Now in its eighth year, ArtPrize continues searching for new ways forward as an organization. Executive director Christian Gaines says the nonprofit has worked hard to establish itself as a hands-off entity, focused on proprietary technology and the events that correspond with it. Gaines spoke with MiBiz on the past, present and future status of the annual arts competition.
Now that you’re in your fourth year as ArtPrize executive director, what still gets you excited about the event each year?
I love that we evolve as an organization. ArtPrize started as a total experiment in 2009 and like any experiment, it could have succeeded or it could have failed. There’s a bunch of different ways it could have failed. We’ve kind of moved on from that.
How has the organization changed?
Our challenge, once we realized that it was a successful experiment, was to organize and institutionalize. It’s a terrible word but it’s sort of what we did, beyond simply putting on a big competition. We wanted to create a great visitor experience, we wanted to make sure that we kind of held fast to certain guiding principles — the fact that it would be radically open, the fact that it would be unpredictable by design. But then we also had to think about who we were as an organization and what artist and artist development meant to us.
The unpredictability you described seems like a blessing and a curse. I’m thinking of the instance a few years ago when an artist wasn’t allowed to display a work that included Saddam Hussein hanging from a noose.
One of the blessings of ArtPrize is that it’s independently organized. We invite venues to register as venues and then we invite artists to connect with venues. ArtPrize gets as little involved as we possibly can in the developments between artists and venues. You look at unpredictability that way, I look at it in other ways as well.
It’s not if something like that happens, it’s when. If you think that something like that happening embarrasses us, far from it. We look at it as an occupational hazard of putting on a show like this. You don’t hope something like that happens. We expect it to happen. We just hope that it gets resolved in some way.
How would you say the economic and demographic impacts are trending?
(In) the last independent economic impact survey we did … in 2013, we had about a $22 million new (economic) impact on the city, on the downtown. Last year, using the same formula, the same multiplier formula, we tracked a little over $27 million. We noticed visitors were staying longer and coming more often, which was great. We’ve seen a really steady increase in visitors since 2009 — pretty much double. But it’s flattening out … which I think is pretty normal.
ArtPrize explored the idea of branching out to new places like Dallas, which didn’t happen because the organizers failed to find funding. Do you still think another ArtPrize will pop up at some point, whether in Dallas or elsewhere else?
When someone asks us what it would take to bring ArtPrize to their city, we want to be able to answer that question. We continue to want to be able to answer that question. In that process, we’re learning a lot. I do think it’s a very ingenious, urban art adventure that has a lot of potential for visitors to opt in and go on a cool art journey. I’m curious to see how it replicates in other cities, just from a purely professional curiosity. We want to see if we could do that, but we want to make sure that it’s the right situation.
Have you had conversations with other cities since Dallas?
We often get queries. There’s so much that goes into it. I’m not trying to sell ArtPrize to cities. I’m just being very frank about what it takes to put on ArtPrize and the kind of qualities it takes to be a city that has the appetite for it. We’re trying to do the right thing. Even though it didn’t work in Texas, we learned an awful lot. We are very pleased with our relationships there. No one owes anyone any money. It was a real learning experience for us and I think for them. We’re lucky to have this experimental environment where we can ‘not succeed’ — otherwise known as fail.
Given the potential for other cities to hold an ArtPrize, do you see a scenario in which the event would take a year off from Grand Rapids and go somewhere else?
No. I mean, never say never, but we don’t want to not do it in Grand Rapids. … I can safely say that’s never crossed our minds. This is our home. This is where it started. This is a perfect city for it.