ArtPrize Turns 10

Fenced In by Cassandra Burgess at The B.O.B.
Fenced In by Cassandra Burgess at The B.O.B.

As ArtPrize kicks off its 10th year in downtown Grand Rapids this afternoon, Kevin Buist is among those who have been behind the scenes since the very beginning.

In 2009, during ArtPrize 1, Buist was involved in artist relations. “I was promoting the event to artists and answering artists’ questions and helping to design how it all worked,” he explained.

For ArtPrize 10, Buist has risen to the position of artist director. He was promoted to the role in June of this year.

Kevin Buist at ArtPrize awards ceremony.
Kevin Buist at ArtPrize awards ceremony.

Buist said over the next two and a half weeks he will see a lot of the 1,263 entries across the 165 participating venues, but definitely not all of them. Much of his time will be spent with the jurors and panelists and other guests coming into town for the event.

“I see a lot, but I’m also running these events and attending receptions,” he said.

Buist said one of the most exciting things for him about ArtPrize is still its unpredictability, both in the amount of community involvement and which pieces will be selected for the Top 20 and the grand prize-winners.

“It’s always exciting to see the way artists and local organizations, some of them art organizations, some businesses or nonprofits that don’t normally deal with visual art, but the way in which they’ve embraced it and made it there own,” he said. “We do a lot of work all year round to put this on, but it’s so far beyond what we do. It’s really become a phenomenon and this thing that has been embraced by the community, which is exciting to see.

“There’s a lot of surprises that come with that, because we don’t quite know how people will embrace it or the ways in which they will find to be involved, so that is really exciting.”

Buist is proud to see the way ArtPrize has become a “signature event for the city” and for how he thinks that positions Grand Rapids around the country.

“Even if people haven’t seen it themselves, they’ve heard of it. … There is an awareness of what we are doing around the country,” he said, referring to professional arts organizations and artists.

Buist noted ArtPrize took off in a way that was unexpected even to its original conceptualizers and organizers and it has evolved in many unexpected ways over the past decade.

ArtPrize, Red Dirt Rug, 2017
ArtPrize 9, Red Dirt Rug, 2017

“When it first started it really was just an experiment,” he said. “It was questions, ‘What would happen if we did this?’”

What happened was thousands of people with very little experience engaging with art in traditional settings flooded downtown Grand Rapids, visiting dozens of venues (out of a total of 159), casting 334,219 votes, and eating restaurants out of their food.

The ArtPrize frenzy hasn’t dissipated over the past decade either. Buist notes the number of participating artists and venues has remained similar year to year, and the number of ArtPrize attendees and votes has remained similar as well.

“Whenever I bring people in who haven’t been here before, they are always stunned by the level of public engagement,” Buist said. “There are large exhibitions elsewhere but the thing here that is so unique is the size and enthusiasm of the crowds, particularly for contemporary art and largely emerging artists; artists that people haven’t heard of.”

That continued engagement is behind ArtPrize organizers’ decision to turn ArtPrize into a biannual event and host a new event in the in between years.

In 2019, instead of ArtPrize, Grand Rapids will experience Project 1, a two-month exhibition of commissioned works located around the city.

Re:VOLVER Nathaniel Lewis (American, b. 1981). Re:VOLVER, 2018. Aluminum and plastic, 13 x 13 x 3 feet. Courtesy of the Artist.
Nathaniel Lewis (American, b. 1981). Re:VOLVER, 2018. Aluminum and plastic, 13 x 13 x 3 feet. Courtesy of the Artist.

“I’m excited about what we can do when we collaborate with artists and take the resources that go towards prizes and instead invest them in public art projects. That normally can’t even happen at ArtPrize because the competition format isn’t as conducive as the commission format,” Buist said.

He said Project 1 will likely include three to five artists or groups of artists and will be multi-sited and most likely outdoor projects. “It will be a little different, but it’s a shift toward a deeper engagement with artists for our organization to enable really revolutionary projects, and it’s an invitation to the audience for a deeper and more serious engagement with what contemporary art can do.”

After 10 years of ArtPrize, Buist said he thinks Grand Rapids has matured and is ready for Project 1.

“When ArtPrize began, so much of the audience didn’t go to any type of contemporary art exhibition at all,” he said. “ArtPrize was this point of entry. But now, after 10 years … for the bulk of our audience, it’s become a known entity. To us, that signals that people are ready for what’s next and for something a little deeper and more involved. It is risky, but it’s a bigger risk to stagnate and lock into a certain way of doing things.”

While it kicks off its 10th year and prepares for this new future, ArtPrize 10 will be very similar to past years. However, there are a few changes. Instead of ArtPrize Hubs located at venues around the city, there is now a Visitors’ Pavilion that will be located at Rosa Parks Circle for the duration of ArtPrize.

In addition to providing ArtPrize attendees with information, maps and ArtPrize experience guides, the pavilion will also host several ArtPrize events, like the top 20 reveal, a juror panel discussion and more, and will include hands-on activities in the ArtPrize STEAM Lab sponsored by Switch.

Lace up your walking shoes and visit ArtPrize to see a full list of events.

*Main image: Fenced In by Cassandra Burgess, at The B.O.B., 2017

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