Happiness Highlights: Art in Grand Rapids

0becb1db0eadecc8b52992a059756928The music thumped off the smooth walls and wood floors, the echoes of the lead singer softened only by the throng of bodies flooding the wide hallways. The Crane Wives were rocking out, but the local band wasn’t what had brought people to a museum in downtown Grand Rapids last Thursday night. The crowds had come for the art — and specifically to find out which art was voted the best out of nearly 1,700 entries in ArtPrize 2011.

ArtPrize – by the Artists, for the People

ArtPrize is a public art contest founded and largely supported by the families that started Amway – yes, that Amway. Any artist is welcome to enter for a chance to win the grand prize of $250,000, an honor chosen by a public vote. No judges or experts discuss artistic merit behind closed doors; real people go look at real art and decide what they like best.

As someone who makes their living through creative endeavors, I was impressed by the buckets of cash being offered to my artistic brethren. It’s nice to be reminded that there are ways to get paid to do what you love, even if doing what you love is welding sculptures out of old car parts. Over 300,000 votes were cast during the first round of voting to help determine which artists would make the top ten and be guaranteed at least $7,000 in prize money.


“It’s not about the art. It’s about the discussions people have about art.”

During the announcement of the Top Ten, founder Rick Devos explained that the real mission of ArtPrize is to get people talking about the art, or “fighting about something besides football.” By that measurement, there’s no doubt the experiment is working.

I’ve spent a lot of time in art museums over the last four months and I have never seen so many people clustered around paintings and circling statues. Old men and young girls stood side by side in front of abstract sculptures, twisting their necks to get a better glimpse at the artist’s perspective. People gushed in soft whispers and shook their heads with disgust. Men in football jerseys stepped close to oil paintings while women in brightly colored tights sat quietly on upholstered benches.

I was amazed at how many people cared.

About art.

About, in many cases, abstract art.


Five Miles of Free Art

ArtPrize brings the city of Grand Rapids alive. Installations can be found on street corners and in buildings all over town, the venues as eclectic as the voters. Restaurants and bars as well as law offices and hotels offer up space to artists from all over the world. The Michigan town has a strong art culture all year long, but during the 19 days of ArtPrize it becomes a giant art museum — one with few walls and no admission fees.

One of the things I miss most about living in an RV is the absence of art in my home. I’ve become more aware of public art and am grateful for cities that encourage beauty in common spaces.

I found happiness in Grand Rapids this week because passion inspires me and I was surrounded by it during my visit. I saw it in the artists I met and in the people who crawled through the exhibits like treasure hunters in search of a mysterious prize. I saw it in paper hearts hanging by colored thread and in black and white duct tape. And I saw it, mostly, in the people who ventured out into the cold and rain to be inspired, too.


Win Your Own Piece of Inspiration

I was given a really cool gift from Experience Grand Rapids, the organization that brought me to Western Michigan and with which I’ll be working as a paid ambassador for a few months. It’s an actual piece from one of last year’s top ten ArtPrizes. It’s beautiful in both thought and execution and I wish I had room for it in my life right now. Alas, I barely have room for my underwear, let alone art.

I hate to let something pretty go to waste, so I’d like to pass it on to you. Leave a comment on this post and tell me something about your favorite kind of art. I’ll randomly select a commenter to receive the artsy swag. It’s not $250,000, but it’s nice to look at.

So, let’s hear it. What’s type of art inspires you?

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