Where Art Becomes Agora

Over 600 community volunteers worked with artist Amanda Browder in creating her Project 1 installation, Kaleidoscopic. Photo: Edgar Hernandez

This essay, written July 19, 2019 and addendum written September 13, 2019, comes from the Project 1 catalogue.

By Rebecca Carbin, Independent Curator

In her 2015 anthology of recent practices in public art, titled Out of Time, Out of Place: Public Art (Now), Claire Doherty writes, “public art remains cast in the collective imagination as either unwanted guest or mass entertainer.” Doherty is suggesting that people only think of art in the public realm as being one of two paradigms: the monumental sculpture or the arts festival. But these paradigms are polarities on the public art spectrum.

Grand Rapids, Michigan has a particularly interesting public art history. The city’s story offers extraordinary examples of both ends of this public art spectrum and, in 2019, endeavors to capture the public’s imagination at a space in between.

In 1969, the city’s iconic La Grande Vitesse, by international art superstar Alexander Calder, was the first public art project to be realized through the Art in Public Places program by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The NEA funds fell short of the city’s ambition for this project, and La Grande Vitesse was made possible thanks to the addition of significant private contributions from the Grand Rapids community.

Almost 40 years later in 2009, Grand Rapids saw a major philanthropic investment in public art again with the launch of ArtPrize. ArtPrize is a unique event that sees the entire downtown—museums, parks, restaurants, theaters, hotels, functioning shops, and vacant storefronts—devoting space to artists of every conceivable medium and calibre, and opening doors to hundreds of thousands of art viewers. By year 10, ArtPrize attracted an estimated 500,000 visitors to a city whose population numbers 200,000.

Rob Bliss, 100,000 Paper Planes and Melodies Over Monroe, 2009.
Photo by Brian Kelly

While Doherty’s claim implies a negativity that does not capture Grand Rapids’ opinion of La Grande Vitesse or ArtPrize, these two public art examples perfectly embody her statement about the dominant perception of what public art is or can be. As happened in 1969 and 2009, the 2019 launch of Project 1 sees a major philanthropic investment supporting a bold vision for public art in Grand Rapids. Project 1 is a new foray into the space that lies between the hulking heroic monument of La Grand Vitesse and the fully democratized festival atmosphere of ArtPrize.

In this part of the public art spectrum—between the modernist monument encountered by accident and indifferent to activity around it, and the festival framework which encourages people to suspend normal expectations and seek out the unusual—there lies public artwork that temporarily occupies, engages, disrupts, and disorients. If curated with integrity, work in this middle space encourages dialogue and democracy in a way that is unique, resonant, and invaluable to social cohesion. This is a space where, when done well, public art can fulfill its “noblest function,” which is “to nurture participatory citizenship, to create an unfettered intellectual space for debate and socio-political engagement.” [1]

Project 1’s inaugural iteration takes to heart the opportunity for dialogue that comes with a curated program of temporary art in the public realm. The thematic narrative and selected artist projects confront timely issues around access, ownership, dispossession, opportunity, and identity. The 2019 program, Crossed Lines, addresses the boundaries that define an urban landscape and how these lines—some more obvious that others—delineate who has access to what, where, and how, and invites questions of why. These lines define opportunity, demarcate the prosperous from the marginal, define inequalities, and delineate public from private.

Project 1 artworks are sited within key public sites that shape everyday life in Grand Rapids. For example, Heather Hart’s The Oracle of the Soulmates, with twin structures in two locations at Rosa Parks Circle and Martin Luther King Park, is neither monument nor festival. Instead, it engages aspects of both in a series of large scale, temporary interruptions in the day-to-day landscape. This unfamiliar rupture in the fabric of this familiar site will provoke questions, conflicting responses, and debate.

In the 1970s, German artist Joseph Beuys famously declared that “everyone is an artist.” [2] However, he was not suggesting that everyone has the ability to paint or sculpt. The full statement reads, “Every human being is an artist, a freedom being, called to participate in transforming and reshaping the conditions, thinking, and structures that shape and inform our lives.” Beuys’ proposition refers to a shift in the location of meaning that happens when we consider art more as a process of communication and exchange than as a product. In other words,


Audiences can be more receptive to difficult messages when delivered through familiar means. In the fields of social or participatory practice in which a number of Project 1 artists work, artists have a variety of tools for creating points of access for the public to engage with the complex concepts and difficult issues they are addressing. Examples of these entry points are beauty, humor, food,
performance, and craft.

Bryan Esler Photo

Amanda Browder has been working with local Grand Rapidians over a period of months to create the enormous textile environments she will be mounting for Project 1. With a Beuysian spirit, the very publicness of her project Kaleidoscopic was already embedded in the work before it is even installed for exhibition. Browder’s works “redefine the structure while entangling the community in the mystique of fine art creation.”[3] The artist employs the accessible nature of craft as a gesture of empowerment and agency and engages the public in stitching these issues right into the fabric of the work.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer positions the public as the generator of meaning in his work Voice Bridge, which is activated by the voices of viewers who determine what is said and transmitted in this work that bridges two sides of Grand River. Similar to his Park Avenue Tunnel project in New York City in 2013, “At any given time, the tunnel [rings] with the voices of the past seventy-five participants.”[4] Again, this work requires a level of public interaction that invites an audience to become performers. Capitalizing on a widely-held desire to “be heard” and to see the impact of one’s actions, Voice Bridge raises critical questions of authorship, agency, information, freedom of speech, censorship, official vs unofficial narratives, and associations with social geography and opportunity.

Paul Amenta and Ted Lott’s Critical Infrastructure, realized in collaboration with DisArt, [5] builds an environment that addresses issues of accessibility, both perceived and concrete, by temporarily transforming a private space into a fully accessible public space. The project connects formally and conceptually to a previous collaboration, Elevate Fashion Show, realized in 2016. It was touted as “Incredible!” by Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art Curator Chad Alligood, for the project’s nuanced handling of the feeling of the space and authenticity of participation. He continued, “That’s social practice right there! And really, really beautifully done!”[6]

There is, however, danger in a program like Project 1 that takes, head-on, this opportunity to confront big issues. The danger is that the work may fall short of inspiring new ways of thinking and perceiving the world around us. The way to avoid this pitfall is to ensure that all projects are “art first.” In the Age of Enlightenment art was understood as a universal language, a powerful connecting force. When moralizing, proselytizing, or grandstanding are dressed up as art, they fall short of anything transformative or even interesting. This is simply because at their heart, they are not art: they do not speak a universal language.

Bryan Esler Photo

Successful works, in contrast, are rooted in a strong artistic practice stemming from clear aesthetic concerns and deep inquiry. These practices allow space for simple acts—sewing, speaking, walking along a ramp, jumping from a false roof, or sharing a community meal [7]—to become something that fundamentally shifts perception or expectations. In so doing, these art-led experiences seep into our experience and understanding of the world around us in a slow-burn fashion that can be surprisingly subversive or radical.

The space for public art in which Project 1 situates itself lies somewhere between unwanted guest and entertainer, between hulking monumental hero and detached from reality festival. Projects in this particular space can push buttons and boundaries far more than projects that exist at either end of public art’s spectrum. They can ask questions that are as provocative as those asked in a gallery, and ask them in a language that is immediate and rooted in the everyday experience of a place, albeit interrupted and reoriented.

Such platforms present the opportunity for art to be truly public, in the way that the ancient Greek term “agora” referred to a social commons or public marketplace, a space where people convened to discuss issues big and small. Art projects in this space become agora, a social commons, reclaiming, re-centering, re-orienting. Publicness is not an issue of location as much as engagement, interaction, dialogue, and debate. The next chapter in Grand Rapids’ unique story of public art is full of potential, positioning public art as the agora: the social commons where ideas are exchanged and democracy flourishes with the universal language of art at its center.


In the weeks leading up to the opening of Project 1, a controversy erupted over the planned opening night performance of Drag Syndrome. Originally booked to take place at Critical Infrastructure (Paul Amenta and Tedd Lott’s installation at Tanglefoot), the venue owner pulled out overstated concerns for exploitation of the performers. But let’s face it if the show was a Christmas pageant, would these concerns have been expressed? The drag performance goes against the common and misguided belief that people with Down Syndrome are eternal children. In fact, people with Down Syndrome do become adults and as such, have sexual desires and needs. Moreover, these sexual desires are not necessarily hetero. In a specially convened panel before the opening, the performers clearly and unreservedly stated that they are empowered by their art.

ArtPrize worked closely with DisArt, the project partners, to find an alternate venue and the show went on. Four hundred people within the theatre applauded the performers, while a smaller number of people protested on the street. Due to the first show being sold out, a second show was booked for the following night. Drag Syndrome and the surrounding controversy showed up in numerous news outlets across the US, including the New York Times. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a suit against the venue owner for discrimination. In booking the US premier of Drag Syndrome, Project 1 has catalyzed a nationwide discussion about the need to update mainstream public perception of the agency and sexuality of people with Down Syndrome. As a new “social commons where ideas are exchanged and democracy flourishes,” that’s a pretty impressive start.

[1] Cher Krause Knight, Public Art: Theory, Practice and Populism, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008), 38.
[2] It is interesting to refer to this often misunderstood statement in Grand Rapids, whose ArtPrize festival reveals just how many people are feverishly devoting their time and passion to artistic pursuits of all kinds and calibres, often completely divorced from the vocabulary, trends, and institutions of Contemporary Art. Beuys did not mean that everyone has the ability to produce fine art.
[3] Jenny Molissa Spring, Unexpected Art: Serendipitous Installations, Site-Specific Works, and Surprising Interventions, (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2015), 22.
[4] Spring, Unexpected Art, 102.
[5] DisArt is an arts and culture organization that focuses on creating public art events that cultivate and communicate a disabled culture.
[6] SiTE:LAB, Rumsey Street Project, Everything is Transformed, (Grand Rapids, MI: SiTE:LAB, 2016), 27.
[7] The 2017 ArtPrize Juror’s Grand Prize was awarded to Seitu Jones, for The Heartside Community Meal, in which Jones served a healthy, locally-grown meal to over 250 people at a 300 foot long table, “revealing the food rituals of the cultures that gave birth to our diverse population.” Jones’ ArtPrize entry was curated by the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts (UICA).