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Local Artist Highlight: Kailey Smith-Barth

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Avenue for the Arts hears Kailey Smith-Barth, Exhibitions & Internships Manager for ArtPrize and artist in her own right. Interview by Pamela MacDougal.
Kailey Smith-Barth

Kailey Smith-Barth

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January 12 - March 10, 2024

WoW Downtown Event Map



March 22, 2024

Avenue for the Arts in collaboration with ArtPrize

Hosted by Kendall College of Art and Design

Kailey Smith-Barth, Up or Down? (2017)

Kailey Smith-Barth, Up or Down? (2017)

Kailey Smith-Barth, Watercolor Florals (2020)

Kailey Smith-Barth, Watercolor Florals (2020)

From newcomer to belonging, Kailey Smith-Barth has found her ideal niche in Grand Rapids: an artist with a day job in the arts as Exhibitions and Internship Manager for ArtPrize. She’s modest about her own artwork and thinking about a new creative direction. She has a background in painting, drawing, ceramic sculpture and multi-media work. The oil and acrylic paintings she shared had a luxurious layering of thick paint with complex color combinations. Her beautiful ink and watercolor florals demonstrate a sensitivity to composition, effectively using delicate washes of color to create form and movement. For now, Kailey directs most of her daily energy toward helping others realize their dreams in the art world, but I am excited to see what she creates for herself in a next phase.

How did you get here? Originally from Harrisville in northeastern Michigan, Kailey moved in 2017 to Traverse City where she finished high school. She studied Applied Arts and Sciences at Northwestern Michigan College for an Associate’s Degree followed by a Bachelor’s Degree in Art History from Kendall College of Art and Design (Ferris State University). Not feeling finished with her education, she stayed at Kendall to complete a Master’s Degree in Visual and Critical Studies, writing her thesis on how confederate monuments are symbols of imperialism and systemic racism. That program served as a good stepping stone for the possible further pursuit of a higher degree. The Master’s Degree sufficiently qualifies her to work in the arts employment market, but her interest in the field may lead to a Ph.D. someday.

Where did it all start? I asked Kailey if she had a first memory of creating an artwork. Her first reaction was “Inherently, I was always drawing and painting. There was no beginning.” But then she remembers a pivotal moment, “My grandpa…who didn’t have the same opportunities to become an artist…he was teaching me perspective so that I could draw a fruit still life. That was foundational—that was the beginning of something.” Kailey entered some of her early pieces of art into the county fair around age 7. In high school she always focused on art classes—AP art. She recalls., “My teacher told my mom I should go to art school, and that seed was planted. It has been an interesting journey coming from small community with no art presence to Grand Rapids with such an active art community with galleries and schools and organizations.” Kailey is  excited to be a part of it all during a time period of tremendous change. She says about the Grand Rapids art world, “Organizations are transforming into new versions of themselves. This is an exciting time to be involved. There are new individuals active in these organizations.”

So, what’s happening? ArtPrize has been in the thick of the changes. This past year has involved the transition of ArtPrize from a private nonprofit organization to one overseen by Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. (DGRI), the City of Grand Rapids and Kendall College of Art and Design. Kailey says “ArtPrize operates fairly independently, but it’s great to be technically part of the city. We work closely with city departments—the Office of Special Events is passionate about activating Grand Rapids and making ArtPrize the best it can be.” New director, Catlin Whitington took the helm. Kailey recalls that “For 2023, we had 6 months to put on ArtPrize. We started in March of last year without a full team. It was kind of crazy that we had such a short runway to get everything in place.” Kailey says the level of comradery is so important to putting on large scale public events.

What’s your role? Starting at ArtPrize herself in 2018 as an intern, Kailey came back to ArtPrize in 2022 as the Exhibitions Coordinator and was promoted in 2023 to Exhibitions and Internship Manager. The internship program was no longer in place in 2022 when she returned to ArtPrize, but she remembered how important it had been to her. The intern role gave her a better idea of what goes into public art – the labor, the thought, the preparation. She remembers, “We put the Harvest Dome in the river—I helped with the construction and learned how to anchor it to the rocks in the bottom of the river. There was a mirror installation in Calder Plaza that I helped do.  It was an ‘any and all’ and ‘hands on’ kind of position getting things in place and ready for opening day.” Kailey said she also did a lot more administrative work with spreadsheets than you might think. She feels that the internship experience was so valuable to her that she would like to make it available to other art students: “I’m proud that I brought back the internship program with five interns for 2023. I worked with Kendall to restart that program, and it will continue this year. Right now, it is just for Kendall students while we build back the program, but in the future, we would like to expand it to all students.” 

What was different this year for ArtPrize? ArtPrize 2023 repurposed the former UICA building into the ArtPrize Clubhouse, which included a visitor concierge, an artist lounge, a volunteer hub to get info for shifts, and four floors of ArtPrize work. The Exhibitions team curated the building, including twenty different artists, eight of whom were grant recipients. Kailey reports that ArtPrize hopes to expand on its already robust grant program in 2024, including grants specific to local artists. She characterizes local artists as “the backbone, a supporting structure that is critical to what ArtPrize is trying to accomplish in the community.” She notes that the individuals steering ArtPrize have their own art practices, “They are passionate about helping artists realize their vision. It’s exciting to see an artist’s vision and help them bring it to life.” Kailey helped Avenue for the Arts with the administration of the Artposts for ArtPrize, for which she was very much appreciated.

What do you appreciate about ArtPrize in addition to the art? Kailey says “I work closely with the venues and business associations. I am a part of so many conversations about what’s happening. That means I get to know individuals who are making GR what it is, and I am starting to know like I feel everybody. I’ve absorbed so much in a short amount of time—it’s cool to feel like I belong here. I experienced ArtPrize as a server. So, I know what it means to be on the service side during ArtPrize. The service workers are the unsung heroes who put so much into ArtPrize to make it what it is. Hospitality, waiters, bartenders: they are the face of ArtPrize. People come to experience the art, but they also experience the people of Grand Rapids too. That is art in its own way—performance art. There is so much that goes into making ArtPrize happen in September…the venues, the workers. I’m very grateful for everything they do.”

How else are you involved in the arts community? Kailey tries never to miss a gallery opening or exhibition reception. She also serves on the board of the Heartside Business Association, which is participating in the current World of Winter Valent-ICE Exhibition. Kailey has helped coordinate and secure the ice sculpture for Heartside Business Association. Despite an initial weather hiccup, the exhibition should be in full swing this week with ice sculptures sponsored by local businesses and illuminated art installations all over downtown.

Avenue for the Arts is pleased that Kailey will be involved for a second year with Break It Down | Make It Better, an educational event for creatives aimed at strengthening their professional and entrepreneurial skills in support of a career in the arts. The event is a collaboration between the Avenue and ArtPrize, hosted by Kendall College of Art and Design. The conference and workshops are scheduled for March 22, 2024. Last year, Kailey joined midstream, but this year we have her right out the gate.

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