Letter from the Editor, September/October 2015

KC Studio editor Alice Thorson, photo by Mark Berndt.

In 1995, the American art world was still reeling from the culture wars. The National Endowment for the Arts had ceased giving grants to individual visual artists, and many art institutions were leery of showing controversial work.

Enter Grand Arts, brainchild of Margaret Silva and Sean Kelley, a project space dedicated to helping artists realize their visions—no holds barred.

Funded by the Margaret Hall Silva Foundation, Grand Arts wasn’t afraid of sex, nudity or controversy.

It didn’t worry about censorship.

It wasn’t afraid of difficult ideas.

It wasn’t beholden to market forces, good taste, public opinion, or a desire for positive reviews.

And it didn’t care about failure.

Artists came first at Grand Arts. Some projects turned out great; others fell flat. But Silva and Kelley, whose role as artistic director was taken over by the intrepid Stacy Switzer in 2004, measured results, not by the outward success of a project, but by how it advanced an artist’s development. To this end, Grand Arts provided artists with on-site housing, a state-of-the-art studio facility, professional expertise and funding.

From the beginning Grand Arts rejected the once prevalent notion that if it was made in Kansas City, it wasn’t as good as art from the coasts. The gallery’s schedule regularly included exhibits and projects from artists based here, from multi-talented veteran Jim Leedy to the inimitable young performance artist Cody Critcheloe.

Unconstrained by patrons’ pressures or public funding, Grand Arts made a point of presenting projects that other KC venues couldn’t or wouldn’t touch. Art about issues— war, racism, sexism, gay rights, false patriotism, the wages of colonialism, the destruction of the environment,  and, most recently guns—bane of our collective American existence—was Grand Arts’ forte, reflecting the important role played by artists in defining and critiquing their particular cultural moment.

Silva, who trained as an artist herself at the Kansas City Art Institute, understood that engaging with the broader culture is what art is about—not décor, diversion, entertainment, or the production of collectibles.

Grand Arts believed in the power of art and released it, raising the bar on contemporary arts programming in Kansas City with exhibits like Patricia Cronin’s groundbreaking “Memorial to a Marriage,” William Pope.L’s enormous American flag blasted by a wind machine at Municipal Auditorium, and John Salvest’s IOU/USA, a tower of cargo containers emblazoned IOU on one side and USA on the other, installed across from the Federal Reserve.  Grand Arts also helped put KC on the international map by exporting projects it supported.

This fall, Grand Arts turns out the lights, bringing to an end an epic chapter in the history of the Kansas City art world.  But in typical Grand Arts fashion, Silva and Switzer are not making a big deal about it. There is no public bow-taking celebration planned, just an intimate gathering of past participants and supporters.

To the end, the Grand Arts group stayed true to type. It’s not about them. It’s about the artists and the art.

CategoriesKC Studio Visual
Alice Thorson

Alice Thorson is the editor of KC Studio. She has written about the visual arts for numerous publications locally and nationally.

  1. Mo Dickens says:

    Well said, Alice. We had the pleasure of working with the Grand Arts team on John Salvest’s IOU/USA project. Our cranes were on-site for eight days and I enjoyed zipping up the hill to check on the progress as the crane operators installed the giant stack of shipping containers. It happened around the same time the “Occupy Movement” emerged and soon after the work was installed protesters started using it for a background. The IOU side of the installation faced the KC Federal Reserve Bank. Somewhere I have a picture of a federal official from DC in front of the sculpture. She’s grinning ear to ear. Grand Arts never did anything half-assed and we were proud to be of help on that project. – Mo Dickens, Belger Arts Center

  2. Sean Kelley says:

    So beautifully stated as always Alice. Now we all can look to the future and maybe something even more Grand will be created to fill the void left by the closing of the very Grand Arts. It is a very bitter sweet moment for me as co-founder and director with so many wonderful memories and accomplishments. But most importantly a hugh thank you to all the Kansas Citians that came to celebrate and share each exhibitions. Most importantly to all the incredible artist’s and guest curators that trully created Grand Arts.

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