GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — While ArtPrize 2023 didn’t officially start until 5 p.m. Thursday, that didn’t stop crowds from gathering and or artists from promoting their pieces across town earlier in the day.

This year’s ArtPrize will be the first time the city of Grand Rapids, Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. and Kendall College and Art and Design run the annual 18-day festival. The change in ownership will also bring a larger kickoff party and fireworks to Ah-Nab-Awen Park.

“The thing about ArtPrize that I really love is the fact that you get such a diversity of work,” said Pamela Shaheen, a returning visitor.

She and her high school best friend Kristi Bangert opted to start early to avoid the crowds.

“What really thrills me is the accessibility because everything is outside, or most everything is,” Bangert said.

ArtPrize typically draws nearly a half million visitors to the downtown corridor.

Thursday’s open celebration at Ah-Nab-Awen runs from 5 p.m to 10 p.m.. Visitors, artists and those looking to simply celebrate the international art festival are welcome.

Voting also opened at 5 p.m. Over the next 18 days, visitors can view nearly 700 pieces of art from 950 artists at 150 venues across Grand Rapids. Each artist hopes to take home the first-place prize of $125,000.

The deputy director of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum says he’s hopeful for a big turnout.

“We’re hoping to see bigger crowds than last year, we’ve already had a lot of great art this year … compared to last year its night and day, the submissions we had this year far surpassed, far surpassed this time last year,” said Joel Westphal, deputy director of Ford Presidential Library Museum.

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One artist said he’s happy to be back in West Michigan for this year’s competition.

“This is my second ArtPrize, I was here in 2017 and it’s extremely exciting. This is my first that I’m going to be able to spend the entire two and a half, three weeks here to talk to everybody. It’s super fun to show my piece and let everybody see the smiles and make everybody happy,” said Joel Gittrich.

News 8’s Demetrios Sanders contributed to this report.