by Kate Branum • photography by Two Eagles Marcus
Since its development 39 years ago, the Urban Institute of Contemporary Arts has provided West Michigan with one-of-a-kind contemporary art pieces and exposed visitors to creativity in many different forms, including visual art, performance art, film, dance and music.
The progressive force driving the UICA is a lot more than modern aesthetics. Home to many exclusive exhibitions and an underground movie theater, the UICA is run by a close-knit team of forward-thinking women.
UICA exhibitions coordinator Heather Duffy is a contemplative, considerate woman with a distinct Southern accent. Duffy invites artists to bring in unique and impactful exhibitions that will ignite meaningful conversations about important, and sometimes overlooked, topics.
“Our mission is to support the careers of emerging and mid-career artists,” Duffy said. “My mission is to bring artwork into the galleries that are able to host and activate conversations around contemporary issues and current events.”
Miranda Krajniak, the dynamic, quirky executive director, has a hand in every aspect of the UICA. Though she maintains a full to-do list, her number one goal in the organization is making sure each leader is moving forward in the same, positive direction.
“I think people are so used to the UICA being in Grand Rapids that they forget the UICA and other organizations like it are super rare and beautiful in a city of this size in this region,” Krajniak pointed out.
The UICA has moved around quite a few times over the span of its existence. It wasn’t until 2011 that the current location became its permanent home. In 2013, it merged with Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University and went from a stand-alone nonprofit organization to a wholly owned subsidiary of the college and university.
Megan Bylsma, the observant and organized associate director, oversees all operations at the UICA, including guest services and membership. She is integrated into Kendall’s administration as well, which allows her to help the college organize projects in collaboration with the UICA.
“We have a lot of different ways we collaborate with the students at Kendall,” Bylsma said. “The All College Open House is coming up, so we’re working with the students to help them learn about ways to engage with us at the UICA. The loft [inside the UICA] is always available for students at Kendall and members of the UICA to come in and work anytime they want to.”
The UICA is charged with raising all of its funding. A portion of the funds comes from earned income within the organization and the rest comes from donations made by individuals and corporations, grants from local foundations and city, state and federal resources.
Kristen Taylor, the insightful development officer, works behind-the-scenes to make sure the organization obtains all necessary profits to run smoothly by connecting UICA programs with donors, foundations and granting agencies.
Aside from showcasing artwork, the UICA serves as an outlet for creativity through educational programs offered to both children and adults.
Katherine Williams, the thoughtful, detail-oriented programs coordinator, works with other departments in the UICA to create a transformational experience for learners both within the organization and in the surrounding community.
Williams also oversees a yearly program called ArtWorks, a free five-week program for teens. Students participating in the program have a chance to get out into the community and engage in art, design and installation projects around the city of Grand Rapids.
“This past summer was big for me,” Williams said proudly. “One of the groups [in the ArtWorks program] installed a surface parking lot mural [in Grand Rapids], which we’ve never done before. Watching them and guiding them through the process was exciting.”
In addition to ArtWorks, the UICA hosts the Exit Space Project (ESP), a program utilized by Michigan-based contemporary artists who want to share their ideas, work and conversations with the community. Local and regional artists in the ESP use a variety of mediums to evolve public spaces.
“We installed a four-story mural at the Grand Rapids Ballet Company, which was a big undertaking,” Williams recalled.
The UICA is housed in a custom-designed, 40,000-square-foot building. The organization dedicates more than 30,000 square feet to exhibition and gallery space showcasing original pieces created by local, regional, national and international emerging artists. There is no permanent collection, which leaves the space open and inviting for incoming artists.
“Many of the artists take advantage of that by creating new works that are specific to our space or that maybe they wouldn’t be able to show in a more traditional, white-cube gallery setting,” Katie Zychowski, the vibrant and enthusiastic marketing coordinator, said.
The pieces displayed in the gallery are intended to provoke emotion and confront people’s perceptions.
“Contemporary art really does challenge, and it can offend and it can be hard to understand for people,” Krajniak said.
To kick off its 40th year, the UICA will showcase the exhibitions, “Us is Them” and “Here + Now,” beginning January 27, 2017.
“Us is Them” was first curated by the Pizzuti Collection in Columbus, Ohio and contains 75 pieces of art created by more than 40 artists who all have diverse backgrounds and complex, intersectional identities. All of the pieces in the exhibition were created to bring sensitive topics out into the open, including race, religion, politics and cultural and geographic identities.
“As people come through the exhibition, they will be able to see themselves as art lovers and potentially art collectors and supporters,” Duffy explained. “They will be able to see themselves as participants and owners of the experience, not just outsiders or people who are unwelcome in any way.”
The UICA is far from a traditional gallery. Travel all the way to the bottom floor, and you’ll find yourself standing in front of a small concession stand and the door to a fully-equipped movie theater.
“When I walk through the UICA with someone new, I always ask them if they knew there was a theater in downtown Grand Rapids and they always say ‘no,’” Zychowski said. “It’s really a stellar theater–maybe an unknown gem in downtown Grand Rapids.”
Rows of plush seats, wall mounted speakers and a large projection screen welcome guests in for a quiet, enjoyable movie-going experience. The theater shows two to three independent films six days a week for an affordable price.
“We do see great attendance from film enthusiasts and from those who enjoy their Netflix accounts and want to come out of their bedrooms and enjoy a film screening,” Zychowski said.
On the main floor, a compact gallery store greets visitors right when they walk in. The shelves are stocked with one-of-a kind, wholesale items crafted by local and regional artists.
The UICA prides itself in creating a fun, educational and interactive space for guests to experience, but the fact that it is run primarily by women further sets it apart from other organizations.
“You realize you aren’t conditioned to expect a male-centric environment anymore, which is really, really lucky. It’s a big privilege to get to operate in a circle that was made for you to navigate, not figure out how to break into,” Krajniak said. “Women actually moving the mission forward and being in leadership positions is something that is really rare.”
The leaders of UICA stress the importance of acceptance and empowerment in the workplace. With such a collaborative team of leaders, there is ample room for brainstorming, shared ideas and collective decision-making.
“In this working environment, the dynamics between my colleagues and myself is safe–it’s a brave space. I think that kind of working environment allows us to feel empowered and to take time to appreciate the final products of our work,” Williams shared.
You’ve probably passed it hundreds of times–the large, grey, window-laden structure dripping with vines planted firmly on the corner of Fulton and Division in downtown Grand Rapids. This time around, stop in and view “Us is Them” and “Here + Now.” See an independent film, visit the gift shop and consider a membership.
For more information about UICA, visit uica.org.