent into a luscious red and pink performance space with swings. The former auto body shop whose surface held Veca’s mural housed two powerful projects considering the things we leave behind: State of Exception, by Richard Barnes, Amanda Krugliak, and Jason De León, which chronicles migrants’ attempts to cross the US border into Arizona by way of backpacks, sweatshirts, and documents found in the desert; and Mandy Cano Villalobos’s “Undocumented Histories,” a tidy, apartment-like installation of objects — from kitchen utensils to shoes to license plates — that the artist salvaged from Rumsey Street.
As I wandered in, out of, and around these and other buildings, I marveled not only at the scale of the Rumsey Street Project, but also at the fact that I wasn’t alone. It was no “Hometown Hero,” but people had ventured out here, to this forgotten block, to see the transformation of buildings no one had cared about for years into art. An elderly couple, the man leaning on a cane, followed me at every uneven-terrained turn. We lingered together over a bulletin board in Villalobos’s installation, its bottom lined with sunflowers and the rest filled with typed and handwritten papers bearing “thought[s] for the day,” “motto[s] to live by,” “wisdom,” and pictures of dogs. In these scraps of life I felt acutely the presence of a Grand Rapids beyond ArtPrize. “Reality is everything around you,” read a line in one note.
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When you’re in the thick of it, the reality of ArtPrize is basically bad art — so much of it, convention centers and museums filled with it, beyond your (or at least my) wildest dreams. It’s balanced by some good art — like the work at SiTE:LAB, and other venues including the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM) and the Fed Galleries at Kendall College of Art and Design — but by and large the oversize zebras and the naked women riding horses and the sentimental Jesus’s win out.
“What do you think of ArtPrize?” at least four Grand Rapidians asked me over the course of two hectic days. They genuinely wanted to know, but it was a difficult question to answer. As a critic, I could easily offer judgements on the work on view all around town, but the more I looked and talked and wandered and observed, the more I found myself coming to an unexpected conclusion: ArtPrize is not really about art.
Obviously, with more than 1,500 entries this year, ArtPrize consists of a whole lot of art. But the viewing conditions — lines to get into galleries, constant crowds, visual overload, the setup as a contest — are less than optimal for having meaningful experiences with it. (It’s sort of like Miami Art Week, except without the beach and the market, and longer.) As others have pointed out too, the benefits for artists themselves, unless they happen to win one of the prizes, are far from clear; some have gone so far as to call the model — which requires artists to pay a $50 registration fee and figure out their own insurance — exploitative.
At its core, ArtPrize looks less like a championing of art and more like a massive attempt at economic revitalization — a way of infusing a struggling city with people and money, an attempt to put that city on the national map via a heavily financed, ‘disruptive’ cultural experiment. Consider these words from RickDeVos in a 2012 GQ piece on ArtPrize:
“I honestly don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the art world,” he replied, though he still planned to attend Art Basel in 2011. “It’s not to suggest I’m creating some kind of war. My overall goal is building a creative culture in Michigan, and it’s all a method of trying a different path to get there. I wanted to do something different and weird. The industrial era was very good to us, but it’s very rigid, it’s very linear, it’s monolithic, and that’s not coming back.” He looked at other midsize cities that have become hubs of culture and innovation — Portland, Austin, Boulder — and wanted to see that energy in Grand Rapids. “I’m more interested in that challenge. How do you create those sorts of centers? I see ArtPrize as my creative act.”
It’s no wonder another ArtPrize volunteer, who drove me to the airport at the end of my stay, spoke of Grand Rapids as “competing” with other cities. ArtPrize is a version of South by Southwest for a city less than half the size. The director of the GRAM, Dana Friis-Hansen, moved to Grand Rapids a few years ago after a decade in Austin.
By the measure of its own founding, of economics, ArtPrize seems thus far to be hugely successful. A recent piece in Belt Magazine noted that, in 2013, the event generated $22 million, and that “downtown parking revenues during ArtPrize alone could cover the first-place prize check.” Restaurants, bars, and coffee shops — including one with the most pretentious tea menu I have ever encountered — now litter the neighborhood of Heartside, where the bulk of walkable ArtPrize is located. A few blocks from the beautiful new Grand Rapids Downtown Market — a “hub of local food innovation” that looks like something you’d find in Brooklyn, on steroids — a realtor’s sign in a vacant storefront advertised, “Your wine bar here!” Meanwhile, with plenty of funds to fly in critics (such as myself), artists, curators, and other art worlders every year, ArtPrize has been able to secure its cultural relevance.
The benefits that the DeVoses themselves reap from all this should not be discounted — they undoubtedly accrue cultural cachet, if not profits as well. But the change in the city is real, according to Grand Rapidians. “This thing really struck a nerve. I would talk to people who lived outside Grand Rapids in the suburbs, and they hadn’t been downtown in 30 years before ArtPrize,” the event’s exhibitions director, Kevin Buist, told Belt Mag. His words echo multiple conversations I had there, both with people involved in ArtPrize and with others who don’t care too much about seeing it.
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That night at 10pm, I headed into the back theater of a crusty downtown bar called (appropriately) the Pyramid Scheme. The act was a DIY burlesque production called ArtPrize! The Musical, or, as it was titled this time around, I Almost Won at ArtPrize, the Musical! — in honor of being juried onto the time-based shortlist last year (by Hyperallergic Editor-in-Chief Hrag Vartanian) but not winning the final prize. In it, the show’s creator, local artist Corey Ruffin, plays Rick DeVos as a douchey, gold-body-suit-wearing guy who loves money, spreading his seed, and “my ArtPrize, my legacy to my Grand Rapids.”
The show pits DeVos against Rob Bliss, a local student known for organizing events like pillow fights, and whose entry into the first ArtPrize consisted of releasing 100,000 paper airplanes over downtown. At the beginning, the two are foes — DeVos pokes out Bliss’s eye — but by the end they realize they’re not actually so different from each other. Bliss rescues DeVos from the Big Old Building (the B.O.B.) and takes him to Heartside, explaining that it’ll be safe because “no one ever goes there. … It’s a real neighborhood populated by homeless, drug addicts, hookers, and artists.” To which DeVos replies: “I’ve never heard of it.”
Friends and acquaintances in Grand Rapids — admittedly quite limited in number — say that before ArtPrize, downtown really was a forgotten place. Ruffin says that “ArtPrize killed the underground artistic scene in Grand Rapids.” The truth is likely somewhere in between. Grand Rapids was already a creative place when I first visited it, 12 years ago, long before ArtPrize was a seed in DeVos’s brain. It seems a different kind of creative place now — one with more art on its streets, but also more giant zebras.
ArtPrize Seven continues throughout Grand Rapids, Michigan, until October 11.
Note: The writer’s travel expenses and accommodations were paid for by ArtPrize.