UICA GRAND RAPIDS // INTERVIEW WITH ALEXANDER PASCHKA

by Alexandra Kadlec

The Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan is no stranger to change. Founded in 1977 by a group of local artists, to date the nonprofit has been housed in five different spaces, expanded beyond the visual arts to include literature, music, drama, dance, and film programming, and, in the face of recent years’ declining membership and attendance, fought hard to keep its doors open. Today, it is not uncommon to hear staff members refer to UICA as a “36-year-old startup.”

In August of 2013, further changes were ushered in when UICA merged with nearby Kendall College of Art and Design, a collaboration bound by a two-pronged objective to engage a growing community of students and professionals in ongoing creative conversation. Add to this development several staff hires within the last few months, and it is clear that the institution is just beginning a new chapter in its dynamic story line.

The Urban Institute of Contemporary Arts in Grand Rapids, MI. Courtesy UICA.

The Urban Institute of Contemporary Arts in Grand Rapids, MI. Courtesy UICA.

THE SEEN recently caught up with Alexander Paschka, UICA’s newly appointed Exhibitions Curator, to discuss where the contemporary art space is at now, and how his creative vision is helping shape what’s set to happen next.

THE SEEN: How would you describe the art scene in Grand Rapids? What role does UICA play within the arts community here?

AP: Grand Rapids has a very collaborative arts scene. Many people that came to area to study at one of the universities here have then stayed on to initiate several grassroots arts organizations, like Avenue for the Arts, to serve the needs of the community. What has been really inspiring with the younger generation, many of whom are artists and entrepreneurs in their twenties and thirties, is the Do-It-Together mentality they bring. In a city of this scale, having access to people is a huge benefit. Working together has been really important for pushing cultural awareness in Grand Rapids forward.

UICA is critical for enabling a creative community to thrive here. By hosting a variety of events, showing indie films, and generating cutting-edge exhibitions, we’ve become a hub for experiences that aren’t found elsewhere in the area. Grand Rapids depends on UICA to provide cultural touch points for what’s happening in the art world in other parts of the country. We’re always striving to do so in a way that engages and participates with the local artistic community.

Alexander Paschka, Exhibitions Curator of UICA. Courtesy Alexander Paschka.

Alexander Paschka, Exhibitions Curator of UICA. Courtesy Alexander Paschka.

THE SEEN: How did the opportunity to work with UICA arise? What unique skills do you bring to the institution?

AP: I began working at UICA in August of 2013. Before that I was the Manager of Digital Media for the Grand Rapids Art Museum, and was also involved with a venture firm here called Momentum. The opportunity with UICA arose out of the professional network I’ve been part of for many years now, which includes some of the current staff members at UICA.

I bring an entrepreneurial approach and a diverse skill set that includes coding, business knowledge, and experience working with several studio art mediums, which enables me to speak to the diverse multidisciplinary focus of UICA.

THE SEEN: Describe your curatorial vision for UICA.

AP: My vision is to honor the previous incarnations of UICA while ensuring that the community continues to be engaged and immersed in the experience. It is especially valuable when we can bring in art that has been marginalized, or underserved in the community, in the past – and allow it to find a voice, like we did with Pulso. We hope to be a space where visitors can find new possibilities and imagine new realities.

THE SEEN: Who are some of the artists you’ve been working with at UICA? What exhibitions and initiatives are you currently working on?

AP: I’ve recently been working with the painter and sculptor Tom Duimstra, as well as Daniel Luchman, who is a sculptor and video artist. At UICA we’re always on the lookout for interesting content that challenges the audience. I also just finished installing Mary Ann Aitken: A Retrospective 1983 – 2011 that opened on November 15 and will be on view until February 16. I am currently looking for shows that can be developed for Fall 2014 and Winter 2015, which means constantly exploring the local art scene, and also researching institutional collaborations in Detroit and Chicago for traveling exhibitions.

On a broader scale, UICA is shifting to serving a larger arts community in Grand Rapids with the creation of the Art Commons, a collaborative working and event space set to open on the corner of Fulton and Commerce in early 2014.

Untitled (self-portrait with a camera) detail, Mary Ann Aitken, 1984. Oil on canvas, Private Collection. Courtesy UICA.

Untitled (self-portrait with a camera) detail, Mary Ann Aitken, 1984. Oil on canvas, Private Collection. Courtesy UICA.

THE SEEN: Are there any particular art districts or type of artwork you are drawn to these days?

AP: Personally, I’m drawn to confrontational photographic works that compel the viewer to reflect on the world around them, like those of Alec Soth and Diane Arbus. I enjoy some of the work coming out of Detroit arts spaces such as What Pipeline Gallery, Cranbrook, and Library Street Collective.

THE SEEN: What do you like best about working at UICA? What are the most exciting, and most challenging, aspects?

AP: I like that my job is creative in an unorthodox way. I’m constantly working to solve problems, create solutions, and develop systems to advocate for the arts. The most challenging and exciting aspect of my job is one and the same: to create something relevant and important that serves and engages as many people as possible.


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Alexander Paschka is the Exhibitions Curator at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He received his BFA with a focus on photography from Kendall College of Art and Design.

Alexandra Kadlec is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in Time Out New York, Chicago Art Magazine, and Chicago DIY Film. She also currently writes for Revue.

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