People 2015: Ariel Saldivar Quells All Doubts About What ArtPrize Will Do for Dallas

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In this week's Dallas Observer we profile 20 of the metro area's most interesting characters, with new portraits of each from local photographer Can Turkyilmaz. 

ArtPrize transformed Grand Rapids, Michigan. That’s what proponents of the citywide, open-entry art competition will tell you. “But Dallas isn’t Grand Rapids,” was the canned reaction when news broke last November that the Arts District would serve as the center point of the second version of ArtPrize. Most critics’ fears were quickly quelled when they heard who would be the local executive director. People say if you have a problem with ArtPrize Dallas, just talk to Ariel Saldivar.

Between her movie star good looks and fierce intellect, one conversation with Oak Cliff native Saldivar will likely soothe the greatest skeptic. She had her doubts too, she says, until she went to Grand Rapids to see the event for herself. “You can’t argue with impact and numbers,” she’ll say, and then flash a bright, warm smile. “It brings hundreds of thousands of visitors and millions of dollars to the city.”

If the first example of ArtPrize to visit Dallas is any sign, the competition promises impressive art as well. At the Dallas Contemporary through August is something to whet Dallas’ appetite: the mesmerizing, immersive sculpture “Intersections” by Anila Quayyum Agha, last year’s winner of both the jury’s and the public’s grand prize. You’ve likely seen this light box or its shaped shadows in your Instagram feed, as it’s been captivating viewers since its installation in April. “Winning ArtPrize changed Anila’s life,” Saldivar says, who explains that Agha almost didn’t enter the competition that introduced her to the world in a big way, not to mention the nearly half-million dollar prize. “Can you imagine what that kind of exposure could do for a Dallas artist?”

For much of her career, Saldivar has been committed to invigorating the arts in Dallas, which surprises no one more than her. She thought she’d end up in music, which is what she studied at NYU before shifting midstream to art history. After school, she worked at galleries in New York City when she wasn’t on tour with Broken Social Scene. When she moved home to Dallas she worked as the curator of a private collection before taking a full-time position as the associate director of the Goss-Michael Foundation.

“I wanted to refocus that space to be more impactful in drawing attention to the local artists,” Saldivar says. Among other things, she launched the highly successful Feature program, which has shown artists including Nathan Green, Marjorie Schwarz and Jesse Morgan Barnett. Before her tenure at Goss-Michael, the nonprofit art space almost exclusively showed big-name British artists such as Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst. But Saldivar is the kind of innovator who sees the greater good and pushes past detractors to make it happen. If anything can be said about Saldivar, it’s that she’s ambitious and doesn’t take no for an answer, especially when it comes to ArtPrize. 

“It’s been surprising to me how many people can’t see how great this will be for Dallas,” says Saldivar. “But come April 2016, I won’t have to explain it anymore. They’ll see it for themselves. Art will be everywhere and everyone will be talking about it.”

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