Last summer, I wrote about public art and its usefulness from an urban perspective. Last month, I was back in Grand Rapids for a couple of days during ArtPrize and got to see some of the pieces around the city. While walking around downtown Grand Rapids, the difference between the ArtPrize approach and Lincoln’s more conservative approach to public art became even clearer. ArtPrize’s a very public displays and more festival like atmosphere drove home the superiority of the bold philosophy.
I was only in Grand Rapids for about a day and a half, maybe two full days when everything was put together, but I had to go and see ArtPrize. Publicity in national outlets like the New York Times and GQ tend to build that type of excitement. So I dragged my brother out on an overcast, chilly (and eventually a bit rainy) Friday afternoon and walked around the city’s downtown. Now, I was an out-of-towner with a very limited schedule. Poor weather wasn’t going to stop me from wandering the city to look at the big displays of art. However, I was struck by how many other people were walking around downtown. I assumed the city would be relatively dead because most productive members of society have things to do during business hours, even if it’s a Friday. Yet, significant numbers of people were milling around the ArtPrize venues. I imagine most of these people could have visited on another day when the weather was better or the time more convenient, but that is the genius behind ArtPrize. People go see it. People go downtown. People spend time (and money) in the city. There are disputes about what constitutes “art” in an open, crowdsourced art competition. But from an urban perspective, ArtPrize builds a spectacle that becomes a must see. And even the disputes are a good problem. When was the last time your local newspaper’s question of the day asked about what constitutes “art”?.
This impressive display of urban life (in a “dying” city no less) contrasted greatly with Lincoln’s recently installed artwork. Located in the recently constructed Union Plaza, I’ve seen the few pieces of art installed from afar and I would like to see them from closer up, but what’s my motivation? It’s just off the bike trail so I can wait until I am in the area with some time to kill. Right now, the art alone lacks the necessary pull to attract me to Union Plaza. Besides, once I head down there, what else is there to do? I could then go downtown, but little in close proximity as of now. If I want to have a night downtown, I’ll just travel downtown and leave the art for another time (or wait until a First Friday if I want to pair art with downtown). While Lincoln may connect its artwork to its urban scene in the future, right now, I would much rather enjoy the spectacle of ArtPrize, even if just for one cloudy afternoon.