As one of the most prolific contemporary art institutions in Grand Rapids prepared to close its doors, I sat down with people from the community to hear how the Urban Institute for Contemporary Art (UICA) has left a lasting impact on their lives. These are their stories.
“While we have plenty of options where one can showcase their work, whether it’s in a coffee shop, a local gallery, or even in a pop up space, one of the things that UICA brings to the table that none of these bring is an incredible pedigree on one’s artist resume, but also the ability to transport one’s work out of the market, not just to bring artists in, but showcase our artists we have here as a way to let the world know, ‘This is what contemporary art looks like through the lens of West Michigan.’
“It was in 2000, I believe, that I had a solo show at the UICA. Around that same time, UICA celebrated their 30th anniversary and asked me if I wouldn’t mind producing the show. I produced the show in such a way that I really made sure the performances or whatever we were looking to do that night happened within the space that people were congregating and not on the stage. That stage that we had there was exclusively reserved in that moment to showcase a drag queen performing, to close out the festivities of the evening. To the best of my knowledge, as I look back on this as a queer person, I really believe it was the first time in the history of Grand Rapids that drag moved out of the bars and out of the clubs and into the public space. While UICA has always been about showcasing contemporary art, we can also showcase individuals within contemporary art who may have been left out of the conversation for so many years.”
“Being an undergrad in fine arts and as a volunteer at the UICA, I got to work side-by-side with artists and help them install work. Being able to see that up close was pivotal in allowing me to figure out my niche of what I was good at in terms of being an advocate for artists, learning how to install, showing work in the best possible light. UICA ended up being the catalyst that allowed me to move in the direction of museum studies and curatorial work because I had that one-on-one experience and that firsthand access to working with artists in the organization.
“The UICA has never censored artist voices. We have a lot of spaces that don’t show work that’s as provocative or even just gives artists a platform to show or talk about or display their authentic selves. Those spaces kind of seem to dry up over time, or especially in a space like West Michigan and Grand Rapids in general, I think there is a lot less tolerance. Having a space in Grand Rapids where artists could be fully supported and given that freedom to try out new things is going to be missed.
“When are we ever going to see a Kehinde Wiley in Grand Rapids again? Who knows; maybe. It’s just like, ‘Wow,’ this is happening here at the UICA that started off as this grassroots bunch of artists just needing a space and a community. There have been groundbreaking, blockbuster artists and experiences that you don’t find anywhere else in Grand Rapids.”
Mandy Cano Villalobos
“I think the UICA had regional and even national clout, where to be part of that, whether it be through the curatorial board or whether that be through an exhibition, was enriching to participate in not only a community-based dialogue, but also a national dialogue.
“They were very much aware of a need to amplify under-recognized voices, and I’m not necessarily sure that there are a lot of organizations within Grand Rapids that were or are doing that kind of work, unless that’s their mission. Underrepresented artists don’t get the attention they need, and the UICA was getting that.”
Creative director, Conduit
“I was a student at Kendall. It’s probably around 1998 that I had my first interaction with the UICA– it was in a small bank building where the current art museum is. Like so many people in Grand Rapids, I was trying to find a place that felt like home. It was the UICA that really felt like, ‘Oh, this is home.’ I felt embraced and welcomed, and like there was a community of like-minded people. I found my tribe there.
“They patron design in the same way that they patron art, in that they allow creatives to do what they do. They give a lot of trust and freedom to them to produce their best work. I’m really proud of the work we’ve done for the UICA over the years. One of the events I’m most proud of is Live Coverage. We designed it from, I think 2004 was the first year that we did it, and then we did a poster and identity for it for probably another 12 or more years. It was a really exciting event, and it was just so amazing for them to give a lot of trust to us to be creative.
“The other thing that I think is interesting about the UICA, and it’s important to note, is that it really had a lot of involvement with students. It had this whole program called ArtWorks that was long-term mentorship of students. Many of Kendall’s top students went through the ArtWorks program. To see the way those students thrived and blossomed through ArtWorks and through involvement with the UICA was really amazing, and that’s something that the city is going to need to find a way to replace.
“In 1977, the UICA was created because the arts community felt there was a need; there was a void. The UICA filled that void until now. Without the UICA, there’s still that need, and I am confident that the creative community will find a way to fill that void because nothing else fills its shoes.”