Inside ArtPrize

ArtPrize is this spectacle -- this dawning, slowly encroaching season, now an integral part of Grand Rapids' autumn. A casual walk for a Grand Rapidian to the bank or a local watering hole reveals a statue that wasn't there before, a mural slowly spreading across the side of a building, a painted piano on a street corner, a pop-up shop in what used to be an unused space. And then it happens. Crowds of people, spilling through crosswalks, strollers everywhere, parties, queues, non-stop discussion, every update of Facebook or Twitter revealing more opinions over individual pieces, crowds, votes and ruckus.

ArtPrize doesn't just appear. It's carefully planned by a team of masterminds, who have successfully turned ArtPrize from an idea into a successful reality for the second year in a row.

In one of the ArtPrize Speaker Series events, Museum of Contemporary Art Denver Director Adam Lerner, Ph.D, said, "You can pay to make an excellent event, but you can't pay to make it awesome."

ArtPrize Executive Director Bill Holsinger-Robinson replicated this quote when discussing the spirit and sustainability of ArtPrize. Immediately after 2009's event, ArtPrize officials held a series of town hall-style meetings, asking participants what worked and what didn't. They were open to criticism and discussion, the necessary components of improvements.

"I think coming off the heels of last year's event, we understood as an organization that we were lacking in some specific areas of leadership," Holsinger-Robinson says. "So we filled in the holes."

Communicating an Idea

Paul Moore is ArtPrize's director of communications. Following 2009's ArtPrize, Moore was imstrumental in putting together a design brief that reflected on how and why ArtPrize was successful and what principles were important for ArtPrize to pay attention to as it continued.

"That's a good launch point to this last year because it was such a mad sprint to pull of the experiment the first year," Moore says. "The first year we treated it as an experiment -- like a web start-up -- that worked really well at least in terms of sheer numbers of people coming down and loving it."

Naturally, in year two, it is no longer an experiment. Moore cites their design brief as the "first foray into trying to figure out why we do this and what are the core principles of this event, and how do we stick to those." Moore took this design to Art Basel in Miami and the Armory Show in New York and used it recruit artists, in part, and also to see how ArtPrize "fits within the art world within the global ecosystem of art events."

Another crucial part of the learning process was to figure out how to go from an experiment to a nonprofit, to ascertain how to sustain the event and how to build relationships to make that happen.

A Memory that Lasts

David Abbott, director of development and merchandising, was a full-time employee of last year's ArtPrize, but this year had more to do than before.

"As we finished up last year with those town hall meetings, trying to determine the success and whether we could attach a value to it, to partner a sponsor to an actual activity or space, we really worked diligently on making a good brand fit," Abbott says. "We're lucky to live in an area known for its philanthropy. There are major companies notable in terms of their giving."

This helps when using venues like the Public Museum, Frederik Meijer Gardens or UICA -- venues that traditionally make most of their income as a business from admission fees. Because ArtPrize is free to the public, these businesses needed sponsors to sustain themselves during the event.

"We saw (this issue) as a great way to create pavilions similar to what used to be in the World's Fair," Abott says.

Using this methodology, ArtPrize was able to secure 7 exhibition centers, with at least one in every neighborhood represented in ArtPrize. Abbott says the "feel good moment" of last year's ArtPrize was fresh on everyone's minds during the sponsor garnering process, with businesses asking questions about how to get on board, versus wondering whether or not they should.

Abbott also works to create all the merchandise for ArtPrize, including T-shirts, buttons, bag and more.

"(The product) helps give your memory something that's physically lasting," Abbott says. "It's very similar to if you go to a concert and walk away with a T-shirt that reminds you of the great event you had."

ArtPrize products were created with the talent of local designer Neil Hubert, using the principles of neighborhoods and conversation. Product sales also adds to the sustainability of ArtPrize, helping to ensure that it can continue in future years.

1000 Volunteers

Amelea Gritter was last year's volunteer coordinator. This year, she took the task on full time, managing over 1000 volunteers.

"(The volunteers) will put in over 10,000 hours by the end of this event," Gritter says.

Volunteers are essential to ArtPrize, from manning The Hub (ArtPrize's center for voting, gift shopping, lounging, conversation, voting and voter registration, social media tracking and asking questions), event help and "way finders."

"(Way Finders) are positioned in the corners of the neighborhoods of the (ArtPrize) district," Gritter says. "They're tour guides and ambassadors; they know where the ATM machines, bathrooms and good restaurants are, hopefully promoting what's here all the time so that people can come back and feel like it's more accessible."

Volunteer response has been highly positive, with volunteers looking to sign up for many shifts and become integrated in the event.

Ensuring Usability

Laurel Stanley, director of user experience, is the woman in charge of making sure ArtPrize participants navigate the event with ease. Her team of five people run the technology components for ArtPrize -- the website, voting, registration, mobile phone apps, etc.

"This year, we spent a lot of time reworking some of the basic foundational components of the website," Stanley said. "Last year, it was such a rush to get it done, we really had to swing back around and make sure everything was smooth and easy to use. It really took the feedback of our users to understand what to do."

The increase of technology is evident: this year's ArtPrize jumped on new technology, using QR codes, social media tools like SCVNGR, Twitter and Facebook, all on top of their website.

Every Organization Needs an Evangelist

All in all, there are about 15 people on the team, not including the volunteers, but Holsinger-Robinson says they're not egotistical in thinking that it's all them -- "there are thousands of people that make this happen," he says.

And for Holsinger-Robinson himself, his role this year is perhaps best described by his colleagues.

"Every organization needs an evangelist and Bill's our best," Moore says. "He knows how to describe, state and sermonize the entire event, whether it be to a volunteer, to participants to a sponsor or a company."

Stanley adds, "(We) make sure (ArtPrize) stays true to the initial vision and direction, and (Holsinger-Robinson) is the guardian of that vision, who makes sure that we're making decisions that hold it up in the right light."

With artist registration opening in the spring, followed immediately by venue registration, the team has a lot of tight deadlines to meet, and this year, they have. They've created a conversation about art, community and the city they work in.

ArtPrize brought in 1,713 individual entries (an increase of about 500 from 2009) from 21 countries, six more than last year. There are 192 venues this year, compared to 159 in 2009.


Bill Holsinger-Robinson

Paul Moore

David Abbott

Amelea Gritter

Laurel Stanley

Photographs by Brian Kelly -All Rights Reserved
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