Varied venues add to ArtPrize’s flair for the unusual


If it looks like there are snipers on the roof of UICA, do not be alarmed. It’s just part of this year’s ArtPrize. Photo by Chris Pastotnik

A lot of focus is put on the art during ArtPrize — and rightly so — but venues might be just as important in the long run.

Before an open call for artists’ work is issued, there must be a call for venues to host those pieces. Almost any place in a three-mile downtown radius can apply and be granted approval to host art during the world’s largest art competition.

ArtPrize organizers conduct a screening process, but only to make sure the venue won’t be dangerous to visitors and is within the boundaries of ArtPrize territory.

“Beyond that, it’s fair game,” said Kevin Buist, director of exhibitions. “We just have to make site visits to be sure.”

Buist said downtown businesses and large cultural spots such as Grand Rapids Art Museum and UICA make up the majority of venues, but there have been some odd spots among the mix. In the past, there were exhibits on the front lawns of houses, in people’s live-work spaces, and in the Grand River, which returns as a venue this year, Buist said.

Buist said ArtPrize organizers encourage as much variety as possible when it comes to venues, and it comes fairly easily.

The number of ArtPrize entries in a given venue can be deceiving, Buist said. A building like DeVos Place can easily host more and larger pieces than most because of its huge space. Buist mentioned a much smaller venue that showed nearly 40 pieces, but almost all were 2-by-3-foot paintings hung in a small setting. Meanwhile, Kendall College of Art and Design hosts only eight artists, some of which take up an entire room. Considering floor space, Kendall’s contribution ends up being five to 10 times larger than many.

“They can afford to include multiple elements and allow artists to be bigger and more ambitious,” he said.

Some downtown businesses are quick to sign up as venues for several reasons, often the primary one being that they just want to be a part of it all. As exhibitors, businesses can interact and engage with their neighbors and visitors in ways that don’t normally present themselves. There are thousands of visitors who venture downtown for ArtPrize who normally wouldn’t be there, walking into businesses that are acting as venues.

“For most businesses, foot traffic is a great benefit anytime it happens,” Buist said.

ArtPrize needs all those diverse venues, too. This year, more than 1,500 artists sought out a venue to call home for the 19 days of the event.

The process of finding a venue creates a need for collaboration. Often, both businesses and artists have to stretch to make connections that make sense, and those experiences can be a great benefit for both artists and businesses, Buist said.

“It forces a person to think about space in unusual ways,” he said. “It also takes employees beyond their normal day-to-day routine.”

Many downtown workers are enthusiastic about ArtPrize because it offers something different than the normal workday. Companies generally put a committee together or place one person in charge of the artist procurement, which is above and beyond their usual responsibilities.

The central location also offers downtown workers something new to do during their lunch break. Buist said Rosa Parks Circle is the nexus point, and art radiates in a solid loop around the city’s center.

But aside from the artwork within the city center, there are venues on the outskirts of the three-mile downtown radius. The best thing to do, Buist said, is to check out the ArtPrize website or mobile app and see if there are any pieces that look like a can’t-miss. From there, it’s fairly easy to plan how to get from one venue to the next. The app also allows for list making, and a phone’s GPS helps plan the quickest routes.

Buist recommended checking out venues such as Cathedral Square of the Diocese of Grand Rapids, 360 S. Division Ave. Cathedral Square is a Showcase Venue and offers free parking and a Silver Line bus stop nearby.

“There are a lot of great shows around those venues,” he said of the Showcase Venues, which act as anchors. Near Cathedral Square is a new venue for ArtPrize: the Downtown Market.

Starting on the outskirts and working your way in, whether by bus or on foot, is a great way to see more of the art, he said. A partnership with The Rapid allows visitors to buy two unlimited bus passes for $5.

There are also walking paths mapped out between venues, which help walkers judge the distances. The paths are designed to help visitors see the most possible art in the time they have allotted. Planned paths also allow visitors to see both well-established venues and new venues offering unique installation pieces.

SiTE:LAB, which has twice won the outstanding venue juried award, will take over the Morton House at 72 Monroe Center. In 2012 and 2013, SiTE:LAB was at the old Grand Rapids Public Museum on Jefferson Street.

The Morton House site had long been vacant before Rockford Construction began a rehab of the structure. The company offered the building to artists this year. Buist had an opportunity to tour it, and said the 12 artists who will call it home for 19 days had a great canvas on which to create.

Morton House’s basement will be a skatepark. There’s also a large bank vault that will be used for a four-part piece involving vocal, interactions, film footage and various installations.

Prior to its shuttering, the Morton had been a hotel with an elegant lobby, restaurants and a bank. Some of the gorgeous rooms had long been boarded up and forgotten. The site-specific ArtPrize installations have been curated by SiTE:LAB’s Paul Amenta.

“There were these incredible rooms, amazing bars, with 40 years of dust on them,” Buist said. “Now artists get a chance to use that space as a starting ground.”

He also pointed to the use of the Grand River and two pedestrian bridges as unique spaces that not only will provide a thoroughfare for spectators, but art as well. Fountain Street Church always brings social justice issues to the forefront in its choice of artworks, Buist said.

Seemingly every year, ArtPrize offers up at least one controversial piece. This year’s controversy started nearly two weeks prior to the opening of the event.

Artist Henry Brimmer used the UICA and Gallery Apartments for an installation piece that places what looks like military snipers on the roof of one of the tallest buildings in the city. To an average spectator, it could look like “there’s something happening here”—which happens to be the title of the piece.

“We don’t censor artwork,” Buist said. “It’s always a little sad when there’s friction. Every situation is unique, and we try to stay open to the crazy and unique. But there is a certain line, and safety is paramount.”

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