Daniel Fuller: Over its history Grand Arts has exhibited more than 70 projects by artists. The fascinating thing about your program is that, more than solely curating exhibitions, you use the spaces as co-producers, foremen who commission and fully assist artists in the realization of their wildest dreams. You provide financial, technical, logistical support and even maintain an onsite 4,000-square-foot fabrication studio. Artists that have worked with you tell me there isn’t a more flexible residency program around. If alternative spaces are defined by the capacity to risk failure, how do you measure/define success? Have there been projects that initially felt impossible, yet ended triumphantly? Do you ever have to just say “no” to an artist’s idea?
Stacy Switzer: These are great questions! And they are ones which we find ourselves asking, responding to, and returning to again and again. Curatorially, we look for projects that have a certain urgency about them—things that feel like they need to be in the world. As for measuring success, the way we define it is different for most every project, and depends enormously upon what the artist wants and needs from the project and from their experience with Grand Arts. The conversation about these needs and goals develops over time—and it tends to be a very intuitive, intimate dance between the artist and our staff and other collaborators. Everything, including the core ideas for a project, tends to evolve and shift over the course of a collaboration, which for us is usually about one to three years. We encourage this as part of our process and what we offer to artists—space and time to ponder, rethink, and revise.
Some of the questions we always consider are: Is the artist taking a significant leap within their practice? Have we as collaborators brought everything we have to the table in terms of creative problem solving? Is the artist connecting with a certain audience they hoped to reach? How will the artist be able to leverage the project they’ve worked on at Grand Arts into further opportunities down the road?
It’s true that for some of our most technically and logistically challenging projects, success can be defined in part by just seeing the work through to completion. William Pope.L’s 2008 flag project, Trinket, for example, presented some extraordinary technical challenges. We needed to figure out how to make a colossal American flag (three stories high and more than twice as long) whip around violently in an indoor space, where the ceiling was not much taller than the flag itself. The aura around the flag needed to feel dangerous, like it was blowing so hard it could hurt you, but at the same time we wanted the flag to have a certain proximity to viewers… so that you could reach out and touch it if you dared. After beginning with some homespun experiments, and moving on to consult with a wind engineer and industrial HVAC specialists, we ended up working with a wonderful person from the Hollywood special effects industry who retrofitted giant propeller fans—the kind they use to make tornadoes for movies like Twister—to make them work for us. The final work was spectacular, but we weren’t sure how we were going to make it happen until just a couple of months before it opened. We took a quick trip to L.A. to do tests in a sound stage, and when we finally saw the test flag up and flying, it was a very emotional moment.
I think Pope.L’s project is a poignant example because his work is itself so often about failure. And risk and the potential for failure are embedded in everything we do at Grand Arts. As are—again—adaptability, change, revision. There have only been a couple of times in Grand Arts’ history where we’ve had to suspend work on a project because of a conflict in expectations or schedules or what have you. One of these projects, which is still very dear to me, came to a stop due in part to differences among collaborators (Grand Arts was in the role of mediator) and in part because to do justice to the idea, it would have taken some truly astronomical resources. Done wrong, it could have collapsed and killed someone—so even though I was heartbroken to stop work after more than a year of research and development, I like to joke now that we escaped a falling ceiling, and maybe a manslaughter charge!
DF: Are you at all concerned with the provincial nature of the national arts press? Unless a big splash is made (like with the Steven Holl Nelson-Atkins addition), Kansas City art spaces seldom receive the attention they deserve because there just aren’t many regional critics. Can this actually be considered an advantage, an opportunity to be experimental instigators and take more artistic risks?
SS: Yes, I think you can see it as an advantage, and historically, I believe it has offered artists coming to Grand Arts from other places a degree of freedom that they might not feel elsewhere. But it’s also important that magazines such as Art Papers and others are beginning to cover more of what is going on in Kansas City, because artists here desperately need the critical dialogue and feedback.
DF: Obviously you are aware that in the course of five years the Pitch (Kansas City’s weekly version of Philadelphia’s City Paper) named you: Best Curator (2006), Best Solo Exhibition (2008) and Best Curatorial Debut (2004). Your trophy shelf must need reinforcing! An incredibly impressive aspect of these awards may be what the paper wrote about your shows: “We don't always understand, or even like, the high-concept installations at Grand Arts, which in the past year have included Aidas Bareikis' garish squadron of debris; Nadine Robinson's Revelations-inspired light sculptures; Neal Rock's large-scale, silicone abstractions; and a boat.” This was written while awarding best curator. I find this accepting, willingness to look, learn and trust your curatorial voice to be far beyond what is often seen in local press. Does this openness extend to your viewing public?
How does Grand Arts think about its audiences and how do you engage with them?
SS: That quote from the Pitch is pretty funny, especially if you take a look at the boat! It was an exquisitely beautiful installation by the artist Michael Jones McKean, but also rather intimidating in scale and (I suppose this is what they were getting at) in concept.
Of course, it’s great to be welcomed and recognized in the ways you described. Kansas City has a very sophisticated art-going public, and people always expect to see something challenging when they come to Grand Arts. This too is part of Grand Arts’ founding mission—to present work that might not be seen otherwise in Kansas City, or anywhere. For this and other reasons, Grand Arts occupies its own niche locally, regionally and nationally. On the one hand, we maintain something of a low profile because our mission is so completely artist-focused. We don’t have a membership, and we aren’t out in the community raising funds—so these things make us rather unusual from the outset. At the same time, we want people to visit and to have meaningful exchanges with the artists and the work. And it is important for us to maintain some visibility on a broader scale, both for the artists we work with and for the momentum of our program.
Our approach to audiences tends to shift a bit with each project. We have a core group of very loyal visitors, but we are also constantly trying to tap into other segments of the community, and testing different strategies to do this. Also, as you know, the very notion of ‘audience’ is debated in the museum world. spurse, an interdisciplinary collective we recently worked with, engages this debate as part of the content of their work, by asserting that audiences and visitors do not exist—only participants and collaborators. Thus there is an institutional critique embedded in spurse’s work that cannot merely be ‘presented’ by Grand Arts or any other venue that wants to welcome and engaged its ‘visitors.’ The question of who comes to an exhibition, how, why, and speculation about what they might ‘take away’ from their experience in the gallery becomes a point for serious philosophical wrestling. And admittedly, the audience for this kind of wrestling might be extremely small. It might just be the fly on the wall while we’re duking it out amidst a pile of canvas scraps, sewing machines, and plant specimens. But Grand Arts can be a place for this kind of wrestling—a rowdy, good-natured fight that tumbles over from the stage of the gallery into the protected sanctuary of the administrative offices, and even back into the fabrication shop (again, figuratively speaking!) among the tables saws, welding equipment, etc. There aren’t many places like us out there.