Monday, July 29, 2013

What's the Value of ArtPrize?

With ArtPrize less than two months away, the city is getting a makeover. Construction seems to be pervasive, blocking Cherry from being used and making my bike rides down the hill on Fulton a little more dangerous with cones and drivers who already don't know how to interact with two-wheeled vehicles. I don't want to admit it, but a lot of that construction is necessary, especially if we want to look good to the world during our annual flagship event.

That's right, Grand Rapids needs to put on its pretty face for the world. With artists from 45 states and 47 nations submitting their works for the judgment of whomever can download a smartphone app, eyes from everywhere will be watching. But, more importantly, did you know that Time named ArtPrize one of the five events that you shouldn't miss in 2013? No, this is not just the five events in Michigan that you shouldn't miss. It's not even the five events in the U.S. that you shouldn't miss. It's accounting for the entire world. Can you believe that? I mean, it's an incredible event--truly--but is it really one of the top five festivities in the world?
The prize money in pie-chart form, courtesy of

Thinking about past incarnations of the event, I'd say no. It's inspiring and emotional and aesthetically pleasing and democratic (supposedly), but is it one of the most monumental things I've participated in? Again, I'd say no. I feel like riding a bike down any hill in Grand  Rapids is more exhilarating than ArtPrize. But the fact of the matter is that tourists don't come into a secondary city to ride a bike down a hill. They will, on the other hand, come for art--and they do. In droves. According to estimates, approximately 400,000 people descended on Grand Rapids during the two-and-a-half weeks of ArtPrize last year. My friends and I lovingly call these people "shoobies"--yes, this is a nostalgic nod to a cartoon from our childhood. If you know it, you know it; if you don't, you don't.

When the shoobies arrive, the sidewalks swell with bodies. Traffic becomes a nightmare and driving directly through downtown is suddenly a mistake only oblivious fools make. Areas of the city that are rarely touched are transformed into venues, attracting citizens of the world to areas that citizens of the city have never been to. But even we like to go downtown during the event and walk around. Our families come into town to see this stuff, to guess what will win the grand prize this year. Last year, I got it right with Elephants, a stunning pencil-drawing by Adonna Khare. The surreal piece was something to behold, especially since the artist was working on it in real time, in front of the swarms that had piled into the Grand Rapids Art Museum on whatever day of the week it was.

…You know what's funny? I think I've just convinced myself of the value of ArtPrize. So what if our streets are full? Isn't that the way they're supposed to be, instead of having gas-guzzling monsters belching on the streets? So what if it's hard to get into a restaurant that you love? Don't you want people to love the food that you already have had the pleasure (time and time again) of indulging in? The event brings people, from here and from around the world, into areas of the city that are rarely used. Isn't that something to be proud of, to marvel at? ArtPrize may be about art, first and foremost, but I think it's also--perhaps accidentally--about putting Grand Rapids on the map. I mean, Time mentioned something that happens in our city as an occasion that people all over the world should attend--what? If nothing else, we should be impressed with ourselves.