The Rapidian

UICA: Where Artists Connect To A Bigger World

In 2007, several members of the Visual Arts Committee (VAC) met at UICA. Below are highlights from that round table forum. As UICA moves into its new facility, these issues are still relevant today.
Underwriting support from:

 

/Paul Wittenbraker and Janet Teunis

/Suzanne LaChance

/Paul Wittenbraker and Michele Bosak

On June 13, 2007, several past and present members of the Visual Arts Committee (VAC) met at UICA. Their lively, two-hour discussion covered UICA’s history, some philosophy of art, the nature of volunteerism, and the importance of UICA’s work within the West Michigan community. Below are some highlights from that round table forum. As UICA moves into its new facility, these issues are still relevant today.

The participants, their community affiliations and involvement at UICA:
Michele Bosak
, currently on VAC, MFA candidate at Northern Illinois University
Sarah Joseph, Director of Exhibits at Kendall, on VAC from 2002 to 2004
Darlene Kaczmarczyk, Associate Professor at Kendall, on VAC from 1981-1991
Suzanne LaChance, One of the four artists who founded UICA 30 years ago
Steve Samson, Director of Marketing at LAAC, Associate Curator for the VAC
Jennifer Steensma Hoag, Associate Professor at Calvin, former VAC Chair
Janet Teunis, UICA Managing Director, on VAC since 1999
Mariel Versluis, Assistant Professor at Kendall, on VAC from 1991-1995
Paul Wittenbraker, Associate Professor at GVSU, UICA Director from 1985-1990

West Michigan artists of all stripes have gravitated toward the energy source known as UICA for thirty years now. All have managed to draw on its uniqueness as a source of inspiration, community and opportunity. Upon first exposure to UICA, they found it opened up their worlds, found ways to become deeply involved, and enjoyed the fact that it was a neutral venue driven by collaboration from the community’s arts colleges, yet free of influence by any one school. They understood perfectly, once they’d arrived, why others would always insist, “Oh, you’ve got to go to UICA!”

What role do you think UICA plays in the community?

Steve: UICA is a venue for high-quality and non-commercial work that is underrepresented elsewhere. We are here to stimulate the community into being more receptive to visual arts and new ideas.
Darlene: Alternative spaces are vital! How do we know what the art of our time will be? These spaces offer a place to produce, explore, and discuss the possibilities.
Paul: UICA’s role is to be open and public, to stimulate thinking and provide diversion—to be a catalyst. The public dimension is important; being together is maybe more important even than observing art. We need to create professional level public discourse.
Suzanne: Our original idea was to create a bridge between commercial art, commercial establishments and museums of the arts world. We wanted to stimulate the community toward being less conservative.

What has been UICA’s role in the lives and careers of artists?

Darlene: UICA has probably been the singular most important institution in the development of my career—as a place to exhibit my work, but mostly as an inspiration. I get to see what contemporary artists from around the country are doing.
Mariel: Being with other artists and the space itself saved me during grad school, which was so intense. I found community here.
Sarah: It’s been great meeting artists from around the country. I had a visiting artist stay with me; that was fun and a unique opportunity to observe creative thinking processes.
Paul: Being involved at UICA has taught many artists to organize, to get things done, to learn about citizenship and participation. Their involvement has been transferable to the outside world.

What experiences have been memorable for you at UICA?

Paul: To me, the fact that citizens make the decisions about art—the programming is done by volunteers from the community rather than by professional staff; it’s alive, highly imaginative and productive, and it’s managed to keep that up. UICA is still thinking about what it is.
Suzanne: UICA is multi-faceted; it’s more than just visual arts. At times we had no gallery space so we’d hold open house in the studios. It’s been organic; like the time we all went to the basement and selected miscellaneous materials and created a group show of sculpture; eventually people began shifting items around. We called it the Basement Show.
Janet: As UICA has grown, it’s found its own way. And the importance of volunteers is so vital to its survival and success.
Jennifer: It’s an amazing place because there are always new faces. This is encouraging, because it is a sure sign that it will continue on after we’re no longer involved. It’s about giving back; you get so much out of it.

What criteria did you use to select art for the exhibitions?
Suzanne: We’d ask, “Is it something that can’t be seen elsewhere in town? Does it make you think about something new?”
Jennifer: I’d try to select things that were personally exciting; and each committee member thought something else was exciting; there was a lot of dialogue and each of us could be heard.
Mariel: We always looked for work that asked questions rather than gave us answers.

What impressed you about UICA’s evolution over the years?
Paul: Often public institutions have had financial problems and have lost their “push-the-envelope” purpose; UICA has resisted this. It has maintained its character and purpose. The organization has been highly practical and efficient, not dreamy. It is always risking, which is invigorating.
Mariel: The best thing about UICA (and it needs to remain this way) is its unpredictability.
Janet: The unique combination of grassroots and professional processes we’ve developed over time (like the VAC has used) seem to offer the best of both worlds.

UICA is unique in its collaboration with community and strong volunteerism. It has allowed people to view art from differing perspectives and given West Michigan a new way to appreciate varied artistic expression. With the addition of Artworks, the youth program, it is beginning to reach out and bridge even more diverse aspects of the community. Participants in this forum felt that if UICA can focus on elevating art and the artistic process even more; continue to gain influence in the West Michigan, national and international arts communities; and help define the significance of art beyond its commercial value, it can only continue to grow stronger in the future.

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