Different Kinds of Canvas

During a decade living and working as an artist in New York City, ActiveSite founder Paul Amenta observed a surprisingly symbiotic relationship between artists and real estate developers.

First as a graduate student and eventually as an instructor at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, Amenta watched developers essentially open up full square blocks of the city to groups of his fellow artists, who in turn cobbled up the buildings for studio spaces. Additional investment would follow the artists in the form of bagel shops, coffee houses, retail boutiques and the like.

Then eventually, developers would reclaim the now hip properties for higher-dollar investments such as condos, apartments and office space. The artists, completing the cycle, would move to the next block pegged for redevelopment.

“That’s how SoHo started out. That's how Chelsea started out,” says Todd Ernst, Amenta’s longtime friend and partner in ActiveSite, of the now highly desirable Manhattan neighborhoods.

Amenta moved back to Grand Rapids in 2006 and the Grand Valley State University alum-turned-adjunct professor has since been sharing not only his knowledge of visual art concepts and processes with area students, but also his understanding of the artist-developer dynamic.

Through ActiveSite, Ernst and Amenta are able to provide opportunities for the local art and real estate development communities to collaborate. The project is a semi-regular series of one-night art exhibitions designed to showcase local student artwork and available development opportunities.

At its forthcoming event next week, timed to coincide with the 21st International Sculpture Conference in Grand Rapids, ActiveSite will unite artists from six of the region’s major art programs (Aquinas College, Grand Valley, Hope College, Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University, the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts and Western Michigan University) and the School of Visual Arts NYC at the former home of the Grand Rapids Art Museum, one of the city’s most unique redevelopment opportunities.

Part student showcase, part site development
ActiveSite started in April 2007 when Amenta curated a show of work by Kendall College students at 70 Ionia Ave. SW, the storefront space which soon afterwards became the home of the nightclub/restaurant combo Moxie and Churchill’s.

The event took place shortly before construction began on the interior, so not only did it expose student artists to a broader audience than on-campus exhibitions typically could, it gave the developers of Moxie and Churchill’s a chance to welcome the public to their raw space and build excitement for their new business before their vision even became a reality.

“We encouraged them to have promotional materials out at the event to kind of showcase what they were planning on doing with the space,” says Ernst.

An estimated 350 to 400 people showed up at that first event, providing major validation to Ernst and Amenta that their concept was meeting two specific needs in the community.

First, it responded to an eagerness among the general public and specifically within the development community to check out some of the great raw spaces that have been slated for development in Grand Rapids.

“That very first event really was an eye-opening experience,” Amenta says. “I really had no plans to open this up to be much more than just me taking the classes that I taught out into the world and then showing their work. But everybody kept coming up to me, saying, ‘This is incredible. When's the next one?’ And I thought, well, I'm going to have to maybe rethink this a little bit.”

Second, the event presented fine art in an unstuffy environment that made it more palatable to an audience that doesn’t typically attend museum and gallery openings.

“If you go to an art event at a gallery or at a museum, there's a bit of an etiquette there,” Ernst says. “But we put a lot of effort into making the events user-friendly.”

Amenta agreed. “I still want the work to be at a high level, but I think by slightly tweaking your presentation you can make it much more comfortable for a larger audience. You might not ‘get it,’ but there isn’t going to be anybody there who’s going to make you feel awkward because you don’t get it. And in some ways, that inspires people to want to get it.”

There have been two more ActiveSite events since Ernst and Amenta launched the project last spring. Clearwater Place, the city’s former water filtration plant at 1430 Monroe Ave. NW, hosted ActiveSite in October 2007. The future home of Eastern Floral and Gifts, the one-time Kindel Furniture Factory at 818 Butterworth Ave. SW, hosted ActiveSite in June 2008. The events have grown with each incarnation.

The October 2007 event at Clearwater Place featured artwork from undergrads from Aquinas College, Calvin College, GVSU, and Hope College in addition to Kendall. The June 2008 ActiveSite event added artwork by UICA program participants.

New art in the old art museum
On Friday, Oct. 3, the fourth installment of ActiveSite takes place at the old Federal Building, 155 N. Division Ave. The event coincides with the 21st International Sculpture Conference, which takes place in Grand Rapids Oct. 2-4.

“In the past, we couldn't put on an event until we found a space, and then we set the date at that point,” Amenta says. “But this time, we had the date, but no building. So it was a really different challenge.”

Amenta and Ernst were considering three possible locations, but their good relationship with city government helped them activate the ideal site.

As the home to the Grand Rapids Art Museum from 1981 until 2007, the Federal Building already has history as an art space. The city currently maintains the now vacant structure, but Ferris and Kendall have hopes to bring art permanently back to the building by adding it to their downtown campus.

Regardless of whether those plans become a reality, Amenta has already been blown away by the positive changes he’s witnessed in the center city since his undergraduate years.

“When I was an undergraduate student in the early 1990s, I used to live downtown on Ionia Avenue and there wasn’t anything down there,” Amenta says. “I left in 1995, and when I came back, the growth was unbelievable. But I always knew there was so much potential here. Now, finally, people are taking advantage of it.”

People like Paul Amenta and Todd Ernst, just to name two.

Curt Wozniak is a freelance journalist and writer for People Design in Grand Rapids. This is his first article for Rapid Growth.


A past ActiveSite installation (photo by Steven DePolo)

ActiveSite founders Todd Ernst and Paul Amenta (photo by Sean Boney)

A past ActiveSite installation at a former Kindel factory (photo by Steven DePolo)

The Federal Building (photo by Brian Kelly)

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