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Grand Rapids hopes art has big rewards

Marketplace Staff Sep 28, 2009

Grand Rapids hopes art has big rewards

Marketplace Staff Sep 28, 2009


Kai Ryssdal: Grand Rapids, Mich., is just one of the many Rust Belt towns that’s trying to remake itself by moving away from its traditional industrial economy. Grand Rapids has been investing in medical research facilities to do that. It’s also hoping to put itself on the map as a magnet for artistic innovation.

Over the next two weeks more than 1,200 artists from around the world are going to be in town. Their work will be in the streets, it’ll be on buildings, even in the middle of the river downtown. Competing for a $250,000 grand prize. From Michigan Radio, Dustin Dwyer has our story.

DUSTIN DWYER: The competition is called ArtPrize, and on opening night, downtown Grand Rapids was hopping.

People gathered on a pedestrian bridge over the Grand River. Below, an 80-foot styrofoam sculpture of the Loch Ness Monster rose from the rushing water that gives the city its name. Above, a brightly painted set of table and chairs, 30-feet tall, sat atop the bridge.

Part of what makes ArtPrize unique is that the art is not stuck in a museum or gallery. Projects are on display in nearly 160 locations around downtown. That includes office buildings, sidewalks, a dry cleaner and a whole lot of restaurants.

The idea for ArtPrize came from Rick DeVos. His grandfather co-founded Amway, the direct sales company based in nearby Ada. His family fortune is covering the prize money for the competition. On opening night, DeVos had a lot of sponsors to thank for picking up the event’s operating costs.

RICK DEVOS: I know that a lot of you did not know what you were funding, or why you were supporting us back in April when we called you then. But what a great city this is where more than 60 business leaders will back an idea and a dream.

But those business leaders are hoping to get something out of the deal too.

GREG GILMORE: I think it’s about a 100 times busier than a normal Wednesday.

Greg Gilmore watches the crowd at a four-story complex of restaurants and clubs he co-owns downtown. It’s hosting more than 150 art projects.

GILMORE: We’ve seen traffic for the week during setup. We’ve seen a lot of traffic in the last several days prior to opening, and I think in the long run it’s just going to be very large.

There are no official estimates of how many spectators ArtPrize is expected to draw or how much spending it’ll generate. Though by Friday, 15,000 people had already signed up to vote on the art.

Gilmore says not everyone who stops by is eating at his restaurants, but he still expects a 30-40 percent jump in business.

Hotels are also hoping to get a bump.

Doug Small is head of the Grand Rapids Convention and Visitors Bureau. He says so far, there’s been a slight increase in the number of hotel stays because of the competition.

DOUG SMALL: Listen, if we get 10 more rooms than we didn’t have before, that’s an uptick. And to find upticks in today’s economy is very difficult.

But a small uptick in hotel stays, or an increase in restaurant sales, won’t do much to turn around the city’s unemployment rate of 12 percent.

Many people in town wonder what the competition can do over the long term to change the city’s image and spur growth.

And on that front, ArtPrize is already generating some buzz.

RICHARD FLORIDA: I was kind of blown away by it.

Richard Florida is a leading thinker in urban-economic development. He wrote a book called “The Rise of the Creative Class”, which has influenced how many planners and politicians think about cities. The main idea is that cities need to become hip, creative places if they want to attract talented workers. Florida says ArtPrize could put Grand Rapids on the map.

FLORIDA: For most people looking in at Grand Rapids, you would think, ‘Why didn’t this happen in Brooklyn? Why didn’t this happen in Williamsburg? Why didn’t this happen, you know, in the San Francisco Bay Area?’

Florida says if ArtPrize works in Grand Rapids, it could be a model for other not-so-cool cities that want to get noticed. But he warns that it’ll take more than a three-week competition to transform the city. ArtPrize will be back next year, but Florida says for Grand Rapids to truly transform, the work will have to continue for decades.

I’m Dustin Dwyer for Marketplace.

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