Last fall, Grand Rapids showcased a huge experiment that drew an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 people to the city’s streets. The experiment is better known as ArtPrize, a 17-day open art competition created by Rick DeVos and his Pomegranate Studios.
“We had a bunch of different ideas going on in our heads,” said Bill Holsinger-Robinson, director of operations for ArtPrize and president of Pomegranate Studios.
“One was how can you effectively create a conversation with a group of people, start it, be the catalyst for it but not direct it, and see what kind of results would occur through that kind of event. The basic concept was around ArtPrize being the largest excuse for a creative endeavor.
“The idea was, how do we use that event as an incentive to help people take these creative ideas and jump from thought to action, to some sort of creative change within people, groups and organizations. A lot of what Rick talks about these days is being a catalyst for entrepreneurship. Spawning creativity is just another aspect of that.”
The event took place within three square miles of downtown Grand Rapids, involved 159 venues that hosted 1,262 artists who garnered a collective 334,219 votes from 37,264 registered voters.
Although first prize was a whopping $250,000 and the nine other prizes totaled $199,000, Holsinger-Robinson said ArtPrize was further intended for individuals, companies and venues to create their own successes from the activity generated by it.
“We urged everyone — from artists to groups to venues to businesses to our sponsors — to define the success for themselves. We wanted everyone to leverage and take advantage of the platform that was there for them to play with,” he said. “There was a big reward, but they could redefine how they were thinking of rewards, as well. A lot of rewards ensued as a part of people participating.”
Some downtown restaurants ran out of menu items on opening weekend due to the surge of patrons brought downtown by the competition. Some shops that normally closed on Sundays stayed open and experienced lines leading out the doors. What might have been even more incredible than seeing the downtown’s streets crowded with pedestrians was the relationship between volunteers and city services that kept ArtPrize running smoothly.
The top three winners of ArtPrize all came from outside of the West Michigan area, a reflection of the 20 countries and 40 states represented by the artists.
A second ArtPrize is being planned for Sept. 22-Oct. 10, 2010, and while many might think the organizers will hone the event’s infrastructure, Holsinger-Robinson said it is much the opposite.
“Our next really interesting conversations are around people assuming we’re going to be like any other major cultural event, where we start to more centralize and direct the efforts. We’re going to remain as open as we were this past year. We think it really creates this healthy tension, this simplicity,” he said.
“We want others to be accountable within the system, and we entrust the success of the event on the whole to the broader community. It means that our infrastructure stays small, and we really start to rely on other people wondering how they’re going to be benefited by the event.
“There’s a really great tension in that. That tension inevitably leads up to creative problem-solving, which is kind of the crux of ArtPrize.”