Creative Placemaking with Amelea Pegman

by Elyse Wild | photography by Two Eagles Marcus

Planted on the intersection of Weston and Sheldon in downtown Grand Rapids sits an unassuming one-story building. Walk through the glass doors, weave your way through the gift shop brimming with t-shirts, hoodies, hats, coffee mugs and more all carrying the same iconic logo, and you will find yourself in a room resembling the laboratory of a mad scientist. Whiteboards bearing goals and countdowns mark the walls in between colorful posters and chalkboard painted sections; stacks of papers and towers of books spill over each workstation, made up of 4-person desks with areas divided by short, bright red partitions. Upon stepping through the door, you are greeted with the strong sensation that something special is brewing. This is where ArtPrize happens.

Amelea Pegman is one of the minds at work in the headquarters of the world’s largest open art competition. Pegman has been with ArtPrize since the very beginning, first as an intern, then as director of community engagement and now as managing director. Each year, she is charged with the truly unparalleled task of shaping ArtPrize, an event that is alive in its own right.

“ArtPrize is like an amorphous being,” she expressed. “It is totally contingent on who decides to participate. We don’t prescribe anything; we are wanting to support encouragement and engagement for everyone.”

Since its inception in 2009, ArtPrize has experienced growth spurts, maturing in the public eye into a socially conscious event that has the opportunity to make an unprecedented impact on how we think about art, accessibility and equity.

“In the beginning, we had such an open platform and I loved it,” Pegman explained. “But we started thinking about how being open to anyone and open to everyone are two very different things. I began to challenge myself and the organization to think about access and equity.”

Whichever way you look at it, ArtPrize is an event unlike any other. With nothing to benchmark against, Pegman and her team walk a fine tightrope of facilitating interaction, catalyzing involvement and empowering participants to have distinct and profound experiences, all without interfering.

ArtPrize is no one-and-done, pop up event; a full-time staff of 16 works year round to create goals, set priorities and design visitor tools, experience guides and maps as they plan for the upcoming year. Come summer, 50-60 seasonal staff members are hired to manage programs through the conclusion of the event.

Pegman radiates a sense of calm excitement that is essential for the task before her and the rest of her team as they navigate uncharted territories.

“It works really well for me,” Pegman laughed. “It might make some people bonkers, but I love it. There is so much to think about.”

A Space For All

A Grand Rapids native, Pegman is the former manager of beloved downtown coffee shop Four Friends, which was located on Monroe Center and closed its doors in 2008 over a landlord dispute. It was here that Pegman first felt the impact a space can have when everyone is invited to thrive; the café drew a diverse group of loyal customers and developed a reputation for being a place that welcomed all. Although she moved to Seattle six months prior to the abrupt closing, she felt the effect.

“It was heartbreaking when it closed,” she divulged. “It was a place that meant a lot to people.”

Having worked downtown for many years, Pegman has witnessed the shift — what some are calling a renascence — that has changed the way people think of and experience our city. She professes the role ArtPrize has played in this.

“It’s never lost on me how much this event has changed the fabric of our town,” she said. “It has changed the sense of community and belonging downtown.”

Pegman brings a professional background in social work and life-long love of art to her position. In managing such an event—one that intersects art and community on such a vast level– social awareness is required for the best possible outcomes. She views ArtPrize as a rare opportunity to quantify the social impact of creative placemaking on communities at large.

“What are the social benefits and personal wellbeing benefits?” She posed. “I am so curious about finding ways to capture that in a meaningful way. We want to make sure, with our impact studies, that the event is truly representative of our whole community.”

As an organization, ArtPrize has grown from being hands-off to providing participants with what they need to get the most out of their experience.

“We are really diving into a space where we are feeling comfortable giving people ideas on how to navigate ArtPrize,” Pegman said. “In the beginning, we were really uncomfortable telling people how to explore.”

Now, she and her team have enthusiastically put effort into building tools and pathways and experimenting with the model to further spark dialogue. This has included bringing in a juried vote, expanding categories, awarding $300,000 in grants and holding pitch nights around the country in efforts to bring thought-provoking, contemporary works to the event.

This year, ArtPrize is launching six experience guides tailored to lifestyle and personal interest (ie-family guide, brewers guide, critics choice guide). The guides include questions for participants to ask themselves while they are viewing works, with each question intended to initiate meaningful conversations about art.

“Getting people to feel empowered and like their voice matters is so important right now,” Pegman expressed.

Also new is a twist on the second-round voting model. In the past, the public has only been able to vote for the final top 20 they chose, and the jury could only vote on their finalists. This year, the public and the jury will have the opportunity to vote for either top 20 groups, meaning the jury could potentially pick a piece chosen by the public and vice versa.

“We wanted to make sure the conversation was staying interesting, that there continues to be tension,” Pegman explained. “A lot of that comes from hearing alternative voices, and that is what keeps this interesting for people.”

ArtPrize and Social Good

Two year ago, the organization implemented the ArtPrize and Social Good initiative, complete with board resolutions around diversity and inclusion, which are outlined on the ArtPrize website.

“We want to be a catalyst for change and good in this community,” Pegman professed. “There is something about art that is a commonality that lets people take down their guard and connect with people they might not otherwise connect with. That is what we are here for.”

This has led to the exploration of paths that naturally emerge with intentionality: walkability, public transportation, satellite venues, community building tools, sustainability, education, accessibility, health and wellbeing, and most importantly, cultural equitability. Next year, ArtPrize will be awarding equity grants to artists, curators and venues who are minorities working in spaces of social good.

“There are historical events that happened and decisions that have been made that really segregate our city,” Pegman said. “We are looking to be challenged and looking for partners, whether it be curators, venues or artists, to say, ‘I think you can do this better.’”

Looking ahead, Pegman anticipates the next five years of her work will involve measuring and creating experiences to facilitate healing encounters at ArtPrize.

“There is an intersection of arts and healing,” she expressed. “That is real and that is a space we can explore.”

Pegman’s excitement is palpable when she ventures into talking about the greater impact of ArtPrize.

“I love what we do,” she said. “We listen and change and keep our event interesting and relevant and fun and delightful for people, so people can come down and be inspired and be curious.”

“There is an intersection of arts and healing,” she expressed. “That is real and that is a space we can explore.”

The magic

For Pegman, enjoying ArtPrize as an unbiased participant is nearly impossible.

She laughs as she describes past attempts to take an afternoon off and enjoy ArtPrize with friends. Instead of taking in the artwork, she continually found herself watching the people around her — where they are walking, how they are interacting, how they are utilizing the tools she and her team have developed.

But one memory stands out. On a night in 2012, Pegman was working the volunteer lounge at the ArtPrize Hub. On a whim, she grabbed a scooter, scooped up her two-year-old daughter and peddled furiously to watch Lights in the Night, an interactive artwork in which paper lanterns were released from Ah-Nab-Awen Park. She describes reaching the Fulton Street Bridge just in time to see thousands of softly glowing lanterns ascending into the autumn stars over the Grand River.

“It was such a magical moment,” she recalled.

Her eyes shine as she recounts the memory, and one can see that the wonder of ArtPrize she strives to make available to everyone reached her that evening.

“We are really diving into a space where we are feeling comfortable giving people ideas on how to navigate ArtPrize.”


When she is not editing for WLM, Elyse enjoys traveling to far off lands, enjoying live music, and practicing kung fu. She is also the owner of Your Story, a personal biography writing service for senior citizens.


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