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40 years of the new and now: UICA was contemporary art before contemporary art was cool

The permanent staff of the UICA.

"We're not putting any of our resources into preserving the past," says Urban Institute of Contemporary Art Executive Director Miranda Krajniak. Celebrate 40 years with the UICA, the cornerstone of artistic experimentation in Grand Rapids.
"For a contemporary art institute to be 40 years old means it started in the beginning, which is something Grand Rapids should be proud of," says UICA Executive Director Miranda Krajniak. Extrapolating that the UICA was founded in 1977, just as contemporary art was gaining its food hold in the American art scene, Krajniak explains that the nonprofit has been an influential voice in Grand Rapids, Michigan and U.S. art world since the beginning.

Kicking off their anniversary during the official 40th birthday in January of this year, Krajniak has been celebrating the history of the UICA all year long. And it's a history that "starts before I born," jokes Krajniak.

"It took a lot of people to get that off the ground…UICA was very small in the beginning," says Krajniak. In the early seventies, while contemporary art was still in its infancy and smaller cities still focused on traditional artwork—like painting and sculpture—at staple institutions like the Grand Rapids Art Museum, "Artists wanted a place for experimentation," she says. Because "projected works were becoming more popular," the early artists of the UICA formed the nonprofit to host a safe space for contemporary art in 1977.

Working without an executive director and fully operated by volunteers into the early '80s, the UICA was the definition of grassroots effort. Sandra Wilcoxin, the first executive director, was offered—at age 23—the position part-time during that decade and became the nonprofit's first paid employee. This female leadership was "remarkable at the time," notes Krajniak.

By staying small and nimble, the UICA furthered its mission throughout the next few decades, despite changing locations quite frequently. "UICA bounced around the city," says Krajniak, noting that the nonprofit made itself at home at the current locations of the GRAM and The Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum. Consumer's Energy, who once owned the building that housed one of the UICA's former facilities on Race St., later tore down the structure in order to expand a nearby station.

This constant transformation might be impossible for other art institutions with large collections, but the UICA was able to handle change at any level because of their most unique element: "We don't have collection," says Krajniak. As a non-collecting institution, the UICA does not purchase or store artwork. "This makes us even rarer than the rare," she adds.

Miranda KrajniakThe UICA ascribes to this model specifically because of their contemporary art philosophy. "[We are] really focusing on the art that is reflecting our life at this very moment," says Krajniak.

This demanding model encourages UICA staff to always be on the hunt for new ideas, new artists, and new projects. "We have to change our exhibitions constantly," says Krajniak. "It makes us nimble but it's a challenging work environment….that's why I work here."

And she works for an award- and grant-winning institution. "In 1980, [the UICA] won the William F. Thrall Award for excellence in architecture design from the Arts Council of Greater Grand Rapids. About the same time, UICA received its first grant from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs. Since, then, it has received regular funding through the MCACA and ACGGR as well as support from the National Endowment for the Arts and local foundations and corporations," according to their website. 

Moving into its new location on Fulton St. in 2011. An impressive new structure seemed to spell success and vitality for the nonprofit, but unfortunately they were unable to financially sustain the space.

According to an article by Kendall College in August of 2013,

"Despite its new $8 million home in the heart of Grand Rapids, UICA membership and attendance levels have not reached their potential, hindering the institute’s efforts to become the regional art leader it is poised to be. With debts and monthly expenses outpacing its income, Michigan’s largest contemporary arts center was on a path to closing its doors this fall."

Partnering with Kendall College of Art & Design and Ferris State University, the UICA became a subsidiary of the educational institutions and kept its doors open while expanding programming. "I wouldn't have come on if I didn't think the merger was a good idea for UICA to have the backing and support of a larger institution that has the same values as the UICA," says Krajniak, herself a Kendall alumna. "They've been incredibly supportive." Joining with a larger institution also meant access to wider resources, making it easier to host artists and artwork from abroad.

As the UICA looks into the future, Krajniak and company aim to delve more into artist and audience equity. Already producing programming within this large-scale initiative, the UICA aims to host artists and reach audiences from race and class groups not normally showcased in contemporary art. "Art has a notoriety of being very white and very middle class," says Krajniak. It's important that we elevate voices from all parts of our community."

One example of such programming is ArtWorks, a free, five-week program for artists aged 14-19. During the summer program, students will receive training and mentorship, and will even be paired with a local company like Herman Miller to hone their artistry in a professional environment. "We see ourselves as creators of the next generation of artists and designers," says Krajniak.

And these artists are quick to praise the nonprofit's model. Kyd Kane, whose current piece "Broke(n) Hunger," "a spoken word performance piece aimed to shed light on the issue of hunger in the United States," says:

"My relationship with UICA has opened up a gateway in my mind that lets me know that anything is possible when it comes to my work. Having the opportunity to share my words in spaces where spoken word has never been or isn't traditionally has allowed me to expand my reach in ways that I could have never imagined."

Artist Pippin Frisbie-Calder says "The UICA has helped me realize a lifetime goal of both presenting my work in a way I have already desired, as well as showing me how a fluid and dynamic team can make a work of art in a perfectly managed space really sing." Her piece, "Canceled Edition," is part of the UICA's current show.

Staking their claim that the UICA was contemporary art before contemporary art was cool, the nonprofit has made an indelible mark on the Grand Rapids community and all of the artists and visitors that have graced its many hallways. Constantly looking toward the future, the UICA is forever now. "We care about the future and the future is equity," says Krajniak. "We're not putting any of our resources into preserving the past."

Photography by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.
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