The Rapidian

ArtPeers: Pleased To Meet You!

This dispatch was added by one of our Nonprofit Neighbors. It does not represent the editorial voice of The Rapidian or Community Media Center.

Underwriting support from:

/Christopher Apap

/Christopher Apap / Terry Johnston

Getting invited to downtown arts events and receptions… is a relatively new thing.  I am admittedly fascinated by these events, and the culture behind our culture.  My favorite part about these parties is walking into conversations about projects/events I'm involved in, with people who have no idea who I am.  Sometimes I'm referenced by name, in third-person.  Occasionally I'll offer excellent remarks about this person (me). 

I credit this phenomenon to my indistinct personality, combined with my penchant for unremarkable commentary.  I'm a double-threat guy.  So I get to be an active participant in conversations about me.   It's simultaneously very compelling and very depressing.

Interestingly, I notice the greatest variance (in discussions about things I'm involved with) with interpretations and explanations of ArtPeers.  Comments made to me, or near me, that explore "what ArtPeers is."  I've had some prominent arts and culture folks explain this organization to me (again, not knowing who I was) and man it was depressing!  I had no idea how one-dimensional ArtPeers is.  Nor did I understand how thoroughly FALL FESTIVAL failed last year.  I'm told one of the key stages of grieving is acceptance, and I'm getting there, man.

Happily, impressions of ArtPeers are not all negative.  Some people express wildly over-romantic versions of what we are, grander than we'll ever be.  Others say we're angry, genius, idealistic, naive, epic, edgy, falling apart or literally "saving Western culture."  Okay I made that last one up.

When I hear these explanations of "what ArtPeers is," I typically say nothing - I'm a proponent of letting people find their own meaning, in things.

But then it occurred to me: if people have inaccurate perceptions of "what ArtPeers is"... that's not a good thing.  And furthermore, it's our fault.  So let's fix that.  Thank you Rapidian!

My name is Erin Wilson, ArtPeers co-founder and President.  I'd like to explain what we are, how we came to be and where we're going.  Starting with the artsy use of unnecessary punctuation and lower-case words which - I've learned - is like Shake 'N Bake for cool:

ArtPeers is a grassroots, artist-advocacy organization, based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  We're presently submitting final paperwork for 501(c)(3) npo status.

Like many ideas, Artpeers developed from an observed need.  By late 2008, my partner Amy and I were exploring ways to contribute to a better mutual support system among peer artists.  In our experience, Grand Rapids creatives inadvertently exhibited a sort of apathy, with respect to peer support.  We had either observed or directly benefitted from (better peer support) in other cities: we saw its critical role in the establishment of a meaningful, sustainable local arts scene.

So the earliest idea for ArtPeers was to serve this function: to encourage peer patronage of local exhibitions, premieres and showings.  The initial idea for the ArtPeers website, in early 2009, centered around a symbolic "contract" artists would digitally sign, "committing" to attend at least twelve local art events that involved local artists, per year.  Everyone would be welcome to commit to this - it would not be exclusive to artists.  Artists are the movement; however, without an engaged public, it all falls apart.  The relationship between artists and patrons is like flowers and honeybees.

When it works - where it works - it seems to fall on artists to provide the initial inertia.   In cities with more established peer support among artists, there is a "chain" of developments that ultimately benefit the entire community.  It starts (forgive the obviousness) with artists creating art.  It starts to gather steam when artists purposefully and consistently attend one another's premieres and exhibitions.  They bring friends.  Word of mouth is generated.  Media become interested.  Socialites tweet about it.  A segment of the public becomes engaged in taking chances on new, local work.  Original, local exhibitions become a viable contender for "what to do on Saturday night."  Prominence for local art, discussion - good and bad, praise and criticism.  These are good things!  A community that discovers the value of a robust, innovative and sustainable local arts and culture sector… comes to rely on it.  If the value of the work is enhanced, and meaningful opportunities are present, the artist can sustain herself in the region, and she's more likely to remain here.  More likely to evolve, artistically.  Which, again, benefits the community by continuing the pattern of culture growth.  

On the other hand, *without* peer support, we have under-attended local events and exhibitions, which leads to atrophy of artists' natural sense of experimentation.  We are the net.  If we're not there, it's almost malicious to expect them to jump, to be daring.  And if they go away, we're left with touring performances and exhibitions: we'd have to import our culture, and there'd be a couple venues left to feature it.

So, based on that sequence of conjecture and slippery slopes, we arrived at the original idea for ArtPeers: a sparse, self-explanatory website < > would be one page, with text outlining a brief, good-faith agreement - artists and others would commit to attend a dozen "unknown" local art events, annually.  The website would have a field to electronically "sign" this "agreement," and it would voluntarily list the names of artists who do so.

Mid 2009: ArtPrize Becomes The Catalyst for FALL FESTIVAL

Shortly after this, the organizers of ArtPrize announced the brilliant idea for ArtPrize.  In my capacity as Director at Wealthy Theatre, I began to receive numerous calls from Uptown artists hoping to secure Wealthy as their ArtPrize venue.  There were initial discussions about excepting Wealthy into the boundaries; however, as ArtPrize organizers clarified their boundaries and the competition in general, I was notified formally that Wealthy would be outside the boundaries, and the boundaries would not be excepted.

As more artists and venues networked about their desire to take part in the excitement Downtown, something clicked with respect to better peer support: this was our moment to create something real, and potentially more valuable than a symbolic website "contract" to attend events.  An ad-hoc group of community leaders formed and began to discuss options.  Our regular meeting place became Sparrows Coffee & Newstand (and that hasn't changed!) where we pondered what were possible. 

We knew we'd all benefit from timing our hypothetical FALL FESTIVAL in the same season as ArtPrize.  It's what everyone wanted.  It's when everything was happening.  Indeed, it would be completely accurate to say that without ArtPrize, there would have been no FALL FESTIVAL 2009.  (This year we have chosen for FALL FESTIVAL 2010 to avoid the actual dates of ArtPrize 2010).

It's also worth mentioning: there are things ArtPrize is, that we could never be.  We could never have prizes, nor judging, nor competition on any level.  Regardless of philosophical debates about these things, we just simply couldn't afford it.  FALL FESTIVAL also couldn't facilitate 1,000+ matches between artists and venues.  Nor could it manage the thousands of volunteer shifts, etc. 

Looking back at planning for FALL FESTIVAL 2009, I feel fortunate about some foresightful consensus on three items.  First, FALL FESTIVAL 2009 would not entertain delusional aspirations to compete with ArtPrize in any way; second, FALL FESTIVAL 2009 would embrace any opportunities to partner with and celebrate ArtPrize, including our commitment to charter a bus to transport FALL FESTIVAL patrons to the ArtPrize southeast boundary. 

Third, going into the planning for FALL FESTIVAL 2009, we discovered we had more in common with the temporary exhibitions that preceded us.   Esteemed, long-running artist/venue matching exhibitions - like Free Radical Gallery (which originated on Wealthy Street in 2003) and ACTIVESITE.  The similarities between FALL FESTIVAL and these events owed to a combination of choice and circumstance.  We found kinship of spirit with these walking galleries: these "underground" Grand Rapids celebrations of arts, with limited money, using spaces not necessarily designed for art installations, operating with limited funds and utterly dependent on grassroots organizing.  Making the most of what's available, motivated by a love of the arts and the local artists who make it.

We had much to learn.  Thankfully these models (Free Radical Gallery and ACTIVESITE) allowed us to avoid re-inventing the wheel.  We owe them a debt for leading the way.  While none of these events plays the international role fulfilled by ArtPrize, each has been a critically important part of the history of arts and culture in Grand Rapids.  ArtPeers FALL FESTIVAL hopes to be one of many exhibitions with the ongoing goal of carrying on this important tradition.  And on behalf of the ArtPeers organization, I'd take this opportunity to openly thank the bold and visionary people who did the hard work, in creating and executing these innovative community exhibitions, over the past decade.

So at this point - mid 2009 - ArtPeers was on good footing with FALL FESTIVAL 2009 gathering steam, really hitting a critical mass. 

We knew we needed a mission statement that would allow us to expand into other activities that benefitted local artists.  We sought sage advice and ultimately composed this, which has not changed:

"Encouraging community patronage of locally created exhibitions, performances and concerts, to advance a culture that nurtures local art and values local artists."

ArtPeers FALL FESTIVAL 2009 matched nearly 80 creatives with over 30 venues, using a mobile website with geo-cached locations and exhibit details.  We utilized some QRCODE on posters and select locations.  Our Drupal-based website facilitated the registration and matching process almost flawlessly, all coded by volunteers who donated time to ArtPeers FALL FESTIVAL.  All things considered, FALL FESTIVAL 2009 was a huge success, especially for an all-volunteer, no-budget, grassroots contingent of amateur arts advocates.

Our first move (after the after-parties, and the hangovers that ensued) was to generate and distribute a feedback form, asking what we could do better next time, while the FALL FESTIVAL was still fresh in the minds of those who participated and attended.  We received many good comments, and much praise and criticism.  We structured our plans this year based on this input, and we're very excited.

After The First Festival

In late 2009, ArtPeers earnestly began seeking additional ways to celebrate local art. 

We partnered with Art.Downtown and featured ArtPeers artists  at WMCAT, as part of a much larger, well-organized and very fun celebration of local arts, at downtown venues. 

We also began planning a live-music, live-dance event featuring local artists ("Trip The Light"); and a website to archive and present local artists in a multi-media rich "database and directory."  For "Trip The Light" we partnered with Dance in the Annex (DITA) and Community Media Center (CMC).  We asked for submissions by local musicians, of original music, on which DITA dancers could choreograph original pieces.  The diversity, quality and quantity of submissions was almost overwhelming.     

After "Trip," we worked with Rapid Growth Media to help plan a special Speaker Series event about the business of art.  This turned into the highest-attended Speaker Series event ever - please read this Rapidian article by our friend Kevin Buist .

For Fall Festival 2010, DITA is producing this year's "Salmagundi" event at Wealthy Theatre - in its second year, this is the event that inspired "Trip The Light."  Among other performances it will feature the premiere (9/11/10) of 2010 ArtPrize entrant "En La Profundidad (Into The Deep)," the only modern dance piece competing in ArtPrize.  ArtPeers is the primary sponsor of this ArtPrize entrant, which will be featured during ArtPrize at Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts (UICA).

"Salmagundi" (9/11) will be a closing event of FALL FESTIVAL 2010, which is again being produced by ArtPeers.  FALL FESTIVAL 2010 takes place Sept. 9-11, along Wealthy Street.  Artist/venue registration and general FALL FESTIVAL information available at < > and on Facebook.

Also coming very soon, we're launching an artist-portfolio website, for which we've partnered with "What's Your Art GR?" and GR Arts Council.  More details to follow.This is one of the most important things we've ever considered, and it launches within weeks. 

Aside from the archival, research and informational functions the artists database will serve, the revised website will feature many resources for local artists.  We believe it robustly and directly benefits the city of Grand Rapids to have a vibrant and equitable arts community.  The art of this is getting there, beyond simply saying it's a good idea to attract and retain a community of local artists - it's about making that sustainable.  Andy Warhol said it best:

"Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art."

The revised website (launch: Sept. 2010) will feature resources, and will eventually include  mentorship opportunities for artists in business; income tax resources and advice; a "guild" style agreement to adhere to general guidelines that allow artists to be valued legitimately; and general ongoing discussion about what it takes for artists to take themselves seriously and what that means for themselves, and other artists, and the community in general. 

And again, as we play a role in these "business of art" conversations, it's crucial to recognize the community members who took the lead on these issues long before us - including George Wietor and Jenn Schaub.  They've been at this for a long time, and without much fanfare.  We look forward to ongoing partnerships with them, as we move forward. We feel like Grand Rapids, and especially Uptown Grand Rapids, is in fact becoming a home to artists.  A community of artists who are living, working and recreating in the neighborhood.  ArtPeers board member Seth Thompson prefers the term "artist presence" rather than "community of artists."  And he's right.  If you look at Uptown - and Heartside, where artists are living in one of the hardest parts of town - there is an emergent presence of artists, recognizable local names, creatives who are becoming established and choosing to remain here, in Grand Rapids.

Whatever successes we may have, with ArtPeers, are bound to our ability to partner, and to our dedication to the innovative work of our local artists.  What happened with "Trip The Light" was more than a night, more than an event - a switch was flipped  due to partnerships and innovation.  Musicians have commented that - since "Trip" - they're seeing their peers venture beyond their typical cliques, to support fellow musicians - moving beyond the circle of "the guys that sound like we sound," as ArtPeers board member Seth Thompson puts it.

Another success relates to FALL FESTIVAL: the biggest proponents of *another* FALL FESTIVAL were local businesses, who acted as venues.  This means they had a positive experience, including supporting local artists but *beyond* that, they experienced a positive benefit in their operations, with addt'l traffic.  This reaffirms the rebirth of the Wealthy Street business corridor AND the role that a vibrant arts and culture community (plays in that .)  It wasn't just the artists who responded to ArtPrize boundaries by seeking out a district of their own.  The boundaries were a catalyst for businesses, as well.  The advent of ArtPrize, and all the excitement surrounding its coming, made other festivals a topic of conversation.  We owe them a lot.  I came into it by virtue of my role at Wealthy Theatre, and because we had a "container" idea for peer support among artists - an idea that was pliable enough to evolve into more practical things, like FALL FESTIVAL, and "Trip The Light," and an artist database… and much more .

The future is bright.  This is a very exciting time to be alive in the city of Grand Rapids, friends.  Cheers.

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Well done Erin. Long live ArtPeers!

Am so glad to be a part of this organization!