ArtPrize turned out to be bigger than I imagined, as the photo at right illustrates. Kudos to Ginny Seyferth, who I bumped into at one of the venues, for her firm's handling of this masterpiece of community events.
This just goes to show that you have to have a good plan but also a little faith if you are putting on a major event like this. It also is further evidence that public relations---from event planning to media relations to everything else we do--is as much art as it is science.
At first glance, it seems that the results of this big event could be a masterpiece. In all my years living in West Michigan, I have never felt such a positive, hip buzz in Grand Rapids. There were artists and art fans--and people who previously perhaps did not care much about art--from all over the world. Out-of-towners told me their visit to Grand Rapids shattered their media-cultivated perception that all of Michigan looks like Detroit. I also overheard people who appeared to be locals--either suburbanites or living in one of the surrounding counties--commenting that they never knew Grand Rapids had so many cool spots.
But art always has its critics. So I wonder if all of the above is having a large and long-term affect on the Grand Rapids "brand," or if it's a temporary blip. As for long-term, we'll have to wait and see. As for large, a quick Google News search shows most of the media discussion has been from local media, with a few articles in the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News. There was one piece in TampaBay.com about participating artists from that area. Of course, media impressions are less important than personal impressions of visitors to the city, but it would be nice to see some positive press about the Calder city from coast to coast. (By the way, there are also other art prize competitions, such as in SanDiego and Dubai, that could affect how ArtPrize contributes to brand GR. I also read about one in the Middle East.)
The event in SanDiego led to some bickering about the venues, judging fairness etc. So, one PR issue will be how any of that negative vibe is handled.
Meanwhile, I was fascinated about the layers of PR in this event. Beyond promoting the event itself and by extension the region, there was a lot of other PR going on. Venues seized the opportunity to show their face in a new light to the community. Restaurants and other businesses co-branded themselves with art prize in some creative ways. Others, unfortunately, did not. Why were some businesses closed during a time when there was more foot traffic in downtown Grand Rapids than anyone can remember? Also, while certain restaurants stayed open, they clearly did not anticipate the crowds and staff up appropriately. A friend and I were ignored like bad pieces of art and several establishments before we finally left. Others we met had the same problems. (Hat tip to the server at the BOB who gave me an iced tea on the house because he was working the crowd so fast he didn't have time to collect my coin.)
Then of course, came the artists. It's funny to me--working with lots of artists on campus--who love to decry the "evils" of PR doing things for the money. But when artists have a piece on display and a quarter mil on the line, they are all about the promotion. Postcards, events, news pitches, social media fan pages etc. I'm not saying they shouldn't do it, I'm just enjoying the show. It will be interesting to see how much anger is expressed that the winners are rewarded more for promotion and visibility than artistic excellence.
I would say, regardless of any complaints, the event was a phenomenal success. Even if some art snobs sniff at the 'crowd favorite,' I would say that's the beauty, that's the 'art' of this event--engaging thousands of people with art and with Grand Rapids who otherwise would not have cared.
I'd like to see a coffee table book commemorating the event, with lots of photos of the various pieces. (Brian Kelly, you up for that?)
We can all learn more about these and other PR aspects of ArtPrize when Ginny Seyferth gives the PR backstory on ArtPrize at the February 10 Interchange meeting. I plan to attend.
In the meantime, I have to head out of town for a week to teach at a GVSU partner school in France. So, when the ArtPrize winners are announced, I'll be at the Louvre. We all have to make our sacrifices.