G-Sync: The Art of Disruption & The Keys to Tomorrow

Every year, Rapid Growth has the unique opportunity to float between many worlds during Grand Rapids’ annual art competition, ArtPrize. But this year, I have avoided the buzzwords of “synergy,” “innovation,” and “sustainability,” choosing instead to embrace a far more appropriate word that has real power to change our city: "Disruption," the act of delaying or interrupting the continuity. Or, as I say, unseating the status quo for the greater good.

Since we are not beholden to ArtPrize in any fashion, we, as a team of editors and publishers, sometimes get to observe from the ground floor these trends that emerge often unnoticed by the public as they race, facedown in their phones, from venue to venue.

One venue not only captured the attention of the jurors -- who awarded four out of the six juried prizes this year to the venue or pieces inside the venue -- but SiTE:LAB also caught the attention of our sister publication, Model D, who ran a piece on the Detroit factor in ArtPrize 2012.

SiTE:LAB, curated by a group that “creates temporary site-specific art projects aimed at facilitating dynamic collaborations between the art, education, business, and cultural communities of Grand Rapids,” called the former Grand Rapids Public Museum on Jefferson St. home during ArtPrize. This is a venue that has more or less remained a storage space for the last 18 years.

What stood out was not so much the awards in Two-Dimensional and Time/Performance-Based Work from Tyler Green of Modern Painters and Cathy Edwards, director of Performance Programs at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas.

It wasn’t even that Best ArtPrize Venue was awarded to SiTE:LAB by Tom Eccles, director of the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College. Or that Eccles, along with New York Magazine’s Senior Art Critic, Jerry Saltz, would award Design 99’s "Displacement (13208 Klinger St)" ArtPrize’s Grand Juried Prize.

The stand-out moment of the entire festival was actually Saltz’s post on Facebook that said, “[SiTE:LAB] is the BEST SPACE for artist-curated exhibitions I have seen in the United States for some time.”

In a single sentence, this temporary space received one of the highest compliments from one of the art world’s leading critics. And to-date, I cannot recall a bolder declaration or endorsement of an art “thing” in Grand Rapids since our mounting of a new art event, 1973’s Sculpture Off The Pedestal, which was called the greatest art event of the 1970s.

This is no surprise to many, including Paul Amenta, SiTE:LAB co-founder and curator of "The Dream Before," their 2012 ArtPrize venue theme for the former museum space.

I interviewed Amenta and co-founder Tom Clinton on the last day the space was open to the public. “We always thought that we could act like the P.S.1 of the Midwest,” said Amenta as he and Clinton reflected on the space. The following day would be a bit sad for both of them, as the men would share the process to decommission their ArtPrize show, a show that really connected Grand Rapids to the outsider arts community, as well as brought together many locals.  

The connections to P.S.1 are uncanny.

When P.S.1 in Long Island City open in 1971, it did so as a desire to further enhance New York’s magnet within the world of art. ArtPrize, too, has become a magnet (or a lightning rod) for Grand Rapids. It is a “thing” we are known for now, but how do we want the story told?  

P.S.1 was eventually acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in 2000 to become MoMA PS1 and offered artists exhibition space and studio rentals in a then-crowded art market.   

And just like P.S.1, a former school turned into a warehouse, SiTE:LAB's former museum could be returned to storing things and not showcasing art very soon. In a city looking to export its art coolness, it would be a shame to just make this into a large-scaled storage facility.

In Detroit, we have witnessed artists taking control of their vacant neighborhood spaces, like Hatch, a Hamtramck art collective, and 555 Gallery and Studio. Both are set in former police stations, converted through unique land offerings within their city into exhibition and studio space for Detroit artists.

Even the Ponyride model, developed by Phil Cooley, works off his new community-building model as witnessed at his restaurant, Slows Bar B Q ,where an entire neighborhood has been revived because one person had a dream and brought everyone into seeing it happen there, in Corktown.

At Cooley’s newest space, Ponyride, he and his partners took the foreclosure crisis and made it a positive impact for their community's benefit -- a new take on the lemons to lemonade harness with Detroit’s self-determination and ingenuity.  

Ponyride now houses many start-up and established businesses. Some pay a full market rate, but many of the artisan startup businesses pay rent far below that of their neighbors in the building.  

And his tenants don’t mind, as they know that the recovery or rebuilding of this city in their image means that some need more nurturing than others at times in their career. This winning model means his start-ups that volunteer in the space to keep rents cheap are free of the hurdles that might cripple the start-ups as they focus on building their portfolio of work, whether it is art or an art-infused business. The risk is eliminated and the ideas advance quickly in this incubator.

SiTE:LAB’s mission is often tied to a space with a history in our region, as evidenced by the long list of venues on their website. But this time, they might have found a home. As I surveyed Bruce Mau’s Incomplete Manifesto for Growth as a backdrop for many discussions taking place around ArtPrize, I key in on No. 42: “Remember. Growth is only possible as a product of history. Without memory, innovation is merely novelty. History gives growth a direction.”

The next steps will be tricky. If they are to secure this space, they will need to begin talks soon. It is my intent in writing this editorial that the necessary parties will begin those talks as they explore this option.

And while the building has been lacking in the code upgrades to make it truly a viable space, the above examples provide proof that when a group puts their mind to something, it can happen.

In Grand Rapids, we have seen a successful model of partnerships between government, private business, and foundations that is catching hold elsewhere in the world. (President Bill Clinton in Time Magazine’s The Case for Optimism recently pointed out that this model has been applied successfully to dealing with the health crises on our planet.)

Saltz also posted on Facebook: “If I were a person with money, or a city with funds, or an Arts Agency, I would do anything I could to make sure that a way could be found for SiTE:LAB to stay open IN THIS SPACE; and to begin mounting two or three shows a year there.”

This is a challenge to us as a community of artists, museum directors, boards, foundations, and developers. Again, I return to Bruce Mau’s manifesto for No. 43: “Power to the people. Play can only happen when people feel they have control over their lives. We can't be free agents if we're not free.” We need to free this space from a place to store just our past and look at how it can be reborn for a new purpose.

It is time to revoke the old models or arguments as we do not have another 18 years to wait. It is time to turn over the keys to the city to a new generation, who, like SiTE:LAB, are proving time and time again they know how to do what they do.   

Saltz has already given us the biggest award we could receive as a city with his posts about this soon-to-be vacant space. So what does Amenta think about his bold show "The Dream Before" becoming the dream before us?

“We could very well,” says Amenta, as he smiles, “take over the world.”

Then, we all laughed, but I thought about this long after. This is a call to action that hopefully will not be boxed up until another generation is ready to open the doors again. We, the people of this city, citizens to the world, are ready to disrupt. May the talks begin.

The Future Needs All of Us.

Tommy Allen, Lifestyle Editor
Email:  [email protected]

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