ArtPrize, an independently organized, 19-day art competition in Grand Rapids, MI, provides an inclusive environment where artists working with all mediums can participate and immerse themselves in art. The entire downtown Grand Rapids area contributes to ArtPrize, whether by opening their venues to host art, creating art, or participating in art walks throughout the city. The art is exhibited in various locations, from museums and public parks to vacant storefronts and auto body shops, spanning the downtown region, each exhibit a walking distance from the next. Taking place from Sept. 20 to Oct. 8, 2017, ArtPrize was the most attended public art event in the world in 2014 and 2015, and awards $250,000 to the publicly voted-upon winner.
Walking routes around the city are made easier with the ArtPrize app, which displays the locations of participating venues and the number of exhibits there, as well as other useful information. Most venues open to the public around noon, but some open earlier. ArtPrize revolves around the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM). The GRAM offers free admission during ArtPrize and hosts sixteen artists for the competition. Featuring regional, national and international artists, the museum showcases pieces in mediums including painting, sculpture, photography, drawing and performance.
This year, the GRAM’s featured works include “The Language is Asleep” by Chris Vitiello and “As Much Heaven as Earth” by Hwa-Jeen Na, both explore interpersonal relationships and communication. The first consists of a large room with walls plastered in writing—all one-line hint poetry written by Vitiello. As visitors shuffle through the display in orderly lines, they contribute their own poetry to a mountain of papers in the center of the room. They then take a piece of poetry written by another person, as well as receive a personalized poem written by Vitiello himself. He asks each visitor for a single word to develop his poem around, scribbles down a hasty line in his dictionary, and rips that page out. By the time I enter the exhibit, he’s down to the P’s.
“I’m going to write one based off of your shirt,” Vitiello says, pointing at the Black Lives Matter shirt I’m wearing. Ten seconds pass quickly and I find myself holding a page from the dictionary, definitions from psychochemical to pteridoid staring at me, with “Get out in the streets and stay there” penned boldly over them.
“As Much Heaven as Earth,” a photo-series depicting members of the LGBT community in West Michigan, derives its name from the Korean saying: “If someone you love asks you how much you love them, you respond by saying, ‘as much heaven as earth.’” Na features queer men from many different backgrounds, all living in the midwest and all staring down the camera as they would a judging eye. Both vulnerable and adamant, the subjects’ pictures hang next to a poem or prose piece they have written themselves.
“I had found the end of God’s compassion,” writes Jonathan Farman. “The God I grew up loving no longer loved me back… Then, I met God.”
GRAM’s public statement for the ArtPrize audience describes the artists’ main themes: “humankind’s relationship to our ever-changing environment, the obstacles to communication, approaches to representing personal identity, and the ability of art to convey meaning.”
Perhaps art encapsulates the act of discovery more than any concrete meaning—art as a form of communication and community, rather than separation. The ArtPrize event, although competitive, brings an entire city together to celebrate the outburst of creativity.