artThe 2009 “Table & Chairs” installation above the Grand River.Photo: JohnE77My interest in the ArtPrize contest underway in Grand Rapids, Mich., stems from this line from Gene Duvernoy: “Cities are what’s going to get us out of this mess … and what makes cities livable is art.” Also, I used to call Grand Rapids home and my friend helps run ArtPrize.

The contest gives away a tidy $250,000 to the most popular works in an open-to-anyone competition. Anyone can submit a work, any business or property in the city can agree to host one, and for two weeks thousands of onlookers flock to the city to check them out, discuss, and vote for a winner.

The American-Idol style competition is making waves in the visual-art world by letting the non-professional unwashed masses award so much prize money. That’s precisely the point, according to creator Rick DeVos, who wants to “reboot the conversation” between artist and the public about what creates good art.

Troy Reimink of the Grand Rapids Press has done a good job (here and here) culling the best threads of discussion on popular versus critical acclaim — which, of course, can’t ever be resolved. When the Wall Street Journal covered ArtPrize, it had trouble getting “prominent insiders” in the New York art world to comment on the record, which says something about how it’s been received.

The other goal of ArtPrize is to generate buzz for Michigan’s second-largest city by attracting investors, tourists, and suburbanites who don’t typically venture into the urban core. Last year’s inaugural run brought in $3.8 million according to one study, and it should grow even larger as word spreads.

Plenty of towns use art to promote downtown tourism, but it tends to be the gimmicky painted-cows-or-benches variety. ArtPrize suggests there’s more potential when some of the art is actually good.

Artprize.org has photos of the highest-voted works so far. Here’s a fascinating video on Young Kim’s “Salt & Earth,” a work from last year that — shockingly — wasn’t a top contender (the people have no taste…).