Maps are powerful images. They help us orient ourselves in physical space, but they can also be used to orient ourselves in time. Last Friday, UICA hosted a discussion to reflect on the most recent Free Radical Gallery event. Free Radical Gallery is a temporary exhibition where artists install work in galleries, businesses and other locations in a walkable area. It may sound a bit like ArtPrize, but that's backwards. It's more accurate to say that ArtPrize is a bit like Free Radical, which has been active for more than ten years.

Which brings us back to maps. Along with a series of panel discussions and lectures, the event on Friday included "Where We've Been: An interactive mapping project." Using a giant map of Grand Rapids, visitors were asked to pin labels to locations with information about art and music shows in non-tradtitional spaces. By the end of the night, colored yarn criss-crossed the grid of the city, charting events that stretched back to the 1970s.

The practice of teaming artists with business and property owners to stage temporary exhibitions is fundamental to what we do at ArtPrize, but we certainly didn't invent it. Grand Rapids has a rich history of art exhibitions staged in all manner of venues that weren't designed for such things.

Events like Free Radical, Spring for the Arts/Art.Downtown, Active Site and a host of others provided a basic framework for how a decentralized city-wide exhibition like ArtPrize could work. They also provided proof of concept. In early 2009, when we were secretly planning the first ArtPrize, we were trying to decide on a date for the public announcement and launch of the website. We were considering a date in mid April, but decided to move it back a week because Avenue for the Arts was doing their annual Spring for the Arts temporary exhibition and art hop throughout Heartside and downtown. I distinctly remember visiting a show put on by Active Site (whose organizers would later go on to form SiTE:LAB), at the corner of Monroe Center and Ottawa. It was packed. They had reached an audience that went far beyond the exhibiting artists and their friends. I remember thinking, "When we invite any place to be a venue to host artists from all over the world this fall, people might actually show up."

And they did.

By Kevin Buist on