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Who Really Wins at ArtPrize in Grand Rapids?

by Lisa Diggs

Grand Rapids recently hosted ArtPrize from September 19th through October 7th, for the fourth straight year. For those not familiar with the event, it is an international open artist competition with a grand prize of $200,000. Only one Michigan artist has come up the big winner since its inception. This year’s champion was an art school teacher from California named Adonna Khare for her large-scale, whimsical drawing, ElephantsWith that much prize money leaving the state, what does Michigan stand to gain from ArtPrize?

Though it has grown and changed each year, it is helpful to reexamine the original concept to truly understand the idea’s potential. The competition was the brainchild of social entrepreneur, Rick DeVos. After seeing the impact of certain festivals and happenings in other cities, he conceived of the art competition as a way to change the way people view art and to bolster his own community. 

DeVos introduced the concept in a 2009 video, in which he describes what will make this event fresh and different. “Rather than the traditional model for art prizes which is a small jury selects who the winner will be, the people of Grand Rapids and anybody that wants to come to Grand Rapids will decide on who the winner is.”

The first victory for Michigan associated with this concept was rooted in the idea that people would come from other places and have a vested interest in the outcome, and they have. 

For those who haven’t experienced the spectacle, one of the coolest elements is that art is truly in the eye of the beholder. Unlike the intimidating experience that sometimes welcomes guests to a museum or gallery, every opinion is valid at ArtPrize. That unique approach, and the sheer volume of works on display, has attracted people from around the state, the nation, and even the world to Grand Rapids.

This year, the event covered 3 square miles of the city with 1,517 works of art on exhibit at 162 venues. Even on weekdays, the streets of downtown Grand Rapids were filled with people exploring, not just art, but the city itself. The variety of venues involved from restaurants to museums, hotels to the hair salons, office buildings to the police headquarters, means an opportunity for the community as a whole to benefit.

As DeVos described in his announcement video, “You’ll see art everywhere from the riverside to sides of buildings, from abandoned warehouses to office lobbies.  The idea is the changing idea of what a gallery is. The city is the gallery, and the streets are just as valid a place to show your work and get reaction to it as the typical wood floor white wall.”

Not only has that concept changed the way art is embraced within the city, it forces people who want to experience the entire event to explore all corners and streets of downtown Grand Rapids. All that exploring has certainly led to spending.

Restaurant and bar owners in the area have come to depend on patrons of the annual festival as a significant component to their yearly revenue. Some say their business triples during each of those three weeks.

While details are not yet known for this year’s event, an economic impact report released in July 2012 by Experience Grand Rapids, estimates that the 2011 ArtPrize event added $15.4 million to the Grand Rapids/Kent County economy. The study, conducted by the Anderson Economic Group, says the festival attracted more than 213,000 visitors, with each spending more than $30 a day on average.

In addition to individuals, families, and classes making the trek to ArtPrize, the cultural experience may also have helped secure several conventions. 

CEOs for Cities plans to bring 300 to 400 business and government leaders from 50 cities to Grand Rapids in September for a three-day conference that will overlap with ArtPrize. This year, the Arts Midwest Conference brought several hundred cultural leaders, and back in 2011, the Michigan Municipal League also chose to meet in Grand Rapids with ArtPrize as its backdrop.

Whether or not the event was a contributing factor to securing those specific meetings, one thing is for certain, more people have visited Grand Rapids, and in many cases Michigan, because of Rick DeVos’ visionary imagination. 

Moreover, children’s imaginations are being broadened by exposure to so many different types of art from so many different places, and that alone makes ArtPrize a winner for Michigan.


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