A Reflection on ArtPrize

This piece was authored by Richard App, a longtime ArtPrize contributor.

When ArtPrize was first announced in the spring of 2009, I never imagined that it would change this city and the way I looked at this beautiful place I am proud to call home. This mid-sized, conservative, Midwestern town known for furniture had thrown down a challenge. It invited artists across the nation and all over the world to put their collective best works forward and let the public decide which entrants would walk away with the largest cash award ever for a public competition like this. And, to top it all off, we were about to do this during the great recession.

ArtPrize was a big change in my world and for a core group of friends of mine, as well. The month prior to ArtPrize, we built and burned a Viking Ship here in the city, so we were already in our creative zone. As an officer in the Grand Rapids Gallery Association, I was invited to this “big art announcement” down at UICA. As they talked about what this competition was and when it was going to happen, I stopped taking notes and started sketching Nessie. Yeah, a Loch Ness Monster.

When the announcement was over, I called my friend Thomas and said, “We need to get our group of creatives (AAG) together, because we are going to build Nessie.” For years, we had been talking about building a Loch Ness Monster and, under the cover of night, putting it in Reeds Lake the night before the Reeds Lake Triathlon. We weren’t going to tell anybody about it. We were just going to do it. Now, instead of doing an anonymous public art project, we were going to do a very public art installation in the river that is the namesake of our city.

The difference between what could have gotten us arrested to being on the cover of the New York Times Sunday Arts section is quite vast. We needed to get approvals from a variety of organizations, including the city, county, Arts Advisory Committee, the DEQ and other governmental factions. We also needed to fund this project, find a place to build this what would wind up being a 110-foot monstrosity, figure out what to build it out of, get it to the river, attach it such a way that it didn’t disturb the riverbed, get it out again, and figure out what to do with her (yes, Nessie was a girl) when the competition was done.

That’s a seemingly impossible task…anywhere except in my Grand Rapids. The community rose up to help us meet this immense challenge. Our friend, Jose, ran point guard in making sure we were not missing any of the many regulations that were involved in something this big. Another friend, Sam, let us use a warehouse close to downtown, while still another friend, Paul, offered to host a fundraiser in his new restaurant. Christine (yet another friend) found us a way to transport our girl to the river and get her placed in it with precision utilizing a 90-foot boom crane. So many other members of the community stepped up with contributions, physical help and encouragement that it would take forever to mention them all, but we are grateful to you.

That year, we learned a lot about making a monster, the responsibility of working with the river, and how amazing this community is when it comes to working together.

My role in the city has changed, as has the way I view ArtPrize. I used to view ArtPrize as a vehicle to show off art and art installations that myself and fellow artists could utilize to show and hopefully profit off of our talents. Now, I look at ArtPrize as a vehicle to amp up economic development after what has been one tough year.

A question that was posed in an article in the Detroit Free Press about our city has never left my mind when it comes to ArtPrize. The question was, “At the end of the day, is the second largest city in the state ready to tackle the world’s largest art prize?” The answer then and now is yes. The competition will be a little different and the challenges are vast, but our community knows how to work together and get the impossible done. Now let’s get to work.

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