By John Wisely, USA TODAY
Brooklyn painter Ran Ortner had never heard of Grand Rapids, Mich., before a friend entered him in a new art contest there last fall.
Since winning the $250,000 top award in the city's inaugural ArtPrize competition, Ortner's career has blossomed.
"I went from getting five e-mails a week to getting 200 a day directly after," said Ortner, who says he was too broke to pay his phone bill before winning. "This has really been the boost that I needed."
ArtPrize also provided a boost to Grand Rapids, in western Michigan. The works of more than 1,200 artists drew an estimated 200,000 people downtown, far exceeding expectations, according to Executive Director Bill Holsinger-Robinson.
As the nation's economy has struggled amid falling property values, many other communities are counting on the arts as a means of economic development. In downtown areas of Baltimore and Phoenix and smaller towns such as Paducah, Ky., officials see the arts as a chance to bring redevelopment, grant dollars and people back to struggling neighborhoods.
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A research team from Michigan's Grand Valley State University estimated the economic impact of ArtPrize at $5 million to $7 million last year. For this year's event, which began Wednesday and runs through Oct. 10, pre-registration for voters and student art groups has more than doubled. Local restaurants and bars are reporting sales up 20% to 40% over last year's opening days, ArtPrize spokesman Tyler Lecceadone said.
ArtPrize was the brainchild of Rick DeVos, a Web entrepreneur and an heir to the Amway fortune, whose parents' foundation put up the prize money. He said last year's event was three to five times larger than anticipated. DeVos said the money is a catalyst to bring in the artists, but ArtPrize serves larger goals, including bolstering the image of the Midwestern town best known for furniture manufacturing.
"Art works," said Jason Schupbach, director of design for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). "This isn't rocket science anymore. There are a specific set of strategies that work."
Many of the efforts offer artists cheap rent on studio and living space, plus marketing help, he says. The art districts boost foot traffic, drawing other businesses to move in.
The NEA has requested $5 million for a program known as Our Town that would help local governments plan art districts, map cultural assets and launch projects in cities large and small, Schupbach said.
The NEA cites the city of New York Mills, Minn., with a population of less than 1,000. In 1991, it invested $35,000 to fix up a downtown building to create an arts and cultural center. Within five years, 17 new businesses had opened, hiring more than 200 people.
"It's not just a big-city strategy," Schupbach said. "But it does work best where there are strong cultural assets."
Baltimore's Artscape, which features visual and performing arts across the city over a weekend, drew more than 350,000 people in 2009 and generated about $26 million for the economy, according to a study by Forward Analytics, a Pittsburgh-based market research firm.
"It brings in new money, it brings in new people to areas where they probably wouldn't go to," said Bill Gilmore, executive director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts.
ArtPrize takes an American Idol approach: It offers $449,000 in prizes and uses crowd sourcing to determine the winner. Visitors walking through town use their mobile phones to text in thumbs up or thumbs down on various works.
Computers tally the results and update leader boards for visitors to track.
Some art experts worry about letting the public select such a lucrative award.
"It's great that they have such an interest, but they often don't have the base of knowledge from which to make an informed judgment," said Deborah Rockman, the chair of drawing and printmaking at Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids.
Ortner, last year's winner, essentially agreed.
"If you have children voting on a culinary competition, they are going to vote for the ice cream and candy," Ortner said.
This year, ArtPrize did add juried shows in several categories, which Rockman calls "a small step in the right direction." Organizers insist they weren't bowing to critics, though they did ask Rockman to jury a competition for international artists.
"It makes for a more well-rounded experience," Holsinger-Robinson said.