Take one incredibly creative artist who sees the promise of engaging the community through art in a vacant building. Add a multitude of partners, volunteers, and artists and you begin to see how Paul Amenta of SiTE:LAB has created unusual art installations that welcome tens of thousands of visitors from all walks of life every year.
Paul and an ever-changing crew of volunteers have organized more than 30 temporary art exhibits over the past decade, all housed in underutilized buildings in and around downtown Grand Rapids.
“What’s magic for us has been the access to amazing buildings in the Grand Rapids area and the enthusiastic community response to our projects,” says Paul, who credits city officials, developers and others who make it possible to use empty buildings, such as the old Morton hotel and the former public museum on Jefferson Avenue. “People of all backgrounds are eager to make these art installations happen!”
Paul recalls SiTE:LAB’s roots in 2006 when, as a teacher at Kendall College of Art and Design, he was given access to a “building in transition” and put together an exhibit there with his students. About 500 people showed up to see it, and Paul thought we might be on to something. Turned out it would become something big. Now an annual venue for Art Prize, SiTE:LAB installations draw as many as 50,000 people each year, and the reasons they come are as varied as the visitors themselves.
“Some want to see the building, which they may have known in an earlier time,” Paul observes. “They might come for the good beer or the cool music. The art, for some, is a bonus. We want these exhibitions to be accessible to everyone, to engage the community, pose questions, generate discussions, and offer an experience”
Each time a building is chosen for an art installation, Paul encourages the participating artists to interpret the site and be influenced by the building itself — its architecture and condition, its history and embedded memories – and by the surrounding neighborhood.
In 2015 and 2016, SiTE:LAB partnered with Habitat for Humanity and ArtPrize for an ambitious project in the Roosevelt Neighborhood called The Rumsey Street Project. It spanned nearly three acres with a mix of unoccupied structures including a former Catholic church and rectory, a body shop and several residences, plus vacant lots, all of which provided imaginative outlets for artists. This exhibition expanded the boundaries of ArtPrize and created new connections to a traditionally underserved neighborhood. To include and engage residents of the surrounding Latino community, all exhibition materials such as maps, signs and the website, included Spanish translation. Paul also engaged with Latin American artists to create art that would reflect the rich culture of the neighborhood.
“Community engagement to us means reaching out to local organizations to create a scenario where they can excel at the things they do and use our building space to do it,” says Paul with his signature enthusiasm that opens doors – literally — and inspires creativity. “With each project, we look at the needs and aspirations of the community, the topics that need to be explored, who we need to reach out to, and how our projects can be meaningful. We’ve partnered with groups that represent vulnerable populations, and we push ourselves to develop accessibility for everyone.”
These days, SiTE:LAB volunteers are working on the first floor of the former Grand Rapids Christian High School at the corner of Franklin and Madison where many cultures come together. They are partnering with the nearby Boys and Girls Club and look forward to the production of a play focused on the Detroit race riots. Programming begins this fall and will be part of Art Prize in 2018.
Paul believes the most successful artworks are those that invite you in, challenge you, keep you lingering, and stay in your mind for a while. “That’s the power of art, the power to call you back to it, like a great piece of music,” he adds. “It’s about the experience, and it’s how people come together through art.”
Frey Foundation trustees have been pleased to support SiTE:LAB with $29,500 in grants since 2013 for their commitment to and alignment with the following Frey Foundation priorities:
- Improving access to arts and cultural experiences for vulnerable populations
- Supporting an arts and cultural community that is strong and diverse
- Building strong and attractive city centers and vibrant neighborhoods
- Fostering public/private partnerships to enhance local and regional impact