Q&A with Jori Bennett, Executive Director of ArtPrize
Aug 17, 2018 10:00AM
By Elyse Wild
In June, ArtPrize announced the most significant shift in their programming yet: The international art competition will take place every other year, and in the interim years (called “Projects years”) the organization will collaborate with selected artists to facilitate a large-scale, multi-sited outdoor installation designed to deeply engage the community. In this interview, ArtPrize Executive Director Jori Bennett shares the thought process behind Project years, what she loves about her role and what she is looking forward to as the organization evolves.
Women's LifeStyle Magazine: Tell us about your background. What brought you to ArtPrize?.
Jori Bennett: I went to Savannah College of Art Design. It's a magical place. I got a design degree there, and then I got a job at a school with an experiential marketing agency. I was doing a lot of live events and creative development for Fortune 100 companies, traveling around and having a lot of fun. Through that job, I lived in a couple of different places (Atlanta and Long Beach, California), and eventually was searching for a mid-sized city with my husband. We had just had our daughter at the time, and we stumbled upon Grand Rapids by chance. My husband happened to be in Grand Rapids, scoping it out to see if it was a place we would want to live. I'll never forget when he called me and said, “Jori, there's art everywhere, and there's no traffic! We should move here.” And it just so happened to be ArtPrize. So really, ArtPrize is what moved us to Grand Rapids. I was able to work out of my home here for about three years for the same agency I was working for in California.I went to several ArtPrizes as a visitor and met some of the team, and the rest is history. So I started with ArtPrize as the director of business development in 2015. After three years in that role, I accepted the interim executive director position in January and officially accepted the full-time position in April.
WLM: What is the most rewarding part of your job?
JB: One of the things I love about ArtPrize is the ownership the community takes. It started as an experiment, and over the years has grown into something the community truly feels is their own. The power of that is so cool because anyone I talk to has their own personal connection to it, and their own story. Hearing people’s memories and interactions and how it has impacted their lives is so rewarding. It’s truly transcended what we do here in the office on a day-to-day basis.
WLM: What is the most challenging part of your role?
JB: The challenge is making sure you're doing right by the community by the way you're steering the organization and making decisions that are thoughtful toward all the different stakeholders that are engaged with the event. There are so many stakeholders, all with very different perspectives on how they experience the event, whether they are an artist, visitor or student; the list goes on. The biggest challenge is making sure that you're setting up the organizations, the city and the event to continue to thrive and be in tune with the community's needs and wants.
WLM: Can you expand upon staying in tune with the community and how that relates to the ArtPrize scheduling change that was recently announced?
JB: When ArtPrize started in 2009, it was an experiment, and that has been instilled in how we think about ourselves as an organization; we are an evolving experiment. It's upon us to keep the event exciting and delightful for visitors but also to create a fantastic experience for venues and artists. Now, heading into our 10th year, it's a really great time for us to make a pivot into the next ten years. We've made some pretty significant changes to the structure over the years to keep things exciting. One of those big changes was to add the parallel award structure where not only did we have a public vote award, which was the case in the first year, but then we added the jury several years later; that created this really interesting tension between what the public thinks is good and what the experts think is good. That was a big organizational shift which ultimately made it what it is today, which I think is integral to ArtPrize and the conversation it has generated.
All along, there have been minor and major changes, but we always thought through it very strategically. Every year, people start expecting those changes and shifts; ArtPrize is something people expect to evolve. With nine years of groundwork laid as we head toward year ten, this was a really good time to announce the next big change.
Project One by ArtPrize will kick off in 2019 in the fall and is our next step to take events to the next level by creating a new format and experience for people.Project One will be a large-scale outdoor multi-sited city-wide art installation. This is the fun pivot: Instead of awarding money like we do in ArtPrize at the end of the event, we are going to take that funding and award it to an artist or a handful of artists in advance of Project One to pay for their commission and the production of this large scale project. Rather than be the referees like we are in the ArtPrize years, in Project years we are going to collaborate with the artists and the city in a very deep way. We are going to be working through things like: What are the sites that are going to be populated around the city? How is the artist engaging the community with their artistic vision?
Ultimately, we will be supporting the artist and the installation and making sure that all of that can come together. It will be a magnificent outdoor show that will take place for six to eight weeks. People will be able to come out and explore the city and the different sites. We want to encourage people to slow down and take their time with the art, whereas with ArtPrize, the beauty of it is that you can see so much; a lot of people take it upon themselves to go to every single venue. In Project years, we encourage people to take their time and consider the artist and what they're trying to say, all while exploring the city in a different way. I think our visitors are ready for this; they are ready for deeper engagement.
WLM: What is vetting process like for artists in Project years? And is there a stipulation that artists have to be a local or is global participation encouraged, like in ArtPrize years?
JB: We are assembling a curatorial advisory committee that will be made up of national experts from the art world. That advisory team will help us select the artists. Our team here, led by artistic director Kevin Buist, will be selecting the artist or artists for Project One. As opposed to ArtPrize where people enter and find a venue, we will be reaching out to artists and asking them to participate. It's exciting for our team to get to be collaborators.
To your question about national and international artists— they could be from anywhere. We plan to announce who the artist or artists are in early 2019.
WLM: ArtPrize 2018 is right around the corner. What are you most looking forward to this year, for yourself and the community?
JB: It's such a great time to reflect on the past ten years; it's a big deal for us and the community. What I am most looking forward to is having all of our live-broadcast events in Rosa Parks Circle. We made a very strategic decision to move all of our production and events into the circle, because it’s the epicenter of the city, in order to welcome more people to our events. Typically, our critical discourse series and our awards have been at different venues around the city with limited space. It felt important to put it all in a public space in order for it to feel celebratory and welcoming for everyone. Pretty much every night for the 19 days of ArtPrize, something will be happening on the main stage. It's going to be very energetic. The city has been fantastic and are helping us fund a large tent structure that will span over the top of the center stage area, so we can be protected from the elements.
"It's upon us to keep the event exciting and and delightful for visitors but also created a fantastic experience for venues and artists."
We are also putting shipping containers in Rosa Parks Circle. One will be an educational experience where people can pop in to do art making activities, and the other shipping container will host our visitor services. I am very excited about that. In addition to that, we have invited back all of our Grand Prize winning artists to be special guests during ArtPrize. Ran Ortner, who was the Grand Prize winner in 2009 is coming for the second week of ArtPrize and is also going to be Grand Prize Juror. We'd love for him to give a talk about his career and how it has launched since that first year of ArtPrize. I think people will be excited to welcome back the Grand Prize winners and celebrate with them.
The third thing I am excited about (there's a lot!) is our story campaign (stories.artprize.org), which we launched a few weeks ago. Anyone can visit the website to share their ArtPrize memory, and we will display those live. We are also curating stories from volunteers, jurors and venues. That goes back to my favorite part of my job: hearing people's stories. I hear a new one every week and I hope people will enjoy reading each other’s experiences because it is really fun to see how ArtPrize has impacted people.
ArtPrize 10 takes place from Sept. 19-Oct.7. For information on artists, jurors and venues, visit artprize.org.
Elyse WildWhen she is not editing for WLM, Elyse enjoys traveling to far off lands, enjoying live music, and practicing kung fu. She is also the owner of Your Story, a personal biography writing service for senior citizens.