After canceling this year’s ArtPrize because of concerns over COVID-19, organizers of Grand Rapids’ flagship arts event and the largest art competition in the world have avoided questions about whether it will return.
Staff declined to give interviews, while chairman and founder Rick DeVos did not respond to requests for comment.
Board member Marc Schwartz issued a statement to MiBiz saying the board “will continue to evaluate things, and at the right time, make decisions regarding the possibility of future events.”
“Our decision to cancel ArtPrize was a result of uncertainties related to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Schwartz, whom lifestyle publication SEEN Magazine described in 2017 as a “full-time Detroit arts ambassador and advocate.”
“Given the prospect of continued uncertainties related to the event cancellation, we had to make the unfortunate decision to take a pause in our operations,” he added.
City officials had continued planning for the event in the week leading up to the announcement of the cancellation, while the organization itself said as recently as May 29 that “new safety guidelines” were forthcoming to allow the event to continue this year.
Richard App, a former ArtPrize artist and curator, said he is “cautiously optimistic” the event will return post-pandemic. App is now the small business retention and attraction specialist with the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, and acts as a liaison between the Chamber, the city of Grand Rapids and Downtown Grand Rapids Inc.
“I think they’re erring on the side of caution, which I respect very much,” App said. “The truth of the matter is it’s up to the board of directors to decide. I’d love to see them back. It has been a great success for the city, but I also don’t know the inner workings of exactly everything it takes to make this work. I couldn’t bet one way or the other on it.”
According to Steve Fridsma, who organizes Monroe Community Church’s ArtPrize venue, this isn’t the first time speculation has surfaced about the event’s future. He said some in the community questioned the move in 2019 to hold ArtPrize biennially with a scaled-back event known as Project 1 in the off years. 2019 was Project 1’s first year, and projects 2 and 3 are planned, according to ArtPrize’s website. It was also a shift from having hundreds of artists pay to enter the competition to ArtPrize paying a select few to display projects here.
“When they announced they’d go every other year, I heard people say this is a sign of the end. I didn’t feel that way personally,” Fridsma said. “It’s a lot of work — I actually kind of like having a year off.”
ArtPrize’s 2018 operating budget was $3.2 million, nearly 60 percent of which was funded by corporate sponsors including Founders Brewing Co., PNC Bank, Consumers Energy, Herman Miller Cares, Haworth Inc. and Wolverine World Wide Inc. The remainder of the last ArtPrize budget was composed of foundation grants, revenue from advertising and retail and registration fees. About $320,000 was taxpayer funded from state, local and federal governments.
The global pandemic “created many obstacles” for ArtPrize to host the event, including raising concerns over travel and the unpredictability over what type of gatherings would be permitted by then. Schwartz said the ArtPrize team worked through the spring to “find a way to hold a safe and robust event. There were just too many unknown factors. Cancellation was announced 90+ days prior to the scheduled event and before the opening of the ‘Connections’ period where registered venues and artists match up.”
Grand Rapids City Manager and ArtPrize board member Mark Washington said the city respects organizers’ decision “and the many other organizations that have canceled their events due to COVID-19. We look forward to the return of ArtPrize and the many other events that were canceled next year. ArtPrize has been and will continue to be an outstanding experience for our community and the world.”
Evette Pittman, special events supervisor with the city of Grand Rapids, said the city had weekly meetings with ArtPrize until the week before the cancellation. She said the city will continue to work on arts projects this year, which may include publicly displaying murals painted on boarded up storefronts after May 30 protests. She said the storefront mural project “has created a mini-ArtPrize feel.”
“While it may seem COVID has won the round, our industry will win the battle,” Pittman said.
Most agree ArtPrize — at least in its original format — should not have happened this year because of the pandemic.
“I kind of expected it. I’m actually relieved,” Fridsma said. “The thought of 4,000 people coming through our doors in a period of three weeks gave us some concern. In general, we’re disappointed but relieved.”
Monroe Community Church, which was a finalist for outstanding venue in 2017, was planning a second venue in a “big wide empty warehouse” for this year’s event. Over the past few months, the warehouse space has been used to store personal protective equipment for Spectrum Health, Fridsma said.
The church had started sorting through entries to host and was fielding interest from artists. One possibility was to do mostly exterior murals.
“What I do hope is they defer ArtPrize for a year and not go back to a Project 1 type of thing,” Fridsma said. “We missed hosting.”
Diedre Deering, president of the Monroe North Business Association, also said she wasn’t surprised by this year’s cancellation due to COVID-19, but she’s hearing disappointment that it won’t be configured as a mostly outdoor event. Downtown restaurants have also reportedly expressed disappointment, hoping ArtPrize would be a reprieve after the pandemic-related closures.
Meanwhile, artists had been preparing for months for the event to continue this year in some form.
“ArtPrize canceling a few months before it was slated is very difficult for me to understand as an artist, arts curator or whatever else you would consider my title,” Hannah Berry, founder of Lions & Rabbits, said in a statement. Lions & Rabbits coordinated the downtown Windows mural project on storefronts after damages sustained following May 30 protests. The company owns an arts space in the Creston business district and has led several Grand Rapids arts projects in recent years.
“From an artist’s point of view, it sucks,” Berry said, who also expressed gratitude toward ArtPrize staff. “Most artists have finished their work at this point.”
Schwartz said “we will be providing support to artists that had been working with ArtPrize on specific grant proposals.”
Berry said ArtPrize’s cancellation this year comes at a confusing time for small businesses who have at least partly counted on the event.
“I see all over Facebook people saying stuff about how people shouldn’t be mad about ArtPrize canceling — these are not the small business owners,” Berry added. “The small business owners in Grand Rapids are tired, confused and now left without a giant economic driver for their businesses. When I think about the center city’s rental rates and the pull to be in the downtown, I do genuinely think of ArtPrize’s allure.
“Ultimately, I want to challenge ArtPrize to still give without organizing. I think for the city and for artists alike, ArtPrize is a gatekeeper for change and it’s a shame that no matter what the scale was that it isn’t going to go through.”
Against the uncertainty, other downtown business owners reflected on ArtPrize’s effect over the past decade.
“My overwhelming sentiment is gratitude,” said Sam Cummings, managing partner of CWD Real Estate Investment LLC. “I cannot think of something that happened at a better time for our city. I don’t know what the future holds, but it was incredible. Whether that was a decade of experience that is just a stepping stone for us and it has run its course, who knows?”
The move to Project 1 was, in part, to give organizers some breathing room between what is ultimately massive planning and coordination for ArtPrize, organizers have said in the past.
“Was it a pain in the ass? Sure,” Cummings said. CWD is the “official real estate provider” that rents space for ArtPrize. Planning between the two entities would start in the spring with details solidified by June or July, he added.
“There is always an ongoing dialogue,” Cummings said. “It’s a tricky balance. It was a good challenge.”
Despite coordinating with ArtPrize, Cummings said he’s not close enough to the organization to “have any insight” on its future.
As with businesses in other sectors, it’s not clear whether COVID-19 is a temporary obstruction or a reason to call it quits.
“Everybody can certainly understand why they’d choose not to go forward with it this year,” he said. “Then I guess going forward, we’ll just have to see.”