Born through the imagination of a Grand Rapids entrepreneur, ArtPrize has become a fixture in the city as the seasons shift from summer to fall.
Rick DeVos, son of former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and grandson of Amway founder Richard M. DeVos, launched the art competition in 2009 as a “social experiment to rally a city around visual art.”
One of the draws of ArtPrize was its competition structure, which put the artists at the mercy of the public to determine which piece would win the grand prize—$250,000 for the entry with the most votes.
The leadup to the festival's debut was met by many critics claiming that the public wasn't capable of choosing a deserving winner. But as the launch of the first competition approached, West Michigan was filled with anticipation for what was being touted as "the largest art competition in the world."
Chapter 1: The Early Years
In April of 2009, Rick DeVos announced the concept for the first ArtPrize to the sound of critics saying "Grand Rapids will become a laughing stock in the art world" and "It is American Idol for artists." But those doubters would soon find that the art competition was here to stay.
ArtPrize officially kicked off in 159 venues spread across a three square mile section of Downtown Grand Rapids on Sept. 23, 2009. Over 1,200 artists showed off their entries to more than 200,000 visitors.
The art competition saw 334,000 votes cast by the public with an artist from New York City taking home the top prize of $250,000. Second and third place were also given cash prizes of $100,000 and $50,000 respectively. A total of $449,000 was given out as prizes for artists, which ArtPrize says was the largest purse for any art competition in the world.
With the first ArtPrize considered a success by artists, organizers and festival-goers, it wasn't long before ArtPrize's return in 2010 was announced.
These first few years of ArtPrize would see the competition grow in popularity, as well as changes to its prize structure.
Within its first four years, ArtPrize doubled the amount of visitors to Grand Rapids with an estimated 200,000 people attending in 2009 and a whopping 400,000 visitors in 2013.
One of the only major complaints from the first year was the lack of juried awards from judges who had a background in art. The first ArtPrize only included a public vote and awards for the top 10 artists, but 2010 would bring four additional awards to be given out by judges.
The number of juried awards would increase over the years, expanding from four in 2010 to six in 2013. The total prize purse would also increase in 2012 to $560,000, with $360,000 split among public vote winners and $200,000 split between juried awards.
The first several years of ArtPrize was known for its massive outdoor displays like the sea monster in the Grand River named "Nessie on the Grand" or the flying pig in the B.O.B. parking known as "The SteamPig Experiment" and the iconic 15-ton table and chairs placed atop the Blue Bridge titled "The Furniture City Sets the Table for the World of Art".
By the end of ArtPrize 2013, the competition was a fixture in Grand Rapids and was known nationwide.
Chapter 2: An Established Art Competition
2014 is arguably one of the most important years for ArtPrize. It was the first time that an artist submission won the public vote grand prize, a category award and the juried grand prize.
"Intersections" (pictured above) by Anila Quayyum Agha of Indianapolis, IN, won the so-called "Triple Crown" of ArtPrize by wowing judges and festival-goers alike.
"Agha’s Intersections is an immersive gallery installation centered around a suspended cube. Each of the cube’s six sides are laser cut with the same delicate patterns, derived from decorative motifs found in Spain’s historic Alhambra, where every surface is covered with designs of Islamic art. A single light bulb within the cube casts shadows of interlacing patterns onto the room’s walls, ceiling, and floor — and subsequently the people within the space. In contrast to the artist’s childhood experience of being excluded from mosques because she was female, with Intersections, Agha creates a public space open to all," the Grand Rapids Art Museum wrote of the installation.
The installation showed any critics of ArtPrize that the public does indeed have an eye for art, and can pick pieces that are more than just appealing to the eye.
This golden era of ArtPrize saw massive crowds each year, growing to over 700,000 people in 2018.
The growth also saw huge benefits to the city, including an estimated $33 million economic impact on Grand Rapids during ArtPrize 2018. This amount was almost three times as large as the economic impact of ArtPrize events during its first few years.
Chapter 3: The End of an Era
The most tumultuous years for ArtPrize began with 2019, when the competition would go on hiatus for a year and the ArtPrize organizers would instead put on the first of what it called its "Project exhibition series."
Instead of the usual ArtPrize competition, organizers pivoted to an biennial schedule for the main competition with a curated art exhibition lasting seven weeks in the off years.
Project 1 took place in 2019 and featured temporary works of art at multiple outdoor sites across the city. The artists were chosen by the Curatorial Advisory Committee, put together by festival organizers.
This event ran from Sept. 7 through Oct. 29 and was the first and only of ArtPrize's "Project exhibition series."
The festival would then take an additional year hiatus in 2020 as the COVID pandemic caused public events to shut down for most of the year.
2021 was the return of ArtPrize in its original form, but it was still hindered by the lasting COVID pandemic. In 2021, the attendance of ArtPrize was down to around 500,000 people, about 200,000 less than the turnout in 2018.
It wasn't until the following year that attendance levels rose back to above pre-pandemic levels with a record-breaking attendance of over 750,000 visitors in 2022.
That year also had the largest economic impact on the city with a GVSU study estimating $34.6 million in economic output supporting 318 jobs.
The wildly successful ArtPrize in 2022 would also be the last time that the competition would be held under the control of the ArtPrize Board of Directors. After the festival concluded in 2022, organizers announced that they would be handing over the reigns of ArtPrize to a new partnership.
Chapter 4: A Festival's Rebirth
ArtPrize 2023 and Beyond
ArtPrize made a major announcement ahead of the 2023 festival that will impact how it is run for the future. After 13 years, organizers handed over the reins to the City of Grand Rapids, Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. (DGRI), and Kendall College of Art and Design.
The new competition is being dubbed ArtPrize 2.0 and is said to build on the legacy of the original international art competition and begin a new chapter.
Among the changes to this year's ArtPrize is a new prize structure that spreads out the money among many more artists than in prior years.
This year, the public vote grand prize is set at $125,000. The five juried category winners claim $100,000, second place gets $50,000 and third and honorable mentions will get $25,000. Awards up to $20,000 will be granted to 51 artists based on scores in specific categories, as well.
The ArtPrize Board of Directors said they were grateful to the community for 13 years of support to make the event possible.
“What started as an experiment in 2009 quickly became something more, and we have an entire community to thank for embracing the ArtPrize idea and taking it to amazing heights,” said ArtPrize Founder and Chairman Rick DeVos. “While there are certainly mixed emotions, we know the time is right to conclude the original ArtPrize experiment and open up space for new energy and creativity. We are thrilled that the partnership of DGRI, KCAD, and the City of Grand Rapids is stepping forward to continue to produce an incredible fall event.”
Tim Kelly, President and CEO of Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. says they'll be working on the next event, hoping to keep the interest alive.
"We'll be doing an event in 2023," said Kelly. "We're kind of in this transitional organizational phase right now. But from the public's perspective, things should look largely the same for 2023."
The first year of ArtPrize 2.0 is scheduled for Sept. 14 through Oct. 1, 2023.
Chapter 5: ArtPrize Legacy so far
ArtPrize legacy so far
As ArtPrize transitions into its next iteration, its important to note that the art competition has already left a lasting legacy on the city.
ArtPrize has had impacts on Grand Rapids and the surrounding area both culturally and economically. Grand Rapids has always been known as a city that appreciates art, with the Festival of the Arts running for over five decades. Grand Rapids is also home to Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University.
ArtPrize has helped Grand Rapids grow in the national spotlight, making the city a destination for art lovers from across the county.
The festival has stimulated the Grand Rapids economy since its inception in 2009, with economic impacts to the city estimated between $10 and $35 million each year.
It will be interesting to see where the festival goes under new management as ArtPrize 2.0 in 2023 and beyond.
13 ON YOUR SIDE will be exploring everything that ArtPrize 2.0 has to offer. Come say hi as our 13 ON YOUR SIDE team broadcasts live from the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Downtown Grand Rapids throughout ArtPrize 2.0.
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