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Eyes on the (Art) prize

U-M School of A&D partners with SiTE:LAB to create a bold new venue for int'l competition in Grand Rapids

September, 2011

By Linda Fitzgerald

During the next three weeks, 300,000 spectators are expected to flock to Grand Rapids for the city’s third annual ArtPrize competition. The popularity and timeliness of the competition has inspired a new collaboration between the University of Michigan School of Art & Design (A&D) and SiTE:Lab, a Grand Rapids arts organization dedicated to creating site-specific art installations in temporary spaces.

From September 21 through October 9, the long-vacant, 25,000 square foot Junior Achievement Building on East Fulton Street will host large-scale works by 11 international artists, works that — because of their size — might not otherwise be on display during the three-week event.

In recent years, A&D has focused on forging community alliances, seeking out new and mutually beneficial ways to connect students and faculty with cities across Michigan.  To date, A&D has established work and gallery spaces in downtown Ann Arbor and Detroit.  Grand Rapids’ burgeoning arts community, its large contingent of A&D graduates, and its highly successful launch of the annual ArtPrize competition in 2009 made it the next logical site for a collaboration.

The alliance with SiTE:LAB came about through the efforts of numerous individuals, all connected in one way or another to the city of Grand Rapids and the University of Michigan.

In the fall of 2010, Grand Rapids’ art advocate and U-M alumna Mary Caroline ‘Twink’ Frey formed a committee to explore opportunities for an arts alliance between A&D and her home city. Among the committee members were Kendall College of Art & Design Professor Paul Amenta and Grand Rapids attorney-turned-artist Tom Clinton, a U-M alumnus. A few months earlier, Amenta and Clinton had co-founded SiTE:LAB, with the goal of repurposing vacant buildings as temporary art spaces throughout the city.

Other members of the committee included Professor Bryan Rogers, dean of the U-M School of Art & Design, and A&D faculty member Elona VanGent, who had previously taught in the sculpture department at Grand Valley State University.

Amenta and Clinton shaped the original concept for the collaboration. “By that time, Paul and I had identified the Junior Achievement Building as a new ArtPrize venue,” Clinton says. “The site had been made available to us for a period of seven months by the building’s current owners, Locus Development. So we suggested that, rather than setting up a permanent gallery in Grand Rapids as its own ArtPrize venue, A&D consider working with us to prepare this amazing space for large installations that wouldn’t find a home anywhere else in the city.”

For Rogers, the prospect was immediately appealing. “We view this as an excellent first step in linking with the city,” he says. “It gives us a great opportunity to be part of the creative energy of Grand Rapids and to support ArtPrize. We have a large base of students and alums from West Michigan, so we welcome the opportunity to become part of that community. It’s also a chance to collaborate with two experienced and creative entrepreneurs, Paul Amenta and Tom Clinton.”

To date, $20,000 in gifts from donors has been used for general repairs, emergency lighting, safety upgrades such as ramps and railings, and other site improvements to the JA Building. Grand Rapids major donors include Bissell Inc., Plastic Surgery Associates of Grand Rapids, Varnum LLP, Lotus Development, Betsy and David Horning, James and Janet Watkins and Twink Frey and James McKay.

The focus now is on installation of art works, one of which will fill the building’s empty elevator shaft and could require as much as six weeks to assemble.

Participating artists, selected by Professors Amenta and VanGent, include:

  • Assocreation
  • Ericka Beckman
  • Anya Belkina
  • David Bowen
  • Alois Kronschlaeger
  • Loren Madsen
  • Meghan Reynard and Patrick Ethen — Reynard is a graduate student in U-M’s MFA program; and, Ethen is a U-M graduate with a degree in architecture
  • Nick Tobier and Juliane Stiegele — Tobier is an associate professor in A&D
  • Shinji Turner-Yamamoto

ArtPrize visitors can expect an eclectic mix of media and approaches, ranging from lights to lithography and from video to sculpture. As Clinton notes, part of the excitement and dynamism of the exhibit stems from the fact that all of the artists have created their works in direct response to the building’s interior landscape—an

intriguing and sometimes challenging mix of  high ceilings, light-filled spaces, dark basement areas, and partially demolished walls.

Amenta describes the partnership with the School of Art & Design as an outstanding relationship. “The collaboration with U-M A&D has enabled SiTE:LAB to present a far more exciting exhibition for ArtPrize than we could possibly have done on our own,” he notes. “Elona VanGent’s involvement as co-curator allowed us to seek out artists from across the globe who otherwise might never have found their way to ArtPrize.  And financial support from A&D alumni made it possible to complete all the site improvements required to open the Junior Achievement Building to the public.”

Often described as a radically open experiment in public art, ArtPrize is an annual three-week competition in which art works are displayed at more than 150 venues throughout downtown Grand Rapids.  Approximately $500,000 in prize money is awarded on the basis of public voting. This year, nearly 1,600 artists from 36 countries and 43 states will be exhibiting their work, including 28 faculty and alumni from the University of Michigan School of Art & Design.


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