GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The process of filling large ArtPrize venues with sculptures, paintings and displays starts months in advance, when venue organizers and artists court each other to see if they’ll be a good fit.

This year, Eddie Tadlock, assistant general manager for DeVos Place Convention Center, looked at and responded to 1,200 artist requests, which he called a “light number.”

“I make it a point to answer every single inquiry. So that means I have to go online, look at the work and then say yay or nay. So it’s really time intensive,” he said.

Tadlock has been choosing the art displayed at DeVos since ArtPrize began in 2009. At first, he tried to put together a team to curate the show and select art as a committee.

“No one was in for it. They’re like, ‘Nope, not gonna do it. … I’m not gonna have my neck on the line if something crazy gets put up,'” he said. “So I became a curator of one and I have been since the beginning. And it just it works out that way.”

His strategy?

“You take what you can get,” Tadlock said.

ArtPrize visitors at DeVos Place Convention Center in Grand Rapids on Sept. 15, 2023.
ArtPrize visitors at DeVos Place Convention Center in Grand Rapids on Sept. 15, 2023.

With a large space to fill and a varied pool of applicants, he says it’s nearly impossible to stick with a theme.

“I just grab what I can grab, what I think is cool,” Tadlock said.

His strategy seems to work.

“We’ve always every single year, had artists in the final top 10 … and so I’m proud of that,” Tadlock said.

Just last year, DeVos Place was host to several award winners: Artist-to-Artist, Asian Art, Artista Latino, 2D Juried and 2D Visitor Favorite.

“Clean sweep everything,” Tadlock said. “And so I had to throw that in the face to my friends at the Grand Rapids Art Museum because there’s always been competition between us. … It’s kind of like a friendly rivalry. Because I say, ‘You have a full-time curator and I’m just a part-time schmuck that’s throwing stuff together and we’re going head-to-head with you guys.’”

Deciding which art goes where is a large part of the process. Through 14 years of experience, Tadlock has developed an eye for it.

“I do my best to place artists in the best light, in the best possible location. I know the building very intimately … believe me, I know, I’ve been doing this for a few years,” he said.

ArtPrize visitors at DeVos Place Convention Center in Grand Rapids on Sept. 15, 2023.
ArtPrize visitors at DeVos Place Convention Center in Grand Rapids on Sept. 15, 2023.

Over time, based on feedback and his own preferences, Tadlock has changed a few things.

“I’ve watched the foot traffic through the building, every year. I’ve had additional lighting put in, I’ve done lots of things to enhance the viewers’ experience,” he said. “I’ve scaled back on the number of artists that I’ve hosted just so there’s breathing room in between, because if you’ve been through DeVos place, you know, it can be pretty crowded. So I intentionally spread things out. I’ll stand in the hallway and people go, ‘Oh, there’s not as many artists this year.’ It’s like, yes that’s by design, you know? It’s so you don’t feel a bunched up and squeezed. It just works out better.”

Tadlock said ArtPrize curation is like fitting a puzzle together. About a mile up the road at Monroe Community Church, Art Team Leader Steve Fridsma agreed.

“It’s almost like a game where you try to find the connections between the pieces,” he said.

Fridsma, who is an architect, has been curating ArtPrize pieces for Monroe Community Church since 2009. He uses his experience and knowledge of buildings to think about how art will be displayed in the space.

“We have careful awareness of what size each of the walls are so we don’t say yes to too many pieces that then can’t fit, which would be very awkward to have to renege or a cover over a window or something like that to have enough space,” Fridsma explained.

When the building, originally a 1963 metal stamping facility, was renovated to be the home of Monroe Community Church in 2021, it was designed specifically to be an art venue.

“We equipped it to display art … we knew it was part of our DNA. So we actually designed the building and the lighting and a display rail system for displaying artwork, and we have shows year-round, not just for ArtPrize,” Fridsma said.

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Unlike Tadlock, Fridsma said he and his co-curators followed a bit of a theme. They based it around one of the initial pieces they chose.

“Early on, we accepted a very strong piece that dealt with homelessness and so throughout the art selection process, we selected three more pieces that would complement that theme,” Fridsma said. “So there’s a thread that goes through the exhibit. But it’s not an entire exhibit on homelessness, per se.”

He hopes viewers reflect as they view the pieces at Monroe Community Church.

“Really, I think the idea of asking viewers to walk through and think, well, who is our neighbor? Are homeless people our neighbors, are they transient? … How do we co-exist? How do we treat one another with dignity and respect and understanding of people’s plates or even preferences for the way that they live?” he explained.

Monroe Community Church uses the art as part of its ministry, hosting a four-week sermon series where the pastor, worship and music directors will base the message on a piece of art.

“So we interview the artist as part of the service, unpack what they’re trying to pull off, and they may or may not be a person of faith,” he said. “And we’ve had artists tell us, ‘Man, I’ve never been a church person but if a place like this was in my hometown, I’d definitely check you guys out.’”

He said it is important to bring art into a place of worship.

“Churches have historically, been suspicious of artists — artists can speak truth to power. They can subvert, they can question. And so we feel that art is an important way of understanding who we are, who God is and our connection,” Fridsma said.

The church does not require artists or their work to be Christian or even religious.

“We’ve had artists apply to us and say, ‘I’m an atheist. Is that OK? Can I show with you?’ Absolutely. We’ve had Muslim artists and even though we’re a church, we’re not prudes. … We’re not afraid of tasteful, explorations of the human body or other types of themes,” Fridsma explained.

Last year, Monroe Community Church was named ArtPrize’s Outstanding Venue, causing a large number of artist applicants in this year’s competition. A majority of Monroe’s artists reach out to the venue specifically. Six of the 20 artists Monroe is hosting are returners to the venue.

“Which is great because we’re not right downtown. We’re not on the circuit that tourists come into town and see the four or five venues right around DeVos Place and the Ford Museum and Amway Grand, but I think we have enough of a following,” Fridsma said. “We’re known to have an occasional jury winner in our location.”

Monroe Community Church offers a scavenger hunt for kids to engage them in the art while giving their parents time to enjoy. It also offers free parking, bathrooms and water. Fridsma hopes people start their ArtPrize journey at Monroe Community Church and then use the Dash bus to make their way downtown to DeVos Place and the heart of ArtPrize festival.