G-Sync: UICA Rolls The Dice

“I have no nostalgia," came rolling off the lips of Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts’ new Interim Executive Director Miranda Krajniak, who is dressed in a handmade vintage dress with a hairstyle referencing a young Anna Wintour of Vogue. My pen leapt to attention, and the ink flowed non-stop over the next 45 minutes.

Krajniak has been in office less than 30 days. She walked me through a series of changes coming to UICA, but in doing so, also revealed a host of her personal fears regarding this new venture. Her honesty was refreshing compared to the typical PR assault most folks will pedal to a writer known for being brutally honest. As I listened to each reply, I realized how downright frightening the task is for Krajniak. Note: She is operating without a net.

Krajniak, an 11-year resident of Grand Rapids, spent the last two of these years commuting back and forth to the Saugatuck Center for the Arts. She performed community-building via her role as the Manager of Education Exhibitions. (She's especially happy that now, she can walk to work from the Heritage Hill apartment she shares with her husband, who, like Krajniak, is also an artist.)

Prior to working at SCA, Krajniack worked at the GRAM as an assistant to former Executive Director Celeste Adams.

Krajniak was recently introduced to the public at a meeting at UICA. This was a bit of a surprise to many who had been invited to attend a feedback session based on an earlier series of meetings this past spring, myself -- a long time UICA supporter in both print and person --  included. 

One result of this in-depth meeting was an editorial in Rapid Growth, suggested to me by an attendee. It also resulted in an extensive survey rolled out to the public.

Only a few days into the job, Krajniak poured over the results. Names were withheld to preserve objectivity as this survey included staff as well as key individuals in our community. Krajniak stood before those gathered at the feedback session on June 5 to deliver the results.

The results were what many had been saying outside the space. There was a call for greater connection and collaboration within the artists and arts organization communities, and a noticeable desire for exhibitions to have the same impact as the film programming. Key words included: 'welcome,' 'communicate,' 'define,' and 'mission' -- these were the words most often used by the 134 survey participants.

This survey would influence Krajniak's talking points as she met with key arts leaders and the media over the next few weeks.

"We have three areas of focus right now at UICA," says Krajniak. "Exhibitions, Films, and Events are the top three focus areas and what we do best, according to those surveyed."

While the survey supports that these three areas are the main reasons people visit UICA, another survey question indicated a sizable number of folks visit only once every few months, and 13 percent said they only attend once a year.

For an organization in the early stages at their new location, this is troubling to anyone reading these stats. Yet while Krajniak is just four weeks into her position, she is emboldened by the challenges ahead of her.

Others who have met with her or heard of her background have privately expressed a common concern that maybe she is being set up for failure.  

"I do not have a Masters in Arts Administration, but do not see this as a problem as others in our community are in leadership roles, excelling at what they do," replies Krajniak. She clearly has done her homework on this area of critique.

Such bold pronouncements -- from her shared attributes with other local arts leaders, to her aggressive 13 -15 month turnaround schedule for th UICA -- could be seen as off-putting to some, but I find this attitude encouraging. I have always said the arts needs to get off its knees at a certain point.  

Krajniak knows that implementing an aggressive focus on revamping programming might be just what UICA needs right now as we enter summer, a time when the city empties as people flock to the beaches of Lake Michigan.  

"Right from the start, as I look at our staff, I see a group of individuals who are underutilized," says Krajniak, complimenting the energetic UICA staffers who will be enlisted even further to help with the turnaround. "I am even asking our committees like the Visual Arts Curatorial Board to reconsider the way we have done exhibitions and our openings in the past. I want them to explore how to use this entire new building in exciting, new ways unhinged from the way things used to be at the Sheldon space."

One first sign of excitement coming from the staff and Curatorial Board was the partnership between the international Chroma exhibition, which shares space (often side by side) with the locals at the Festival for the Arts exhibition this summer.

"I am excited that the UICA is able to host the Festival show, and look forward to possible collaborations in the future. The unique exhibit spaces at UICA have the potential of pushing the Festival show to grow and further reflect the artistic community in the region," says Brandon Alman, Preparator at UICA. "If I had my way, Festival would curate the entire building. It would be interesting to see what level of site-specificity could be brought to what is normally a more traditional art exhibition."

Krajniak insists she does not want to be seen as a curator. However, she already has a few collaborations in place between educational partners like Kendall College of Art and Design. Krajniak has also invited guest artists and galleries to the table, like Salvador Jiménez and Con Artist Crew. UICA Volunteer and Rental Manager Taylor Cole Greenfield recently became the liaison with the Avenue for the Arts -- an area that had been overlooked in the past, but is clearly being addressed as a result of Krajniak's desire to shore up collaborative partners.

It is also not hard to see the comparisons to the GRAM, an institution that was also facing a disconnect in our community just a few years ago. In fact, both buildings were grossly over budget on their final construction tally.

"Ah, the building. Well, I do not see the building as an obstacle," says Krajniak. "Keep in mind that when the GRAM opened, Revue Magazine had a writer call it an ugly, white box, but who would say that today?"

She reminds me that many structures -- like the Eifel Tower -- were seen as garish in their early years, only to be adored later.

I reflected on the furor over the "La Grande Vitesse" and how the public filled the pages of the Grand Rapids Press’ Public Pulse section, a primitive form of our Facebook or MLive community forums, with negative comments about the money spent on a huge hunk of red metal. Years later, this work of art has become the symbol of our city and many other projects, adorning the sides of trash collection trucks, printed on scrappy T-Shirts, and even inspiring ArtPrize’s logo.

What brought me out to meet Krajniak was to the opportunity to talk about the big $3.9 million question, a sum that a person close to this project assured me would be settled in June.  

"We still have to secure the last $3.9 million, but are now looking at Fall 2013," says Krajniak.

She admits if the money does not come in as planned in the fall, then big changes will have to happen.

"But I am optimistic. I am working with the board, staff, funders, and our collaborative partners in the arts community to ensure our success." (She has even been working with Julie Stivers, a local historian of the arts center for decades.)

If one of those partners, Bill Johnson, a private consultant hired by UICA's Board of Directors and locally famous within the arts scene for his turnaround techniques (including the GRAM's restructuring), is able to be successful at what he does best, then his leadership will enable Krajniak to implement aggressive changes for a new chapter in UICA's long history.

If she is successful, then she could move from Interim Director to Active Candidate when the board begins their national search.  

Krajniak knows that in the area of arts management, this town only holds a few positions and she is jumping in with both feet.

"I figure there are two other positions in this town for me," says Krajniak with a bit of smile. Behind it lurks the stern realization that a lot is riding on her shoulders and she has to succeed here.  

No doubt, if she keeps up her willingness to delegate to her staff and committees, collaborate with trusted and edgy partners, and continue to bring out the best in everyone she meets, this might just be the spark UICA needs.

The Future Needs All of Us.

Tommy Allen
Lifestyle Editor

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