Immersing in the Community through Art and Service

Aleksandra Smrekar (Serbia) and Nikola Gudovic (Montenegro) are both studying for the year at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Soon after they arrived, they found an amazing opportunity to volunteer in their host community.

Art Prize1Shortly after our arrival to the U.S., Nikola and I learned about ArtPrize in a rather unusual way. While waiting for all of our paperwork to be done at a local bank, still super excited about everything that was surrounding us in our new home away from home, we started chatting with the polite and friendly bank clerk who was more than happy to suggest how to have fun around Grand Rapids. ArtPrize was her first pick, and we went on talking about it for the rest of our appointment. We were mesmerized by it for the next couple of days and finally we decided that we simply had to become a part of it all!

After attending the first volunteer training session we learned what ArtPrize was all about: a radically open, independently organized international art competition with an unprecedented $200,000 top prize decided entirely by public vote. For 19 days, three square miles of downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan become an open playing field where anyone can find a voice in the conversation about what art is and why it matters. Art from around the world pops up in every inch of downtown, and it’s all free and open to the public. Anyone over the age of 18 can enter the competition and any space within the ArtPrize district can be a venue. Spectators vote to decide who takes home the top prize, while experts award additional prizes, making every voice count.

This was the fifth consecutive year of ArtPrize, and we were among more than 1,000 volunteers who came together to welcome hundreds of thousands of visitors to Grand Rapids for this extraordinary community event. It was simply astonishing to see the whole city change and come to life during these three weeks, filled with beautiful colors of artwork and voices of eager visitors all around us. We volunteered as Wayfinders – tour guides and ambassadors of downtown Grand Rapids. We were equipped with maps and assigned to a specific location in town where we welcomed visitors, provided directions, answered questions, and promoted activities and venues in that specific area. This gave us an opportunity to also learn more about Grand Rapids and its character and venture into parts of town that we probably would have never seen otherwise.

Art Prize2

The best part of it all for us was meeting new people and interacting with both visitors and fellow volunteers. People were always thrilled to find out that we were international students and had so much to ask about our countries and background. They offered us help with directions when we felt a little lost, but not before agreeing to learn a word or two in Serbian! People of all age groups and backgrounds came out to explore the displays, and we also had a chance to meet some of the participating artists and discuss what it is like for them to see their art exhibited all around their hometown for so many people to see. One other amazing person we met was a fellow volunteer named Rick, with whom I had a chance to volunteer during two of my shifts, and who has done an amazing 100 hours of volunteering at ArtPrize this year.

We are so grateful that we had an opportunity to be a part of something that amazing and give back to the community that welcomed us with open arms from the very beginning. Our concluding message goes to ArtPrize itself: We hope you keep growing and becoming bigger and better with each passing year, making Grand Rapids as beautiful as it can be and even more!

Aleksandra Smrekar (Serbia), Nikola Gudovic (Montenegro) Grand Valley State University

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