Artist Andee Rudloff’s completed mural at The Cottage Bar in Grand Rapids, Mich.(Andee Rudloff)
Perched on a ladder, Andee Rudloff slathered green paint on a brick wall of The Cottage Bar.
More open cans of paint and brushes waited at the base of the unfinished mural, a Keith Haring-like melange of images representing Michigan’s second-largest city.
“Anybody can stop by and paint with me,” said the Kentucky-based artist, who turned to social media to generate ideas for the piece. “I love the community aspect of coming together for art and inspiration.”
That’s the gist of ArtPrize, an ambitious, grass-roots public art event that will transform 3 square miles of downtown Grand Rapids into a giant gallery Sept. 21 to Oct. 9.
Now in its eighth year, ArtPrize features 1,453 paintings, photography, sculptures, multimedia works and other creations showcased at 170 disparate venues, from the police station and churches to breweries, museums and bridges spanning the Grand River. Artists from around the world compete for a hefty purse of $500,000 in prize money. Winners are selected both by panels of contemporary art experts and — here’s the fun part — by regular Joes, voting with their smartphones or online.
The event draws hundreds of thousands of people to this city 180 miles northeast of Chicago.
“It’s the three busiest weeks of the year,” said Dan Verhil, owner of the nearly century-old Cottage Bar, known as the “Cheers” of Grand Rapids. Verhil also owns the One Trick Pony Grill & Taproom next door.
“When it first started, restaurants ran out of food,” Verhil said about ArtPrize’s immediate success. “Now I hire six more people just to keep up with demand.”
The idea for ArtPrize came from entrepreneur Rick DeVos, a familiar name in Grand Rapids. DeVos’ grandfather co-founded the direct-sales giant Amway Corp., and the family has fueled much of the development — especially when it comes to cultural institutions — in this city of roughly 200,000 people.
“Everybody does a film festival; to just do another one didn’t seem particularly interesting,” DeVos said during a recent interview at ArtPrize Headquarters, 41 Sheldon Blvd., where the decor and vibe feel like a tech startup. It’s one of several locations around the city where people can register to vote for their favorite ArtPrize pieces and pick up an event guide, map and other goodies.
A fan of contemporary art, DeVos wanted an event that would have a democratic, less top-down structure. He set up an online system that allowed artists to connect directly with venues willing to host their work and sweetened the deal with a generous amount of prize money from his parents’ foundation. ArtPrize was born.
“In the first year, we hoped we could get like 100, 150 artists to participate. We thought it would be great if we could have 20 venues,” DeVos said. “We ended up having over 100 venues and over 1,200 artists. It was just overwhelming.”
The inaugural grand-prize winner, Ran Ortner’s 19-foot-long mesmerizing oil painting called “Open Water, No. 24,” was purchased by the DeVos family. It now hangs above the sleek bar in their downtown restaurant, Reserve Wine & Food, 201 Monroe Ave., where you can admire it over a glass of one of the 100-plus wines on tap.
Many former ArtPrize entries can still be found around town, like the colorful mixed-media murals at the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum and the nearby Acton Building. Both were created by Chicago artist Tracy VanDuinen, an art teacher at Oak Park and River Forest High School. His bricolage murals line Lake Shore Drive underpasses in Chicago.
Several Chicago artists are competing in this year’s event, including Chris Garofalo and Kate Conlon. They’re among the 15 artists whose ArtPrize entries make up the “Past/Present/Future” exhibit at the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM), one of the premier venues. GRAM has hosted several ArtPrize winners in the past.
Chicago artist Kayla Anderson also has a piece prominently displayed at The Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts (UICA) in its ArtPrize exhibit, “Future Talk.”
While it’s no surprise to find art in art museums, discovering ArtPrize contenders in less obvious locations is part of the beauty of the event. Salons, insurance companies, a local Panera outpost — they’re all unlikely backdrops for ArtPrize hopefuls.
Seven entries can be spotted at the inviting Downtown Market, 435 Ionia Ave., an airy space stocked with delicious dining options, including Detroit-based Slows Bar-B-Q, baked goods from Field & Fire, and Fish Lads’ freshwater finds plucked from the Great Lakes.
Another seven entries are showcased at Verhil’s One Trick Pony and Cottage Bar, 18 LaGrave Ave., where the mural on the outdoor wall changes with each ArtPrize.
“It’s a conversation starter,” Verhil said. “People comment on it all year long.”
The vast majority of ArtPrize is confined to 3 square miles, with one notable exception being Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, a 158-acre attraction at 1000 E. Beltline in northeast Grand Rapids. Ten installations make up Meijer Gardens’ ArtPrize exhibit, “Almost Home: Grand Rapids in Focus,” running through Dec. 31. While you’re there, check out the new Richard & Helen DeVos Japanese Garden — there’s that DeVos name again — that opened last year.
To qualify as an ArtPrize venue, places must open their doors to the public — for free — 5-8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, noon to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and noon to 6 p.m. Sunday, at a minimum. Many stay open longer.
“There’s a completely different energy during ArtPrize,” DeVos said. “You get the opportunity to go into spaces and places you might otherwise not go.”
“That’s been one thing I didn’t really anticipate at the outset,” he added. “It’s basically a giant community open house.”
If you go
WHEN: ArtPrize is Sept. 21 to Oct. 9; www.artprize.org.
WHERE TO STAY: The high-rise hotels JW Marriott (www.jw.marriott.com) and nearby Amway Grand Plaza (www.amwaygrand.com) make ideal home bases to explore ArtPrize, but downtown hotels fill up fast during the event. A new amenity this year is free shuttle service for hotel guests staying in one of 30 participating properties in the greater Grand Rapids area. The shuttle service picks up and drops off near the hotels and provides transportation to and from downtown Thursday to Sunday during ArtPrize. Get details and find out about hotel packages at www.experiencegr.com/events/artprize/hotel-packages.
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