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Home is where the art is: ArtPrize's artist hosting program connects artists to local community

Stefanie Snyder

Move over Airbnb; ArtPrize, along with several other West Michigan organizations, is also harnessing the power of the sharing economy to connect artists to local hosts, making their stay during the annual competition feel like home. As the city gears up for this fall's flood of artists, Stephanie Doublestein hears from one of the competition's winners, who says the program helped her thrive.
When Adonna Khare came to Grand Rapids from Califoria for her first ArtPrize compeition in 2012, she just needed a place to stay and sleep. Knowing that a hotel stay for the entire length of the event would be prohibitive, and looking for a bit of support as she prepared to leave her husband and daughter behind, she was thrilled to discover the ArtPrize artist hosting program on the ArtPrize website. The program, active in one way or another since the art compeition's first year, connects visiting artists with local residents willing to open their home as a place to stay – for free – for the duration of the event.
Khare connected successfully with two hosts: Shirley Burnham, who lived just outside of Grand Rapids and was able to host both Khare and her mother as they worked to install her piece at the GRAM in the week before ArtPrize started, and Stefanie Snyder, who lived conveniently near a bus route and who hosted Khare for the duration of the competition.
When Khare's piece, Elephants, won the competition, she brought both her hosts with her to the award ceremony. "Really, I think they're one of the main reasons I was able to be as successful as I was," says Khare. "Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to stay. Without their generosity, I wouldn't have been able to afford lodging, transport, and food for such an extended period of time."
The hosting program provides both visiting artists and potential local hosts with a variety of information so they can make the best match, then lets individuals connect on their own and finalize details offline. And while some artists benefit by using the program for an intimate look at the city, enjoying local restaurants and trips to Lake Michigan, others, like Khare, are just looking for a place to crash. She says the program served as a support system and a reprieve from her crazy, 12-hour days being at the museum.
Adonna Khara, photo by Phil Hatten"It was a time in my life where I wanted to focus all my energy on my work and participate to the highest level that was humanly possible," she says, and the hosting program was "an experience of coming home. It feels a little bit like I had family with me since they were always so supportive." She says Burnham went so far as to cook her dinner each night and bring Khare's mother for Dutch pastries over the course of her stay. [Editor's note: As this article went to press, Rapid Growth learned that Burnham passed away last week. We extend our condolences to her family.]
Khare's host for the second part of her stay, Stefanie Snyder, says hosting artists has changed her own ArtPrize experience as well.
"It's definitely a deeper level of engagement," Snyder says. "I know sometimes when people see the art, they don't always understand it or there's controversy, but when you host an artist you really understand their thought process and their goals and vision behind the piece, and you have a deeper appreciation for all the art. Everyone has a story they're trying to tell through their art."
Snyder, who is a development director for a local nonprofit, found out about the hosting program through ArtPrize's social media channels and thought it'd be a good opportunity to volunteer for the event. "I wanted to make Grand Rapids be a home away from home, and I thought it would be a good cultural exchange: learn more about their work and foster an appreciation for what artists do."
Snyder hosted an artist two different years, and in both instances, she says she and the artist became friends and still stay in touch. She laughs, remembering watching Game of Thrones late at night with Khare, and says as long as the artist and host are a good fit, lifelong friendships are possible.
These are the kinds of stories Amelea Pegman, ArtPrize director of community engagement, loves to hear. She says ArtPrize has always been intentional about connecting artists and venues, visitors and volunteers with one another, and that the program began as a way to keep costs down for artists and make the event sustainable. But it's grown beyond that.
"We hear such beautiful stories about how families and individuals will take these artists in, help them run to the hardware store, stay up late with them, and advocate for that artist during the competition," says Pegman.
Adonna Khara, left, and Stefani Snyder, right.Pegman says the program is a natural fit for the West Michigan community, known for its hospitality and generosity, and that it's a good way to start conversations about the sharing economy. "For us, there's not an exchange of money, but it's within that ecosystem of peer-to-peer sharing economy, and I feel like there's great potential for people to get an insider's view of the value of the sharing economy through this program," she says. She notes that several other West Michigan organizations host similar programs, including the Whitecaps, the Grand Rapids Opera, and the Grand Rapids Ballet.
Pegman says the program helps ArtPrize remain sustainable, economical, build community, and break down barriers between people, which "is at the heart of who we are; finding and supportive creative avenues of sharing is really important to us."
At the end of the day, the ArtPrize hosting program is about hospitality. As Grand Rapids braces itself for an influx of tourists, critics, and, of course, artists, the program is trying to enhance each artist's experience and make them feel as though they're the event's honored guests – which they truly are. But it can only work with the help of local residents who are willing to support the event in this way.
"This program has a lot of potential to grow," says Pegman. "The individuals who live in this community are the ones who have the potential to show the hospitality -- sharing meals, rides, space – and for new artists especially, that personal connection is so incredibly valuable." Applications to host an artist remain open until September 3, and Pegman expects several more artists to apply for a local host in the coming weeks.
As Khare prepares to return to Grand Rapids, this year to re-install her winning piece for display at the ArtPrize HUB, she concurs. "I can't believe these people, without knowing me . . ." she trails off, then continues: "That's what makes ArtPrize so different from other things: the whole community embraces the artists. It makes ArtPrize special because so many of the artists are present, and it's the hosting program that allows people from out of state to come and participate. I'm super grateful."

Stephanie Doublestein is the managing editor of Rapid Growth Media.
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