Throughout its 20-year history, Grand Arts contemporary art space could always be counted on to provide something different, not only to the Kansas City art world, but also to the world well beyond.
Begun in 1995 by Margaret Hall Silva and Sean Kelley, Grand Arts existed to “commission and assist artists in the production and realization of ambitious contemporary art projects.” The organization strived to “function as a laboratory rather than a residency program,” according to its website, and “to provide financial, technical and logistical support to artists while encouraging conceptual risk-taking and experimentation at all stages of the creative process.”
The end results, exhibited in a spacious gallery created in a renovated auto repair building at 1819 Grand Blvd., usually looked and felt unlike anything else in the area, providing a breath of fresh air to art lovers and introducing them to leading artists including Alice Aycock, Nick Cave, Dennis Oppenheim, Teresita Fernández, Alfredo Jaar and William Pope.L.
Outside of Kansas City, Grand Arts grew an international reputation for saying yes to artists and for making the seemingly impossible possible, with projects like Sanford Biggers’ “Blossom,” a large baobab tree that seemed to rise from the floor of the gallery and burst through a piano. John Salvest’s “IOU USA,” a temporary public art piece comprised of shipping containers arranged to spell “IOU” on one side and “USA” on the other, required Herculean diplomatic and logistical efforts to locate it adjacent to the Federal Reserve Bank in Kansas City in 2011 as the nation and world were recovering from recession.
After the space closed its doors in 2015, Grand Arts former executive director, Stacy Switzer, and associates Lacey Wozny, Eric Dobbins and Annie Fischer moved to Los Angeles and formed Fathomers, which Switzer describes as “a philanthropic research institute that convenes radical thinkers across disciplines to create new worlds together.”
Assisting the effort were founding board of directors members Silva, artist Glenn Kaino (whose installation “Tank” was presented at Grand Arts in spring 2015), and Andrew Torrance, Earl B. Shurtz Research Professor at the University of Kansas School of Law.
Asked to compare Fathomers and Grand Arts, Switzer stressed the “long term” outlook of Fathomers’ collaborations and projects, and a commitment to fostering collaborations between artists, scientists and other thinkers.
“Grand Arts worked on a number of similarly research-dependent projects in recent years,” Switzer added, “like those by Sissel Tolaas, Glenn Kaino, and the Propeller Group, and we developed a distinctive skill set for catalyzing conversations across disciplines along the way.”
Grand Arts’ rich history is documented in a new book, “Problems and Provocations: Grand Arts, 1995 – 2015,” edited by Switzer, and Annie Fischer, who is Fathomers Director of Research and Communication. Essayists include artist Pablo Helguera; the research studio collective RHEI; artist and writer Gean Moreno; design consultant Iain Kerr and artist and writer Emily Roysdon. Wisely, the book is laid out in reverse chronological order so that one immediately gets a sense of what Grand Arts was like at its most mature stage.
The first essay, by Rob Walker, a columnist for “Design Observer” and “The New York Times” Sunday Business section, presents a fascinating and enlightening account of Grand Arts’ last and possibly most complex artist project, The Propeller Group’s “A Universe of Collisions,” which was on view Aug. 7 – Sept. 4, 2015.
Walker’s essay outlines how Grand Arts and The Propeller Group worked together to refine a proposal called “Two Bullets Collide.” The initial concept called for bullets fired from AK-47 and M16 rifles to collide and fuse in midair to form objects. The three-year journey to the final results required working with a ballistics testing facility in Maryland, as well as approval from the State Department, for Grand Arts to interact with the artists, since they are based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. In the end, the ballistics engineers and artists found a solution by suspending one of the bullets in a block of ballistics gel and firing another bullet into it.
“Problems and Provocations” provides powerful testimony that when an organization truly possesses the will and the resources to say yes to artists, amazing things can happen.