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New ArtPrize director explores Grand Rapids, culture, and permission to participate

Christian Gaines compares larger cities to mid-sized Grand Rapids, and finds a lot to be excited about.

/courtesy of ArtPrize

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Christian Gaines, the new Executive Director of ArtPrize, has never lived in a mid-sized city. He grew up in large cities in Belgium and the United Kingdom, and as an adult has lived on both the east and west coasts, and even in Honolulu. Now, he’s moving here from Los Angeles (East LA, he’ll proudly clarify), to live for the first time in a mid-sized city.

A self-proclaimed people person, Gaines says he likes large cities, with a lot going on around him.

“I love creative people. I love people with open minds, a willingness to try new things. So I definitely enjoy that part of LA. There’s a lot of really fun creative people who are pursuing their dreams,” says Gaines. “They’re going for it.”

All of that, he says, is what attracts him to cities.

“And I find all of those things in Grand Rapids, by the way. And actually in a much purer, uncomplicated, more open way,” he says. “I mean if you think about something like ArtPrize, and you think about the way the city is willing to open its doors and create this amazing environment for artists... and the way everyone in every level of the city, from its residents to its city government, is willing to do what it takes to make that happen, and to create a spectacular piece of situational art... that’s a lot harder to do in a place like Los Angeles.”

Gaines says he spends a lot of time thinking about the culture in cities, and how culture contributes to the general fabric of life.

“Design, architecture, art, music... those are the things that really excite me about Grand Rapids," he says.

A music fan and musician himself who plays the bass, Gaines has already had an introduction to our local music scene. And he likes what he sees.

“You know what I’ve been listening to a lot is Grand Rapids’ own Crane Wives,” says Gaines of his current favorite tunes. “When I first came to Grand Rapids to interview for this job, they were playing at St. Cecelia Music Center. My flight was delayed, and I came straight from the airport. I dumped my stuff in my hotel room, and I walked straight over there and saw them live. [They’re] just awesome.”

Along with music, Gaines and his family are -not surprisingly after his 25 years in the film industry- big movie fans. His tastes in films ranges anywhere from Children of Men to the Airport movies of the 70s. What he doesn’t like, he says, is when viewers brush off a film because they find it depressing.

“Depressing is one of my least favorite words when describing films, because I just feel like it’s a cop-out. That word depresses me," he says, laughing. "And when people say they’re confused. You can sort out your confusion. However simply you want to express yourself, you can normally express yourself out of being confused, I feel.”

Would he recommend this same approach for art viewers at ArtPrize? Should they take the leap to talk about it- until it’s no longer confusing for them?

“If you don’t like something, say so- and if you do like something, say that too. I feel that people’s relationship with art is a very personal thing and there is no wrong answer. In the critical world, that’s one of the things that is such a shame: people feel like their opinion has no value or worth or it’s somehow wrong or incorrect- empirically incorrect,” says Gaines.

“I think people feel like they don’t have permission to have an opinion because art is for other people, it’s not for them,” he continues. “And yet, there’s a crisis going on in the art world- and it’s happening in independent film and it’s happening in contemporary art, and that is: we need to create the next generation of art lovers, we really do. And you can see museums all over the place trying to do that in some way... [But to] the people who have spent a lifetime in art, that process doesn’t particularly interest them.”

“But you know, it’s going to not interest them all the way up to their all of the sudden waking up to realize that there’s no real audience left for art or that it has been marginalized or that it hasn’t been held in a high place- so I’m very open about that idea. The criticism of that crowd-sourcing element of ArtPrize does not phase me in the slightest,” says Gaines. “Bring it on.”

Meanwhile, Gaines is focusing on his new role, taking what he has learned in his years in film festivals and applying it to the ArtPrize event. And, he says, he's enjoying the open welcome he says he's received.

"I like to challenge myself, see if there is some other contribution I can make. Grand Rapids has given me the chance -the opportunity- to do that," he says. "So it’s pretty great. It’s pretty nice- thanks!"

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