Paul Ha, Director of the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, recently traveled to Grand Rapids, Michigan, to participate in the ArtPrize Speaker Series. Part arts festival, part social experiment, ArtPrize is decided solely by public vote – and the first place winner gets… wait for it… $250,000. Find out exactly how ArtPrize works by visiting their site.
ArtPrize’s Nicole J. Caruth recently sat down with the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis’ Director, Paul Ha, to hear his thoughts on the entire experience. To see the interview on ArtPrize’s website, click here.
Nicole J. Caruth: This year, ArtPrize has brought in speakers who are doing things differently—visionaries. Tell me what you’re doing that sets you apart from others?
Paul Ha: I think it’s quite an honor to be considered a visionary, but I’m a visual person. I don’t think I’m a visionary.
NJC: Of course you are.
PH: Well, there’s a lot of parallel between ArtPrize and what we’ve done in St. Louis in that there’s a natural progression in how institutions grow from a living room gallery to a small storefront to a more permanent home to a full-fledged institution. Perhaps that’s why Jeff [Meeuwsen] invited me and to hear about we’ve been doing in St. Louis. It’s been really exciting to give a city, that’s never had a contemporary art museum, a contemporary art museum. And to sort of let them know what it does, how it fits into its culture, and is also a community partner.
Exhibition is the main thing that we do, but in a way it’s a catalyst in terms of what we provide locally and so I feel like we’re running two operations. One, is to serve people outside of St. Louis, to be recognized by my peers and by other institutions for the work that we do. Our other work is how we connect locally, to the people who support us and are fans of ours, through art.
One thing that we fully realize at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis is that contemporary art is difficult to most people, to the general public. You know, most people who are educated and who have gone to graduate schools, the chances that they’ve interacted with contemporary art is very rare. For a doctor or a lawyer, the chances that they’ve taken one art class is probably zero, right? So, our role is to say contemporary art has always existed and what we’re doing is connecting people to now – we’re connecting people to what is happening culturally. And so, trying to get people to let their guards down, to say it’s okay if this is strange to you, if you feel skeptical about this, if you feel uncomfortable with this, but we want to start a conversation with you so that we can talk about what’s going on worldwide.
NJC: You had heard about ArtPrize last year, correct?
PH: I did, I did. Mostly from artists emailing me saying, “Here’s my link. Vote for me.” I didn’t know anything about it and then as soon as I went on the site for the first time – to realize that a city is giving an artist $250,000 as a prize is a significant thing. It makes you take notice.
NJC: What were your initial thoughts when you saw the website, the amount of money, so on and so forth?
PH: Well, anytime that anyone is putting focus on contemporary art, I get excited. For me, that’s always a good thing. Any time that a city or a town or a community is trying to bring vibrancy to itself through contemporary art, I’m all for it. I’m glad ArtPrize is continuing on the second year because a lot of times these things happen once and just disappears. I think the sustainability of it is really important. You know, perhaps five or 10 years from now, it’ll be something that’s completely different. It’s transformative for a city, and perhaps in our field, too.
NJC: You’ve been on the ground, well, for not even 24 hours. Have you been able to walk around and see some of the artwork?
PH: I have and I think just the enormity and scope of the project is really something to take a look at. It’s just that the physical ability to see everything, I think, is difficult. But that’s also exciting in that it energizes you to go out and see more and faster because you don’t want to miss anything. It’s only here for two weeks and then it disappears. I think it’ll be interesting to come back after ArtPrize is over and to see how the city feels without all the art. Having that giant pig in the parking lot and then not to have it there anymore – what will that mean to the locals and how will that encourage the locals to say contemporary art is important and that they should have it here all the time?
I mean, they have placed the event at a certain level by saying, “We’re going to give the winner $250,000.” It just puts it on a level where you say these people are serious. They care. They want this to be successful. They’re committing certain resource behind it. Let’s say the top prize was $5,000? Then it becomes a different thing. It just lets you know the seriousness of the intent behind it.
NJC: Well, that money is looked at in different ways. The other side of it is that some artists might be making work with their eyes only on the prize, you know. It’s a competition, so they’re making the biggest thing they can make, which then makes the competition feel like a joke to other artists. So you have this kind of tension, I think, between the person that considers himself a serious artist and the person who is, well, not so serious.
PH: Well, I think it’s two separate things. The amount of money that’s provided doesn’t necessarily relate to the type of art that’s being shown. What I was taken back by were the numbers of what you would consider “gallery art” as opposed to giant, flashy, cool things that will get people’s attention – the “neat” factor. There’s a lot of art that’s neat, but there’s also tons of “serious art” that has been submitted. Any time you open something up to the general public, it becomes a different thing.
In popular music there’s a certain democracy in what type of thing becomes popular. The people who are scholars would say that popular music is not necessarily the best music, right? Although now with all the different popular culture degrees being populated throughout the universities, the importance of popular culture is being relooked at. So, the fact that ArtPrize is open to the general public, by democratizing the vote, it becomes a different spectacle in a way, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a good thing or a bad thing, it’s just what it is. You could certainly change this by asking a committee of 20 museum specialists to pick. But I love the fact that there’s a public factor and that they have a choice, like Dances with the Stars or something like that where people can text.
NJC: I was actually talking to Douglas Fogle about this kind of popularization of the arts and to think about ArtPrize and then a reality television show like Work of Art. In some ways, I think popularizing art, exposing more people to it and what it can be, is not necessarily a bad thing. I mean, I think that’s one of the great things about ArtPrize is that even if people don’t agree on the quality of work here and whether something is good or bad, they’re talking about it and they’re figuring it out for themselves. If ArtPrize is all about sparking conversation, it definitely does that.
PH: The fact that you have things throughout the world where you have a small group of people saying, “Okay, this is what we think is important, that’s very important” is very helpful. On the other hand, it’s also very helpful to have the general public having a say in what they think is important.
A lot of musical scholars could say that Michael Jackson is not an artist because he’s a popular culture figure. But because he sold millions of records, the public has voted, through their dollars, that they like this person’s art, right? They’re saying that they support what that artist is doing, they want to be part of it, and they want to enjoy it. I dare any music scholar to say Michael Jackson is not an artist. I mean, what he did was phenomenal, so the fact that people like something, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad thing.
NJC: Is there anything that has stood out to you? A particular space, object or way that ArtPrize has set up the event, and aside from the number of people on the streets?
PH: I’m a detail and logistics guy, so certain things pop out at me such as how does an artist get chosen for a certain spot because that spot obviously has weight in how many votes it gets, right? So, if it’s at the Grand Rapids Art Museum versus some field next to a river, it’s a whole different thing. How can that be resolved?
But being here just one day, I’m looking at it on a macro level, to see the entire thing as opposed to sort of zoning in on individual pieces. I will not be voting, just to let you know. I’m more interested in the experience that one would have learning about ArtPrize and coming here and physically walking through. I’m much more interested in what will this feel like to a visitor. What will this feel like to the locals? What will this feel like to an outside artist? And what will this feel like to a local artist? Those are the things that I’m thinking about as I walk through.
NJC: Now that it’s in its second year, and has been successful thus far, I think there’s question as to whether other cities can use the ArtPrize model for social, economic or other gains. Could you see yourself duplicating this kind of effort in St. Louis?
PH: I think if a group of donors or sponsors came to me and said, “We’re going to give you this chunk of money to replicate Grand Rapids ArtPrize and we’re committed to it for the next five or 10 years,” I would absolutely jump on it. I think it would be great for St. Louis. I think it’d be fantastic for any city. But I think it’s a rare thing that they’ve found here in terms of support and the push behind it.
There are many examples of cities revitalizing itself through art, especially contemporary art. When you think of the proliferation of art fairs and biennials, it’s obvious that some formulas work in terms of creating economy for a city, even if it’s just one week of art fairs or two weeks. There are hotel rooms being purchased, restaurants being filled up and obviously there’s an economic model, an economic engine that works and that’s doable. When you think about the Venice Biennale, which has been going on for a 100 years, that began because they weren’t getting any tourism in June. That started to try to bring tourism to Venice and obviously it’s been successful. When you think about art fairs in Miami and the Istanbul Biennial, those are all models that exist because they’re economically viable for a city.
NJC: Is there anything that we haven’t yet discussed that has jumped out at you in the past 24 hours?
PH: I think the whole marketing engine of ArtPrize is something that is really helpful to the event. Just getting people to know what it is. I know 1,700 artists is a lot, but I would think that you can get a lot more artists thinking about ArtPrize if more people knew about it. So, just getting the word out. That’s why inviting people here is really important, because ArtPrize is an amazing thing. It’s incredibly inspiring.