26 September 2010

ArtPrize Draws Tons of Tourists to Grand Rapids

The Detroit News

Roberto Chenlo was handing out business cards on the street, because you never know when someone will need a bronze sculpture.

Melissa Dunn of Byron Center took two and handed one to her 5-year-old daughter, and Emily looked at it like it was a chip from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

This is a good few weeks to be an artist in west Michigan, even if you don't win cash in the second annual ArtPrize competition. It's a better few weeks if you do win; the $250,000 for first place will buy a lot of brushes.

The $7,000 for fourth through 10th also will go a long way toward yanking the word "starving" from in front of "artist." But even if your chances of winning are as slim as a coat of paint, it's homecoming week and you're the quarterback on the football team.

Jonathan Carlson of suburban Chicago was standing in front of Van Hoecks Shoes, hands in the pockets of his tan cargo shorts, discussing the use of color on the pastel streetscape in the window.

"You're so talented," said a passer-by in an ArtPrize T-shirt. "I love your work."

Carlson, a waiter, can barely draw a circle. He sort of looked like an artist, though, and that was enough.

There are plenty of reasons why ArtPrize, which opened Wednesday, is a splendid concept. It's good for tourism, with several hundred thousand visitors expected to stroll the 3-square-mile core of downtown. It's good for the image of the city, and good for Marissa Mewitz, 22, who owns the Big James Steak Sandwiches cart in front of the Grand Rapids Art Museum and went through 30 pounds of beef Thursday when she normally tops out below 10.

But the beauty of it is this: In Grand Rapids, at least through Oct. 10, art matters.

ArtPrize was dreamed up by Rick DeVos, 28, who has probably earned the right to not always be identified as the grandson of Amway co-founder Richard DeVos. What would happen, he wondered, if downtown Grand Rapids was turned into an art gallery?

Very good things, it turned out. For the first ArtPrize last year, 1,262 artists participated, and the Big O' Cafe where sculptor Chenlo was displaying his bronze horse and cowboy had three consecutive weeks of record sales.
1,713 artists, 192 venues

"It's a one-city stimulus package," said Big O' owner Bernie Kersten, and this time around it has 1,713 artists.

Their works are being shown at 192 venues ranging from a tattoo parlor to a lot across from Van Andel Arena -- named for the other Amway co-founder -- that's big enough to hold a man on a pedestal posing as a statue, an 8-foot-tall roller skate, a 30-foot-tall greeting card and an airborne 55-foot-long wood-and-Styrofoam pig.

Jurors will determine $5,000 winners in each of five genres, but the big prizes will be awarded through the votes of registered visitors.

For information on voting, artists, locations, shuttles and other essentials, see www.artprize.org. For tips on how to prepare for a day at ArtPrize, see Tammy White.
ArtPrize draws fans

She's a 40-year-old bank employee from Paw Paw, and rather than spell her last name, she explained that it's "White, like the crayon."

Last week was her vacation, and she was sick for every accursed day of it. "I'm living my entire vacation today," she said, and she struck out into the sunshine carrying a camera, a big purse and a parasol. Her sunglasses were pushed back atop her red (like a crayon) hair.

While she hustled to make up for lost time, Brian Maas and Steven Thayer of Grand Rapids spent a leisurely lunch hour eating street-side pizza and strolling the exhibits.

They both work in quality improvement for Spectrum Health, and they both plan to become ArtPrize regulars. "It's my favorite time of year," said Thayer, 53. "I can catch fish right off of Sixth Street, and I can come out here and catch art."
Something for everyone

There's something at ArtPrize to snag everyone, regardless of taste, tenure or transportation.

Women in sensible shoes crossed the street alongside girls with pierced lips. A bicyclist in a green T-shirt sped along with an orange snake around his neck. Some stood transfixed by the giant pig, some dismissed it as a gimmick.

The team behind the porker put a 110-foot-long sea serpent in the Grand River in 2009. It placed sixth. For all the glitz, pointed out Marco Riolo, "last year, an oil painting won."

Riolo, 29, an artist and rugby player from Grand Rapids, has a large oil painting hanging at a wine bar called Bar Divani. He was taking pictures of pictures with his cell phone, and planned to ultimately see every one of the 1,713 pieces.

"There's treasures," he said. "Hidden magical treasures, everywhere you look."

After a while, reality and art become indistinguishable. Photographer Megan Major, 25, of New Hudson was working the second day of ArtPrize at the museum, sitting at the side entrance in a black cocktail dress and writing down visitors' ZIP codes. By lunchtime, she had come across visitors from Canada, Australia and Peru, Vt., just down the road from Jamaica.

A few yards away from her tall chair, one of the inside panes of glass surrounding the museum's courtyard had fractured, leaving a pattern of swirls and spider webs across the glass.

"People keep asking me if that's art," Major said. She answered them all gently, because expanded horizons are better than narrow ones, and you don't want to be discouraging.

Up the block, at a hot dog joint called the Dog Pit, Melissa Dunn was marveling at her daughter's creativity, the way parents are supposed to.

Emily was the girl who'd stared at the card from the 73-year-old sculptor who crafted a mounted cowboy in a wide-brimmed hat. She had borrowed a small notepad from her grandmother, and caught up in the moment, she'd drawn a rainbow.

Her mother told her it was wonderful and she should draw some more, because art matters.

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