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G-Sync: Wanna be startin' something, Grand Rapids


UICA's Exit Space Project is about to debut something truly amazing at the street level, but G-Sync Lifestyle Editor Tommy Allen asks if we're ready as a community for what these new murals, a form of street art, will signal within our region. Hold the spray paint and read on.
Since the days of ancient cave drawings, humans have been communicating with one another through the use of lines, shading, and colors etched onto the surface of the planet. Over time, art has given us an opportunity to discover unique perspectives, to tell the stories that matter to our communities, and to launch new movements.
 
With the benefit of hindsight, we see that movements take time to identify. No one believes for a second that Michelangelo woke up one morning and decided to start a Renaissance. So it's fair to say we're often deep into a movement before we can name it.
 
In the case of street art, one of the earliest forms emerged in Quincy, MA in 1941, when a graffiti writer's words were married to an artfully simple drawing by shipyard inspector James J. Kilroy, who penned the famous phrase heard around the world: "Kilroy Was Here."
 
More recently, street art had a stellar 2011 debut at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angles and provided the U.S. with the first major exhibition survey of this world-wide phenomenon. 
 
Along the way, many street art images have found their way into our culture, As we see today by the rapid deployment of imagery via the use of social media, these images can have a powerful impact on a city. They have the power to transform common spaces into something remarkable, though their placement can be mysterious, often appearing for the first time after the cover of night hid their creator's identity until the morning light.
 
And just as quickly as these artful displays have appeared in a city like Grand Rapids, others in the community have quickly enacted methodologies to promote, protect, or -- in the case of Banksy's highly collectible works that appeared in Detroit  -- completely pilfer.
 
Grand Rapids is no stranger to the thorny path a street artist must walk if they decide to create their art in the streets because, for the most part, it is an illegal activity. In short, unless an agreement has been procured in advance between the property owner and the artist, Catherine Mish, the City of Grand Rapids attorney, shared with me recently where the lines are drawn. 
 
"Any time a person places paint or some other such substance on another’s property, they are committing a criminal offense called 'malicious destruction of property' (MDOP)," says Mish. "A potentially lower level offense than MDOP would be “meddling and tampering with property not one’s own, aka 'meddle and tamper.'"
 
These lower forms of meddling are often seen in artistically created stickers or in Division Avenue's yarn bombing – a practice of taking large sections of hand-stitched yarn and wrapping them around items from benches to lampposts to even a tree. These are things that can be annoying to some and charming to another but less of a challenge to remove than, say, spray paint on a wall of a city building.
 
A few years ago, an artist decided to spray a few light-hearted likenesses of President Gerald R. Ford, whose birthplace just so happens to be in Grand Rapids. The public entered the dialogue the next day and was equally divided over its merits. These kinds of local conversations about art can be seen today about ArtPrize but date back to the late 1960s when Alexander Calder's La Grande Vitesse debuted to an equally mixed welcome from the community.
 
The big difference between the Ford pieces and Calder's contribution is that one went through the proper channels for approval and the other arrived under the cover of the night sky. And, though only one is left standing today, both are still discussed in circles that are devoted to art.
 
So why is all this street art background suddenly of concern to me?
 
Earlier this summer, Downtown Grand Rapids Incorporated (DGRI) announced a new partnership with the Urban Institute for Contemporary Art to provide funds to create 3-5 murals within our Downtown Development Authority's boundaries.
 
This mural project, aligned with the Exit Space Project, will ask artists to submit and then execute their winning designs on a few pre-approved walls downtown. The subsequent artwork will seek to engage the public, ranging from those who live and work downtown to the people who will visit the urban core, to begin to converse about urban art: what it is, how it can define urban spaces, and how it can stimulate dialogue. And because artwork has always spurred much dialogue in our city, I decided it was time to break my silence on the matter.
 
While I commend them on this program (funded in year one to the tune of $15,000 for the 3-5 murals), it is not without a few risks that artists should be aware of before submitting. The money carrot before you, my artists, comes with a set of guidelines that will make sense to some and give pause to others.
 
For starters, any artist's visual proposal will need to pass through three committees -- the DGRI Alliance for Livability, the Alliance for Vibrancy, and UICA's Exit Space Project -- before being awarded the honorarium to render it in the public space.
 
According to Alexander Paschka, UICA's exhibitions curator, the Exit Space Project debuted in 2012 in the tiny window (non-exhibition) space on the Fulton Street side of their new building before becoming a full-fledged program of the contemporary arts center at the end of 2013.
 
Exit Space Project, created by artists Erwin Erkfitz and Brandon Alman, was brought to UICA in beta form and will now, though the funds from DGRI, seek to expand its mission through the use of overlooked spaces, moving beyond the gallery experience and into the streets of Grand Rapids.
 
"From the very start, Exit Space Project has invited artists from all over to consider this unique and transparent space on UICA's Fulton Street side and create something engaging visually for the public," says Paschka. "The goals of this program are to further expand their model of engagement around art, taking us, with this new DGRI partnership, beyond the traditional gallery experience and into the streets where we can begin to collaborate in the civic arena."
 
Erwin Erkfitz, left, and Brandon Alman, right.This is a fresh new way of taking art to the people with a visual language that is often challenging but very much in vogue with a generation growing up and moving to our city in record numbers. We as a community must be open to the change and the perspective that this art form brings to our city.
 
Fresh is also a word that needs to stay out in front of all the committee members as I review the criteria presented by DGRI's office. After reading the very broad submission guidelines that include phrases like "distinctly Grand Rapids" and "broad popularity," I hope the new partnership will serve the locals as well as promote the city. It will take strong leadership to know when to take the hand off the wheel that often drives committees who select art and let the artists create authentically and freely.
 
Should anyone be concerned that a work of art might feel fresh today and later not pass the test of time, DGRI's President & CEO Kristopher Larson has a few good points addressing a mural's life in our city.
 
"I do not believe that the program is intended to create permanent murals that deliver a long-term maintenance need – rather, this effort is meant to enable rotating installations that create more opportunity for more artists and expressions," says Larson. "So, rather than an annuity for the original artist, the intention is to create more opportunities for other artists."
 
Larson also believes that, when it comes to the private property side of this project, DGRI will only be requiring the property owner "to provide a façade easement for a pre-determined length of time (1-2 years) such that they cannot simply 'paint over' a mural when the desire arises."
 
In this way, the temporal nature of street art will be intact and in line with the mission of a true contemporary arts center like UICA, which is a non-collecting institution. The works will rotate into our city and, with time, probably quietly disappear overnight.
 
Yet, should hosting business owners or the public determine that a work of art presented on the street level is worth advocating for future preservation, then we must be willing to step up and enter into a new kind of urban dialogue, where the awarding of preservation status is something that we all can claim as a win for the city's cultural treasure chest. 
 
And this is why the challenges before us in this new mural project are so complex and why I wanted to weigh in during the last hours of summer -- and right before the call for proposals begins. (According to UICA, the date for submissions has not been released yet, but all the murals will be awarded by June 30, 2015.)
 
It is my hope that the Exit Space Project, which is really about street art but sold to the public in a nicer-sounding package, will become a catalyst for change and dialogue about public art at the city level. It's a new chance to engage (or not) with those who take to the streets to create something fresh, inventive, and visually arresting.

I, for one, hope that everyone, from local business owners, artists, and our city leaders to those who are charged to enforce the laws we presently are under, will consider a top-down review of policies and discuss how we can better prepare for the next wave in our city's art evolution. Our approach will need to be expansive, flexible, and anticipate, without a doubt, a greater influx of street art, sanctioned or not, appearing within the streetscape of our city and signaling approval to other unsanctioned artists to contribute their verse).
 
So before we splash white paint over the surface of a building where a newly placed artwork has been rendered illegally -- and possibly destroy the next Warhol (as street art is being hailed in some circles as the next Pop Art movement) -- let's bring land owners, art historians, and even a few locally recognized artists to the table to evaluate an "illegal" artist's contribution to our city before its removal.
 
Street art, like those early cave drawings, creates a point of conversation in a community and I, for one, look forward to continuing this dialogue as DGRI, UICA, and the Exit Space Project debut this exiting and very fresh new project.  
 
The Future Needs All of Us.
 
Tommy Allen
Lifestyle Editor
 
 
Here is a link to G-Sync Events: Let's Do This! (No, really…Let's!)
 
Editor's Note: This week I am breaking out a series of personal images from my travels through the street culture of our city and others around the U.S. This archive also includes a few images of the MOCA Los Angeles exhibition Art in the Streets. In addition, for the truly art geeky fan, yes, that is Fab Five Freddy and I in LA. Oh, Rapture! The image of Erwin and Brandon of UICA's Exit Space Project is courtesy of Rapid Growth's Adam Bird of Adam Bird Photography. - Tommy Allen
 
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