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Meet Christian Gaines, ArtPrize's New Executive Director

Christian Gaines has big ideas for Art Prize.

Christian Gaines' door is open.

ArtPrize 2013 is already underway, with venue registration closed and artist registration just beginning. On Monday, ArtPrize hosted an event to reveal not only their new poster design for this year's competition, but their new executive director as well.

Christian Gaines' first day as executive director of ArtPrize was, specifically, that Monday. He replaces interim executive director Daryn Kuipers. 

Gaines has a long history with putting on events and utilizing technology. Mostly recently, he served for five years as the director of festival strategy and business development at IMDb

Gaines has not officially moved his family to Grand Rapids from Los Angeles, but has begun taking the steps. His first open house on his California home was Sunday, and this week's event was his third visit to the city where, he says, people have been very nice. 

So, why move your family from the West Coast to the Midwest? Gaines says he was attracted to ArtPrize and the "promise of Grand Rapids."

"I think there are a lot of interesting things happening in smaller growing cities," he says. "There's sort an uncomplicated sense of entrepreneurism and promise, as evidenced by ArtPrize. I like that idea."

Gaines was also looking for a change of pace. Or rather, a return to his previous pace. Prior to his work at IMDb, Gaines served as director of festivals at the American Film Institute (AFI), was a senior programmer at the Sundance Film Festival and director of new media at the Sundance Institute, and administrative director of the American Pavilion at the Cannes Film Festival, among other festival work. 

"I was missing putting on a show," he says. "I sort of jumped at the opportunity to put on and deliver an event."

Gaines was also attracted to the way ArtPrize has used technology to interact with audiences. "The app really has a purpose and it's part of the engagement -- the public voting components, the way you learn about artists and venues and have it take you around," he says. "It's a really powerful use of geolocated technology."

Gaines isn't rushing to the helm to make ArtPrize a success -- rather, he feels ArtPrize has already become a success in its relatively short lifetime. "It's more about prudently stewarding and managing (ArtPrize's) current success, and that's something the right leader would spend a lot of time thinking about, so that's what I'm going (to do)."

Gaines says he wants to focus on making the event stronger, not bigger. He says enjoys that ArtPrize is open source, which he sees as an opportunity to bring in a new audience rather than the same audience time and time again. And because ArtPrize does not attempt to influence the winner, artists can be comfortable knowing there is no wrong answer or wrong thing to say. 

"There's no ejector seat of opinion," he says. "It's just the opposite. We can encourage generations of art-loving audiences and encourage artists to take risks and be bold and not worry about the establishment." 

However, the establishment does play a part. In ArtPrize's recent years, they have invited art critics to come and award their favorite pieces -- five artist awards divided by medium and one venue award each worth $20,000, and one juried grand prize in the amount of $100,000. Following Gaines' announcement on Monday was the debut of The Juried Grand Prize, a documentary directed by Brian Kelly that allows a look into the process of determining last year's juried prize. Tom Eccles (Executive Director of Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College), Theaster Gates (a Chicago artist and activist), and Jerry Saltz (Senior Art Critic, New York Magazine) were seen in a conference call debating which artist should receive the grand juried award. They ultimately chose Detroit's Design 99 featured in SiTE:LAB.

There is a scene in the documentary where Saltz is exploring the art at the UICA. He pauses to ask a couple what they think of the art, and initially, they're not sure. Gaines mentions this moment.

"There's sort of an exclusivity to contemporary art that makes people feel like they could not belong, and I don't think anyone wants that," he says. "(in this scene), it's like two extremes of the ArtPrize audience -- the world-renowned critic who lives and breathes art, and the people who haven't really given much thought about art until today. The ArtPrize audience is all of that, and it's just awesome. There's definitely room for growth in terms of the audience. The challenge now is to broaden."

ArtPrize2013 is Sept. 18 - Oct. 6. Artist registration closes June 6. For more information, see artprize.org

J. Bennett Rylah is the Managing Editor of Rapid Growth Media.

Photography by Adam Bird
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