Festival charts course for the future

A crowd gathers on the Blue Bridge near Monica Pritchard's winning 2021 ArtPrize entry, "Before You Go."

Monica Pritchard said she didn’t enter ArtPrize in 2021 expecting to win. But her project — a repurposed phone booth full of memories — filled the Blue Bridge and took her all the way to the grand prize.

“I was working for a law firm that dealt with a lot of elderly clients. A lot of them came to me as I was trying to get to know them, just feeling like they could no longer talk to younger generations, and feeling sort of isolated,” she said. “And I saw families struggling with what to ask their loved ones in terms of what they would like to share.”

“Before You Go,” the aptly poignant title of Pritchard’s and son Christian Reichle’s project, was a set of interviews about life, slickly packaged into a phone booth. An ArtPrize participant could step inside, pick up the handset and dial the number for a snippet of those interviews to hear someone talk about their life, about regrets, or even places they’d traveled. The result was one of the best examples of what ArtPrize can be: both a profoundly personal experience and a meditation on something bigger — call it loneliness, or call it the need to have one’s story told.

But after this year, ArtPrize’s future is hard to chart. In a late October statement, festival chairman Rick DeVos announced that the “the time is right to conclude the original ArtPrize experiment and open up space for new energy and creativity,” handing over the reins to a three-way stewardship between the city of Grand Rapids, Kendall College of Art and Design and Downtown Grand Rapids, Inc.

The competition had already made big changes in recent years. In 2018, organizers had attempted a shift to holding ArtPrize every other year, with a smaller “Project 1” held in between. The latter was first held in 2019 to sometimes underwhelmed reviews. The payout for the top award has steadily shrunk from its peak at $250,000.

Craig Searer, ArtPrize’sexecutive director, declined to comment, referring a reporter to Downtown Grand Rapids. Multiple leading members of ArtPrize’s prior board were unable to be reached for comment.

Tim Kelly, DGRI’s president and CEO, said he doesn’t know what’s

behind the recent changes. But he did say that despite all the swirling doubts about the future (MLive’s headline blared that “ArtPrize calls it quits”), there will be an event in 2023.

The details on the number of works, the artists and more were still being hashed out in early November. The same was true for the leadership structure and even everyday staffing. Kelly acknowledged that details were scarce — but he insisted the event has a future.

“You know, it’s had a tremendous economic impact,” he said, citing a local boost of tens of millions of dollars in one recent study. “I mean, there’s few things, if any, that are able to do that. I think more than that, it’s just a uniquely Grand Rapids event.”

The city of Grand Rapids declined to comment for this story; a spokesperson for Kendall College did not return a request for comment.

But questions about the future still remain, because ArtPrize is a beloved Grand Rapids institution — and rightly so. Janet Korn is a senior vice president at Experience Grand Rapids. She said ArtPrize not only made visitors associate Grand Rapids with new and exciting art, but helped local residents see the city differently, too.

“It encouraged people to come downtown and explore sidewalks, bridges, buildings, neighborhoods, alleyways that they probably hadn’t walked down, visited, explored before,” she said. “And that’s really kind of impossible to measure, but imagine an event encourages you to walk around your own town, and it causes you to go back another time, or explore businesses that you didn’t know existed.”

Richard App is the retail retention and attraction specialist for Grand Rapids, working with the city, DGRI and the local chamber of commerce. He’s also been involved in ArtPrize as a curator and as an artist.

“I wasn’t behind closed doors, so I can’t tell you why (recent changes) happened,” he said. “But I do know that since 2009, ArtPrize has changed a lot on its own, it’s been (in) different iterations, the way that the voting is done, and the awarding structure is done. And I think this is a great opportunity just to reimagine what this can be.”

Eddie Tadlock, assistant general manager at DeVos Place, has been working at the venue since 2008 — long enough to see every year of ArtPrize. He recalls the earliest days as an “experiment,” one that local event leaders had to be sold on.

“Because they’re like, oh, my, what happens if you get nudity?” he recalled.

“They reluctantly said, well, ok, pick a few artists and do, like 10,” Tadlock added. “I think I did 50 for the first year. Three naked entries. And those three naked entries, they all made the top 10. So the next year, they’re like ‘You’ve got to do 100 entries!’

In the decade-plus of ArtPrize since, Tadlock has seen a little bit of everything, selecting work from artists from around the globe — Nigeria, Mexico, Haiti, Pakistan, India, South Korea and more.

Tadlock has been involved in talks with the new stewards of the project, he said, and he doesn’t know what led to recent changes with ArtPrize. He speculated about “funding fatigue” for backers and suggested that the new iteration of ArtPrize could help it grow and succeed anew.

“It’s actually a great opportunity to leverage this time to change some of the funding models that were behind it,” he said. “People have already stepped in and said, ‘You know what, I can fundraise for this.’”

Pritchard said that during the last few years the changes have been hard for the public to follow, with changes to the competition, the grand prize and the frequency of the competition. The new leaders, she hopes, will be able to build a long-term strategy that helps people have some confidence in the future of the event.

“I think this is some refreshing news, (and) an opportunity for the city to get involved,” she said. “While I wasn’t an artist in this year’s competition, I was down there all three weekends. And I just love the energy and engagement from people all over just wanting to be a part of seeing all the different pieces of art.”

Editor’s note: This article was originally printed in the January/February issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. At the time the publication went to print, the Transition Leadership Board of ArtPrize 2.0 had not yet announced that ArtPrize 2.0 is scheduled for Sept. 14 through Oct. 1, in 2023.

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