Supermarket stationary aisles are rife with cards cheekily announcing 40th birthdays as the harbinger of old age, the demise of youth, and the decline of usefulness. Meanwhile, the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts (UICA) is choosing instead to celebrate its 40th birthday as a milestone of achievement, with two massive exhibits celebrating diversity and representation.
“We knew we wanted to celebrate the work that people and organizations and locations that came before the current iteration (of UICA) had done,” said Heather Duffy, UICA’s exhibitions curator. “But we also didn’t want to spend our birthday year being exclusively nostalgic. We wanted to use this as a time to look forward, to think about who we have been, who we still are, and who we are becoming.”
So, on Jan. 27, UICA opened US IS THEM: Art from the Pizzuti Collection. Originating at the Pizzuti Collection in Columbus, Ohio, US IS THEM is an exhibit of 42 international artists who tackle issues of politics, religion and racism through more than 50 contemporary works of art covering a wide range of media, including painting, sculpture, photography and video.
It’s important to Duffy and the rest of the UICA team to push for equity, she said, both in terms of who is able to view collections and whose work is actually shown. As UICA is a non-collecting museum, it is on a constant search for new material. This challenge is also a strength — the museum can be timely in what it shows and can feature emerging and mid-career artists.
“The content is so present. … It’s important to have people tell their identity stories and not be pushed to the margins,” Duffy said.
US IS THEM is organized to reflect issues of social justice and current affairs across the globe. Drawing on their experiences, the artists in the collection have created beautiful works of art that are meant to prompt dialogue about identity and a shared humanity that has more similarities than differences.
“We get to work with contemporary artists, who are almost always still living. It’s a really great privilege to hear their voice,” Duffy said. “We are able to tell their stories in their words with their images. … That’s not something everyone gets to do.”UICA’s website offers a helpful guide to visitors: “The exhibition is organized geographically, with a section dedicated to artists with roots in Africa and the Caribbean, which reveals a focus on the persistent legacy of colonialism. Galleries devoted to Chinese artists include works that address individual voices in a vast society. Artists from the Middle East contemplate religious freedoms and fights for equality, while American artists address continuing racism and bigotry.”
Complementing the nearly 4-month run of US IS THEM (which closes May 14) is a suite of small exhibitions called Here + Now. Again, the exhibit is made up of identity-driven work that shines a light on outdated concepts of differences and adds further fuel to the conversation about the human condition started by US IS THEM.
Here + Now is a rotating collection of solo exhibitions, performances and community events by African American visual artists, spoken word artists, curators and performance artists. This includes newly created shows and a guest-curated group exhibition, as well as community events and educational programs.
In closing, Duffy shared a quote from noted writer and activist Rebecca Solnit: “The ability to tell your own story in words or images is already a victory, already a revolt.”
Duffy believes that we are still in a relatively new era, where many different views are not only valid but worthy of being centerstage. She said the UICA feels charged with the responsibility of being that stage.
“We want UICA to be a place for everyone,” Duffy said. “In our 40th year, we are really looking to build audience equity and artist equity.”
US IS THEM:
Art from the Pizzuti Collection
Through May 14
Here + Now
Through March 31
2 W. Fulton St., Grand Rapids
$5 for adults, free for children 5 and under