During Fall Break this year, I joined several MUP classmates on a road trip to Grand Rapids (our mini version of the annual MUP Expanded Horizons trip). We were a small group, which meant that we could leisurely meander the city streets and make group decisions about which neighborhoods to explore, where to eat, and when to take a break to explore a venue or ponder an art installation. At the end of the trip, I felt like I knew a bit about Grand Rapids as a city. I also learned a bit about an interesting approach to enlivening a city through art. 

We visited Grand Rapids during the last weekend of ArtPrize, a 19-day international art competition when artists install their works in various venues around town. ArtPrize is an amazing event: anybody can participate, any location within the three-mile ArtPrize district can become the site of an installation, and artists and venues connect online, through a system that minimizes the burden on the city. At the end of the event, the public and a jury of art experts select winning installations. 

In addition to providing artists an opportunity to share their work, ArtPrize has an immediate impact on the vibrancy of the downtown area. Normal trips through downtown become interesting because each block boasts multiple installations, all with unique character. The art attracts people who usually do not spend time downtown (including tourists like us), enlivening the sidewalks and increasing traffic for local businesses. The art is accessible to anybody who comes to the city, because it sits in public spaces free of charge. 

We were particularly excited when we realized that ArtPrize has an impact on the city center beyond filling the streets during the 19 days of the festival. Some of the installations are permanent. For example, we stopped to enjoy "MetaPhorest," a mural built for the 2011 ArtPrize through a collaboration between the West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology (WMCAT) and artist Tracy Van Duinen. Fifteen urban high school students from WMCAT’s Youth Arts Program worked alongside the artist’s team as apprentices to create the multi-media piece.[1] Van Duinen also contributed another mural, “Imagine That,” on a nearby building during the inaugural 2009 ArtPrize. While we stood contemplating the MetaPhorest mural, several families paused to pose with and soak in the art. We eventually walked away from the mural, pulled by our curiosity for what lay around the corner, marveling at the ability of art to transform a city (and do so in a way that required minimal resources from the city itself) and wondering how other communities might adapt and adopt the ArtPrize model to create long-lasting change.

MetaPhorest mural, with Imagine That mural in the background

MetPhorest mural

ArtPrize installations in the Harris Building, a historic building in the Heartside district

[1] Amy Knape, “’MetaPhorest’ by Tracy Van Duinen and WMCAT students,” https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/780249415/metaphorest-an-artprize-piece-by-artists-and-wmcat