Published in Nonprofits

Q&A: Kevin Buist, Artistic Director, ArtPrize

BY Monday, October 14, 2019 06:21am

After 10 years as an annual event, ArtPrize switched to a biennial model for the first time this year with the debut of Project 1, a city-wide series of events and exhibitions from a handful of artists. The move marked a dramatic shift from the ArtPrize competition, which involves hundreds of artists. Kevin Buist, artistic director for ArtPrize, oversees the artists, venues and programming for ArtPrize and Project 1, which runs through Oct. 26 with a closing event at Studio Park. Buist spoke to MiBiz about the lessons ArtPrize is learning during its first year with a new format and how it informs the group’s work in the coming years.

Assess how Project 1 is going.

It’s going really, really well. We’re in the middle of the run of the exhibition. We focused a lot of our event programming for Project 1 in the first month in September. We really focused on programming out the Saturdays in September, starting with the opening. Those are all done now. … Even though we’re only halfway done, it feels like we’re very much over the hump, and those installations and events went really well.


Why did ArtPrize make the switch to this format?

The main reason was so that we could make space in the calendar year to try a new format of events, which we’re doing now with Project 1. Compared to ArtPrize, Project 1 really kind of takes what people love about ArtPrize and flips it upside down. Instead of having 1,200-1,500 artists, we’re working with five artists, just really focusing on a smaller number, and the reason we did that is so we can fund and collaborate with those artists in ways that we’ve never been able to before. In 10 years of annual ArtPrize competitions, we felt we were due for a change and a new challenge. 

What do you mean by that? 

Throughout that entire time of ArtPrize, there’s always been these public projects that are just a little too costly, a little too complex, require a longer engagement that we’ve always wanted to work with. We switched it from a competition to a commission model where we could really invest in these artists and fund projects. It’s our hope in the shift to every other year that the two formats will inform and enrich one another.

What feedback have you been getting?

It’s been really positive. The experiences of Project 1 are really distinct depending on if you came down for a concert or a performance or in the middle of the week when there wasn’t an event to see what’s installed. We’ve heard different feedback with people who are visiting with these different experiences. Of course, it’s not all downtown, so visiting things at MLK Park has a very different feel to it than visiting something downtown. 

How does Project 1 position you for ArtPrize 2020?

One thing we’re able to do with Project 1 is select artists much more deliberately. In ArtPrize years, we have to stay a little hands-off. We’re essentially the referees in the competition. There’s a lot of money on the line. We have to keep at arm’s length in assisting or endorsing those competing. With Project 1, it’s totally different. We’re able to collaborate with artists and work closely with them. Our experience in doing that with local partners and with artists really paves the way for similar collaborations to happen. With Project years, we can break ground that artists in ArtPrize years can then benefit from because we’ve done the work of getting permission to do all kinds of things in terms of installations.

How has the experience so far informed planning for Project 2?

We’ve learned a whole lot. We’re already starting to think about Project 2. That was part of the idea of the cadence of these two formats. The Project series going forward can have a two-year or more incubation period, which is just going to make it that much better. 

How do you see those ideas informing the next ArtPrize?

We can be much more deliberate and targeted in terms of which communities we’re really serving. We were able to do concert events like Blue Bridge Amplify, where the demographic coming to that is much younger than the average age that comes and strolls around ArtPrize. 

Another event we helped produce is the African American Art and Music festival at MLK Park. That was a phenomenal event. We were really just enablers. We didn’t actively program that event as much as make space for it and help promote it, but it was an amazing event that was really embraced by the black community in particular in a part of the city that’s not downtown. 

Does this experience help you broaden the reach for ArtPrize?

We’re able to be a lot more deliberate in who we are serving, which is great because while ArtPrize has a massive audience, it certainly has demographic trends and we track that closely. We’re always trying to ask ourselves these hard questions about who we are leaving out. How can we do something that serves the community more broadly? Project 1 has given us the space to experiment with how to do that. Those experiments were hugely successful and they’re going to influence our thinking for ArtPrize and future project exhibitions as well.

What effect does shifting to a biennial model have on the ArtPrize organization?

It’s already giving us a chance to plan further out and really think about strategy and doing fund raising in two- and three-year increments, which feels really good. The benefit of that, at least internally, is really apparent already.

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