Seeing the Big Picture

When the very big tent known as ArtPrize pulls up its stakes next week, it would seem that participants and attendees alike will reminisce about what has taken place and look forward to next year"s event.

But ArtPrize has proven to be a far-reaching catalyst that has permanently altered the face of several downtown Grand Rapids buildings and structures -- changes that will remain for generations even if ArtPrize doesn't.

Since the Grand Rapids Community Foundation moved to its new downtown location about a year ago, the organization has viewed the 100-foot-long red brick wall spanning the east side of the building "as an opportunity," says Roberta King, vice president of public relations and marketing at the foundation.  

"We envisioned some kind of signage or perhaps some artwork," she says "It was always viewed as a canvas, but what would be done with it was the question." ArtPrize forced an answer to that question.

The event spurred the foundation to solicit bids from artists, and the result was "Humanity at the Crossroads," an 80- by 50-foot mural depicting two women facing opposite directions. Though unsure what form it would take, the foundation staff knew they wanted artwork with staying power.

"We are an 87-year-old organization with a permanent endowment that makes grants to the community," King explains. "A permanent piece is more in line with our brand as an organization."

With a total purse of $449,000, ArtPrize centered on downtown Grand Rapids is billed as the world"s largest cash prize for art.  The public will vote to decide which artworks win the top $250,000 prize and nine other cash awards. 

Several ArtPrize contenders submitted proposals, but veteran New Mexico muralist Daan Hoekstra's classic style, "use of raw pigments," and experience painting old surfaces set him apart from the competition.

"We reviewed entries from several muralists and Daan's style seemed to fit our building very well," says King.

At first glance, "Humanity at the Crossroads" seems to be a simple portrait. But further examination of the piece reveals rich symbolism and a multicultural sensibility.

The ethereal figures symbolize humanity, learning from the past and moving forward into a new future. They wear shawls, an article of clothing worn in many countries, from Mexico to Afghanistan. Red-brown brick shows through their semi-transparent faces, making them culturally ambiguous and underscoring the mural"s universal relevance.

"The concept he presented was compelling and had the depth we wanted for such a permanent piece," says King. "The forward-looking image is how we view ourselves." 

The Grand Rapids Children"s Museum also wanted a lasting image that reflected its organizational identity. Founded in 1993, the museum has served more than 1.5 million children and adults at its 22 Sheldon Ave. NE location in downtown Grand Rapids as a venue for inteactive learning and exploration. 

"We have always wanted to do something with the outside of our building that was kid and family friendly," says museum staffer Claudia Place.

But daytime hours and security concerns limited their options for exhibiting art.

"When ArtPrize was first announced, we were trying to figure out how we could participate in it," Place says. "We want to support art in Grand Rapids, but we couldn't have something inside because of the times we're open and safety issues."

The museum also wanted to find a way to include children in the artmaking process, despite the event"s age restrictions.

"We knew that there was an age limit for artists. But we wondered if children could participate in ArtPrize in any way," Place says.

The museum contacted ArtPrize organizers, who said as long as the "artist of record" met the age requirement and was comfortable working with children, they were welcome to participate.

Next, museum staff connected with Kendall College of Art and Design graduate Tracy Van Duinen. An art educator in the in the Chicago Public School system, Van Duinen collaborates with students and community members to execute his large scale public mosaics.

"We saw some of Tracy's work, and we thought it would be a perfect fit for us," Place says. "And the fact that he would let children participate in the making of the tiles and putting them in, was just great."

"'Imagine That!' highlights the imagination and creativity that children have," Place continues, describing the recently-installed mosaic. 

"It depicts three children and things that kids would think about. A little girl with a construction hat and a drill… a reporter… all things that kids can dream about and aspire to be."

Installing the large-scale piece required approval from the City Manager's Arts Advisory Committee that would allow them to use a boom and block off the sidewalk.

"They were really cooperative," Place says. "I can't say enough about how great everybody was."

After confirming artistic merit and whether artworks are appropriate for their sites, the Advisory Committee recommends public artworks to the City Manager, who officially approves their installation.

"Anything that is going to be attached to a wall and is not part of the building itself, goes to the Committee," explains Jose Reyna, Assistant City Manager and committee member.

"We see everything from memorial installations at Veteran"s Park to last year's hanging Freud at Open Concept Gallery. That caused quite a stir." Alarmed visitors to downtown Grand Rapids called police and fire departments in December 2007 when they first viewed "Man Hanging Out," the life-sized sculpture of Sigmund Freud hanging seven stories up from atop the Trade Center Building.
But how does the six-person committee decide what's art, an irreconcilable debate critics and arts aficionados have been having for millennia?

"It's much more clear that something's a sign," chuckles Reyna, side-stepping the hotly contested question entirely. "So the Committee decides if it's commercial signage or artwork."

Humanity at the Crossroads and Imagine That! were just two of 23 requests submitted by ArtPrize participants, though Reyna admits there should have been more.

"There are actually a few [pieces] up now that should have gotten approval, but the City Manager is probably not going to say anything," he says. "We want to support ArtPrize, and they are art pieces."

In addition to installation issues, the Arts Advisory Committee also handles the donation of public works to the City's collection.

"As a result of ArtPrize, the community is the recipient of several permanent pieces, including Eames Demetrious' Kcymaerxthaere pieces installed at Canal Street Park and Fish Ladder Park," Reyna says. "I anticipate that other works will remain as permanent installations following ArtPrize."

Local artist Erwin Erkfitz is not so sure. Like many other ArtPrize competitors, Erkfitz had to secure his own sponsorship for his piece, entitled "We're All Connected 2.0.," which is painted on the building facades of South Division Avenue from Cherry to Williams streets.

Living only a half block away from the artwork, Erkfitz created his largest mural piece to represent "the continuing growth of us as humans on this earth, as well as the growth of the Creative Culture of Grand Rapids over the past 10 years."

"Art is not normally free. In my case I have donated a very large wall to Heartside," he says. "I'm not so sure other artists are going to leave things behind."

Still, he remains hopeful that "the GR landscape will change" and is committed to maintaining his piece as long as possible.

"I made sure to use proper outdoor weather enduring paints. And I live in the neighborhood so I can buff any new additions that might be made by adoring public," says Erkfitz with a smirk, referring to the possibility of vandalism.

Grand Rapids Community Foundation and Children's Museum staff have also taken precautions to ensure their pieces endure the test of time… and weather.

The foundation"s mural is protected by a special UV coating. Van Duinen is contracted to repair Imagine That!, constructed from naturally weather-resistant glass and ceramic tiles, as needed.

King believes ArtPrize itself is – to borrow foundation terminology – a legacy gift to Grand Rapids and the art world.

"As it evolves, we will remember this first year with all of the hoopla, hype and novelty of a first-year event," says King. "I think it will be something that people will talk about for months and years to come."

"ArtPrize has already made its mark in furthering Grand Rapids as a city where innovation and entrepreneurship are part of the culture. I"m not sure there's another community that could have made this happen."

Ruth Terry is a freelance writer living in the East Hills neighborhood. She also works as a grant writer for an international nonprofit organization.


Daan Hoekstra, Humanity of the Crossroads, 185 Oakes Street SW

Erwin Erkfitz, We're All Connected 2.0, 209 S. Division

Tracy Van Duinen, Imagine That!, 11 Sheldon Ave. NE

Erwin Erkfitz, We're All Connected 2.0, 209 S. Division

Tracy Van Duinen, Imagine That!, 11 Sheldon Ave. NE

Photographs by Brian Kelly -All Rights Reserved

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