Wednesday, 02 September 2015 11:17

A Chat With ArtPrize Executive Director Christian Gaines

Written by  Josh Veal
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Christian Gaines Christian Gaines

ArtPrize rapidly became the cornerstone of West Michigan culture, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors to Grand Rapids every year. In 2014, The Art Newspaper listed it as the most heavily attended art event on the planet. As the 19-day competition enters its seventh year, ArtPrize Executive Director Christian Gaines said he is working with his team to keep things fresh and exciting. REVUE sat down with him to talk about the past, present and future of the ever-growing phenomenon.

How and why did you personally become involved with ArtPrize?

My background is in independent film, specifically putting on film festivals. At the end of its fourth year, ArtPrize was looking for an executive director. I’ve had a lifetime of providing a hopefully great platform for artists to do their best work. … I was impressed with ArtPrize and the radical disruptive nature of its existence and wanted to help see where it could go.

How did ArtPrize begin?

It was the brainchild of Rick Devos, a well-known local web entrepreneur. He had this idea that appreciating contemporary art was still part of a top-down curated system, where curators are very much in control of the experience. He wanted to develop an experiment around a crowdsourcing of art and also create a spectacular prize to attract attention, to see what happened if the general public was allowed to vote on art that was sourced by anyone in the world. We’ve tinkered with that basic formula to draw attention. What it’s really evolved into is still very much publicly voted but also there’s an equal expert jury award. In this way you can kind of compare and contrast to what the public thinks because it’s that tension that exists between the populace and the professional where all the interesting conversations happen.

Is there anything new or exciting happening this year?

We’ve really started to double down on the idea of grants. So in addition to the $500,000 worth of prizes, we also award $220,000 worth of grants to a variety of constituents to help catalyze their ArtPrize experience. That’s everything from artist and venue grants to curatorial fellowships to school buses – that’s one of the things a lot of people don’t know as much about. The other thing I’m excited about is how we’ve sort of formalized the film, music and performing arts through something called ArtPrize Tonight. There are three subsets to ArtPrize Tonight - one is our critical discourse programming, televised nightly panels that dive into emerging themes and trends in contemporary art as well as the results of the competition. Then we have ArtPrize On Screen and ArtPrize On Stage.

How would you say that ArtPrize has benefitted West Michigan?

Hopefully what we’re helping to do is mint the next generation of art lovers, which is fun and pretty valuable. Hopefully we’re strengthening the cultural fabric to make West Michigan a great place to live, work and play. Obviously there’s a strong economic impact. In 2013 there was over $22,000,000 in net new economic impact on the city. In general … it’s a catalyst. What we do is only part of the whole energy. It’s sort of as if ArtPrize was a big night-and-day holiday and how someone chooses to celebrate it is up to them. What part are they going to play in this ArtPrize thing?

Do you have a typical day of work?

We’re fundraising intensely. That takes up a good deal of my time – anywhere from private-sector corporate sponsorship and grants to earned income from things like merchandising. We’re focused very closely on developing a sustained budget. We’re also busy developing a culture that stands for education, whether it’s social equity and inclusion, developing a Spanish language program, environmental sustainability or artist development programs. The big prize, $500,000, that’s a spectacular thing, but we really want artists to feel like there’s a lot of good reasons to be a part of ArtPrize.

What’s the future of ArtPrize?

I want to make sure ArtPrize is as authentically welcoming to everyone as possible. I want to continue to surprise and delight the general public. I want to continue to make sure that artists from all over the world feel welcome … that it continues on its trajectory of being an international platform for emerging artists. I want to keep it fresh and interesting every year.

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