SiTE:LAB Exhibit Takes on White Flight

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ArtPrize is back, which means so is SiTE:LAB. After taking a year hiatus from ArtPrize to regroup, president and director Paul Amenta said it’s good to be back, though he hasn’t fully made the transition from work to play.

“That’s an interesting question,” he laughed. “It takes a long time to develop these things. And I think that I’m not quite out of that…mode yet. We are totally excited though. I have to flip a switch from the ‘working’ part of this to the ‘social engagement’ part.”

SiTE:LAB is a nomadic, all-volunteer, artist-led initiative focused on creating site-specific projects and events. It has a history of inspiring and engaging the Grand Rapids community through installation-based art in underutilized spaces. In the past, SiTE:LAB has held its exhibits at a vacant Junior Achievement building, the old location of the Grand Rapids Public Museum, and The Morton, a vacant 90-year-old hotel. This year, SiTE:LAB was gifted with 415 Franklin, an old Christian high school and former social services building.

SiTE:LAB takes over vacant building at 415 Franklin St. for ArtPrize 10.
SiTE:LAB takes over vacant building at 415 Franklin St. for ArtPrize 10.

The 415 Franklin building was home to Grand Rapids Christian High School from 1938-1973. Then, from 1973-2009, it was the Kent County Social Services building. Since 2009, it has been vacant, thus generating the project’s name as “Public Space 415.”

According to Amenta, the context of the building is what’s the most important, not only for the project, but for him as well.

“I mean, a gorgeous building, you know,” he explained. “It’s sort of in the condition that we like. But most importantly, the context of the site and the church history of the site was a compelling feature. Beyond the amazing architecture, and just sort of the condition of the building, the context, for me, is the most important thing.”

Not only is the context important to Amenta, but it has also inspired the artists whose pieces reside there. Specifically, Amenta noted a few examples of this.

“For instance, Kyd Kane’s project, on the first floor, is in many ways a direct response to her experience being brought as a child to receive services,” he explained. “And then, sort of conversely, on the other side of that coin, you have Filippo Tagliati, Sotir Davidhi and Paho Mann’s project, where they simply documented the space, which is much more of a response to the current condition of the site.”

"Heidelbergology; 2 + 2 = 8" by Tyree Guyton
“Heidelbergology; 2 + 2 = 8” by Tyree Guyton

“Public Space 415” has 14 registered exhibits as well as special projects and events. Artists include local favorites such as Kyd Kane, but also artists from outside of the area, such as Tyree Guyton from Detroit and Augustine Boyce Cummings from New York City. Amenta said SiTE:LAB specifically invited many artists of color to participate in this year’s project.

“To me, it was about welcoming and inviting the right artists that could respond to the charged and complex history of the site,” he said. “It wasn’t necessarily about other factors, it was really about if the type of work that they typically do makes sense in this context, really.”

The charged and complex history of the site that Amenta referred to is white flight and race riots in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

"An American Dream" by Augustine Boyce Cummings
“An American Dream” by Augustine Boyce Cummings

“The Grand Rapids Christian High School moved out of this area very specifically because the neighborhood was becoming a little too black for them,” Amenta explained. “And so, it was the white flight of urban centers, typically the Midwest. And there were race riots here in ’67, several days after Detroit. So many artists here, particularly the artists of color, I would say are responding to that particular context, that charged history.”

SiTE:LAB is a site-specific project, meaning all of the works will be removed from the site once the exhibit concludes. After ArtPrize, the property owners, Madison Square Church, have plans to use the space for low-income housing and a church. When it comes to SiTE:LAB, Amenta isn’t sure what we’ll see next.

“I mean, we’re this crazy nonprofit, volunteer, artist-led organization that will more than likely change over the next few years. It’s always a fluid and dynamic thing. So who knows what you will see next out of us. I have no idea.”

ArtPrize runs through Oct. 7. Find out more about SiTE:LAB and events being held at 415 Franklin St. here, including an event on Friday, Sept. 28.

*Photos by Emily Gilbert. Main photo: “LEMONaid” by Kid Kayne

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