ArtPrize puts Grand Rapids, Mich., on the map for wild, wonderful art

Grand Rapids, Michigan’s second-largest city, finds unusual ways to gain attention. It has produced high-quality furniture for more than a century. It is a nationwide leader in environmental sustainability.

On the city’s Beer City Ale Trail are at least 60 microbreweries, including Brewery Vivant, in a former funeral home. Grand Rapids brews so much beer that its community college one year ago opened Fountain Hill Brewery and Peter’s Pub on campus, the nation’s first such business owned by a college and operated by students who study craft brewing there.

Artwork will saturate three square miles of the city this month, but not for an ordinary juried show or festival. ArtPrize, a nonprofit event in its ninth year, will bring roughly 1,400 works to 182 venues from Sept. 20 to Oct. 8.

That means artwork on bridges and water, in boutiques and banks, alleys and parks. The police department and an auto body shop. Saloons and coffeeshops. Churches and hotels. Just about everywhere you would and wouldn’t expect it, including the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, along the Grand River downtown.

Add pop-up performances, artist talks, music concerts and roving buskers. Free shuttles and cheap bus passes. Segway, walking and running tours. Food carts and edgy restaurants.

Most who visit reportedly stay more than one night because of all the free entertainment during ArtPrize.

Expectations for quality are high because of the top prize: $200,000, times two. Nationally known art experts select one winner. The other grand prize goes to the people’s choice.

No other competition in the nation and very few in the world offer a larger art prize.

An additional $100,000 is split among winners in four categories: two-dimensional, three-dimensional, installation and time-based art. Public votes decide one-half of these eight winners.

Corporate sponsorships and foundation grants make the event possible. Founder and philanthropist Rick DeVos (whose grandfather co-founded the direct-sales company Amway) calls it “a radically open art competition” that encourages critical discourse, transforms urban spaces and promotes social good.

About 2,000 artists in 2016 applied for a place at Grand Rapids Art Museum during ArtPrize, says Ron Platt, chief curator. He was unfamiliar with at least one-half of the chosen 15 artists, who were from Grand Rapids to Israel. “Some of them never had works in an art museum before,” he explains. Others were already established, enough have earned one-person shows.

Works by 65 artists were on display at the Women’s City Club, where Desdemona’s Dining Room serves weekday lunches by reservation in the former music conservatory. About 300 art applications were turned down, says curator Fred Bivins, who favors art that isn’t controversial and doesn’t detract “from the grandeur of the house.”

Other venues seek the controversial or experimental, which makes the overall art mix one unpredictable surprise after another. Some artists play with the city’s furniture manufacturing heritage, producing odd sculptures. Others seek ways to interact with the public in fun or meaningful ways.

Connections between artists and venues are like an online dating service, says Christian Gaines, ArtPrize executive director. He was recruited from Los Angeles and describes Grand Rapids as a fine place to land because of its “good architectural bones” and “forward-thinking people.”

Although artists from 44 countries and 40 states participated in the 2016 ArtPrize, about 70 percent lived in Michigan. Each pays $50 to register.

Winning the grand prize can change lives, Gaines says. One example: Ran Ortner of New York, who won the first prize in 2009, for “Open Water No. 24,” a three-panel and 19-foot-long oil painting of ocean waves. “I’ve been struggling month to month (financially) for the last 30 years,” the artist said, at the time. Now one work by him commands six figures.

Who were the big winners in 2016?

Jurors chose “The Bureau of Personal Belonging,” a time-based and interactive art installation by Stacey Kirby of North Carolina, designed to propel discussions and contemplation about civil rights.

And the people’s choice? Inside Amway Grand Hotel were life-sized, wooden sculptures of canines, most with a missing limb. Woodcarver James Mellick of Ohio called them “Wounded Warriors,” to raise awareness of four-legged veterans of war. They were not for sale.

Grand Rapids, Mich., is 30 miles east of Lake Michigan. ArtPrize jurors on Sept. 25 present their short list of 20 top entries from all submitted, and the public’s top 20 choices are announced Oct. 1.

Round two of voting starts Oct. 2, and all award winners are announced Oct. 6.,, 616-258-7388