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Escape Artist: Midwestern Culture Trips

Craving vacation plus inspiration? Hit the road for arts-themed adventures in three towns: Columbus, Indiana; Grand Rapids, Michigan; and Champaign-Urbana, Illinois

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A 2011 ArtPrize entry (left); an installation at ArtPrize 2011(top right); crowds at last year’s ArtPrize (bottom right)


Drive time from Chicago: 3 hours

The founders of ArtPrize, a FreeForm public arts competition in Grand Rapids, Michigan, have a guiding philosophy: “We don’t curate anything,” says Brian Burch, an organizer. Any artist from anywhere in the world may participate; any space in the riverside city’s downtown can be a venue (this year’s 162 sites include the Grand Rapids Art Museum and the Department of Corrections; see artprize.org for other locations); and any of the hundreds of thousands of people who show up are invited to vote for the winner (who will walk away with $200,000). Time is the only restriction: Voting, which requires in-person registration, takes place in two rounds, from September 19 to October 4, with awards presented on October 5.

It’s a populist, creative free-for-all, but it’s not without star power. A smaller, juried prize is chosen by a team including the Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates and New York magazine’s chief art critic, Jerry Saltz—both of whom will give public talks (artprize.org for schedules).

Downtown Grand Rapids is home to two excellent breweries that also happen to be ArtPrize venues: Founders Brewing Co. (235 Grandville Ave. SW) and HopCat (25 Ionia Ave. SW). To escape the crowds, take the ten-minute drive (or bus ride) from the city center to the East Hills neighborhood. Ask for a table on the garden patio at the Green Well Gastro Pub (924 Cherry St. SE), or venture across the street to Brewery Vivant (925 Cherry Street SE), a Belgian-themed brewpub.

Make reservations early if you’re planning an overnight visit—rooms citywide sell out during the competition. Try the LEED-certified CityFlats Hotel (83 Monroe Center St. NW), which offers small yet sleek lodgings in the heart of downtown, or the historic Amway Grand Plaza hotel (187 Monroe Ave. NW) for its central location and views of the Grand River (ask for a room on the tower side).

Check out the lineup of bands playing at the Pyramid Scheme (68 Commerce Ave. SW), a concert venue that boasts rows of pinball machines.

Browse the specialty shops, including a Wolverine Company Store, at the downtown retail complex MoDiv (40 Monroe Center St. NW). Or head back to East Hills to peruse its boutiques, including the well-curated accessories and home store Lamb (949 Cherry St. SE).

The free festival’s 1,517 works of art, all of which are exhibited downtown, are on view from September 19 to October 7. Locals recommend visiting during the competition’s second weekend: The first round of voting for the top artists ends at 11:59 p.m. on September 29, and the second one begins at 2 p.m. on September 30.

NEXT: Champaign-Urbana, Illinois »


Photography: (Lorri Acott, Conversation With Myself, Screwed Arts Collective, Screwed Rapids (Drawing #3), 2011) courtesy of Vince Dudzinski Photography; (crowd) Courtesy of ArtPrize


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