Firing Up for ArtPrize

Perhaps the biggest story about ArtPrize is the one that never had to be reported.

With a whopping 159 venues open to the public for two weeks in buildings ranging from cavernous century-old warehouses to single-family homes scattered throughout a 3-square-mile area, the Grand Rapids Fire Department didn't have to issue a single notice of violation to the fire codes  for occupancy and safety.

The only casualty was in the form of a 24-foot-tall tree made from recycled materials nicknamed Woody.  Other than that, the smooth running ArtPrize elicited a collective yawn of boredom from the ambulance chasers at local media -- and a collective sigh of relief from the event's participants.

Was ArtPrize lucky? Maybe. But unseen to the public, ArtPrize was prepared -- the result of more than a year's worth of groundwork laid by a loose band of artists and the fire department.

A year ago, the conversation between the artists and fire inspectors was closer to "us and them." Today, it is "we together."  Everyone seems to agree that the new spirit of cooperation makes Grand Rapids a much more arts- and events-friendly city.

And it all started with a long negotiation table and an even longer banner.

Going Underground
"A couple of years ago, some people thought it was cool to have your events hidden," says Joel MacDonald, fire prevention inspector at the Grand Rapids Fire Department who also serves as liason for safety at special events. "Fire safety was considered along the same lines as police involvement. You don't want to get caught, and it was cool not to get caught." 

The problem was compounded by the fact that artists wanted to use large and inexpensive spaces such as old factories and warehouses for their get-togethers, just the kind of buildings that rarely met the current fire code for assembly occupancies. In retrospect, it's the sort of evolution that comes to any city where small businesses and entrepreneurs begin to repurpose buildings constructed for much different uses, MacDonald says.

And there were instances where artists simply didn't recognize that they weren't within the fire code, says Todd Ernst, principal in ActiveSite, an organization that raises the architectural or historic profile of a building through collaboration with artists. "For example you could have an illuminated exit sign, but there has to be a battery backup for it to meet the occupancy code. Or you must have plastic covers over the outlets, and you can't hang anything from sprinkler lines."

"At that time, some people in the arts community were a little bit frustrated with the fire prevention office," recalls Acting Grand Rapids Fire Department Chief Laura Knapp. "This was when the art events started to pop up all over town, and we began to look into events that were being held secretly or underground. Actually, it was  the first time that some artists had ever seen fire prevention inspectors."

But by summer last year, even those holding underground events soon recognized that the secrecy severely limited their success because they couldn't be widely advertise or market their gatherings -- certainly nothing close to the scale of ArtPrize.

Pushing the Envelope
The crux of the problem was that artists were pushing the envelope of how the city's fire code was being applied to their industry, says Rosalynn Bliss, Grand Rapids city commissioner representing the 2nd Ward. The fire department was more familiar with applying the code to more traditional businesses, such as a restaurant, hospital or factory, than it was to an artist's gallery opening where individuals saunter through and leave.

"I had been contacted by a number of artists who were struggling with the fire department," she says. "They felt that the department wasn't helpful and (the artists) had a number of events going on."  After meeting with the fire department officials, Bliss convened a meeting in June last year at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts between department officials and local artists including Ernst and Tommy Allen to find common ground.

The artists arrived early and essentially took one side of the rather long table, Ernst recalls. Then Fire Chief John VanSolkema, Knapp, MacDonald, and other department staff took their places at the other side of the table.

"It did unintentionally square people off at first," he says. "Particularly with the artists being hardwired so far one way, and the fire department being hardwired a different way.  But by the end of the meeting, there was definitely a spirit in the room that we were much closer to our respective objectives that anybody thought we could be."

Moved by the Spirit
Caught up in the moment, Ernst then made an unusual request of then Chief VanSolkema that he later thought may have bordered on being reckless.

Ernst asked VanSolkema if the department would dispatch a hook and ladder truck to the Old Federal Building in October with the expressed purpose of exhibiting a banner to welcome the 21st International Sculpture Conference that was going to be held in Grand Rapids. Holding the sculpture conference in Grand Rapids was a coup for the city, and Ernst wanted to give its attendees a warm welcome.

As soon as the words left his mouth, Ernst had second thoughts and expected VanSolkema to respond with an icy glare. Instead, VanSolkema "grinned from ear to ear" and said he had a ladder truck that he could spare for the occasion.

"That was a really cool moment in time for me," Ernst recalls. "Instead of saying: 'Are you kidding me?' he took it as a great opportunity to get out in front of the arts community to say:  'Hey, we are your friends. Our job is to keep people safe, but we are here to support you.'" A few weeks later, the department unfurled a 3' x 20' long vertical banner codesigned by Ernst and the fire department that provided just the right touch for the event at the Old Federal Building.

"That was a good symbol when that happened," Knapp says.

Making it Local
After the initial meeting in June last year, the fire department took the lead in developing a program called L.O.C.A.L that details considerations that an organizer needs to know before putting on a public gathering in the areas licensing, operation, capacity, alcohol and liability.

"It isn't our intent to bring (temporary venues) up to code for an assembly occupancies," Knapp says. "We just want to ensure that they were safe for these temporary events. And that was a little bit a different approach for us."

Ernst says he needs no sell job on the importance fire safety -- particularly after he experienced firsthand why the rules were created.

ActiveSite held a nighttime event at an 80,000-square-foot warehouse at 818 Butterworth Ave. SW in June last year, and electricity to the building was disrupted when lightning struck a nearby substation. The event had ended before the power went off, but Ernst had to reenter the locked building to retrieve his wallet. As he jogged along inside, he tripped on some uneven flooring and lost his flashlight when he slammed into a building column.
As he looked around him in complete darkness, none of the building's exit signs were lighted because ActiveSite had obtained temporary permission to use the backup batteries during the three-hour event, but the batteries now were entirely drained. It would've been nearly impossible for him to find a safe exit had there been a fire. "That was my Aha moment," Ernst says of the code requiring backup batteries.

"Without question the city is more art friendly than it was two years ago," he says. "Artists are learning that the fire department isn't 'The Man,' but that they really do care about us."

"We've come to the point where it's cooler to have the events all above board, so artists can engage in marketing and advertising without having to go underground," MacDonald says. "I think everyone is finding out that their events are going much better, smoother after they have all the bases covered in the safety aspects."
Much of the improvement in communication was a dress rehearsal for ArtPrize.

Four of the city's six fire prevention inspectors have been heavily involved over the past few weeks in categorizing, assessing and then inspecting ArtPrize venues. "My head is still spinning from all the stuff," McDonald says. "We've been doing our normal 9-to-5 stuff, and on top of that we've been conducting after-hours inspections to make sure everything is going okay and everybody is abiding by the guidelines." Knapp says the fire department expects its process to run more efficiently next year for ArtPrize, based on this year's experience.

"I think it would have been a night and day difference for ArtPrize had we not had these conversations," MacDonald says.
Matthew Gryczan is the managing editor of Rapid Growth.


Todd Ernst, ActiveSite (2)

Grand Rapids Firetruck -Photo Courtesy of Kara Stelma

UICA ArtPrize Venue (2)

Photographs by Brian Kelly -All Rights Reserved

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