Arts & Entertainment

UICA positions itself for a rebound

New leadership puts plans into action.

August 2, 2013
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UICA positions itself for a rebound
The Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts, or UICA, in downtown Grand Rapids is a nonprofit center for contemporary visual arts, film, special events, education and community events. Photo by Michael Buck

The financial woes of the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts are well known in the Grand Rapids arts community, but the organization is digging in and taking steps to rebuild its financial footing and its reputation.

The 36-year-old arts organization moved into its brand new building at 2 W. Fulton St. just over two years ago and expectations were high for what it would be able to achieve in the new location. However, just one year in, the organization announced it would be restructuring to deal with a declining financial situation.

The past year hasn’t been easy as the UICA operated without an executive director, decreased its hours of operation, canceled events and continued to see portions of the building remain empty. However, behind the scenes, the wheels have been moving aggressively to turn things around, and this summer the organization has begun to put ideas into action.

In May, Miranda Krajniak was hired as interim executive director. Krajniak has a strong background in arts education and more than a decade’s worth of experience in the West Michigan arts community. She has worked at Saugatuck Center for the Arts and Grand Rapids Art Museum, and is a graduate of Kendall College of Art & Design.

While at GRAM, Krajniak quickly advanced from her position as a part-time receptionist to leader of the service team. She then joined the education department where she continued to advance. By the time she left after five years there, she had become the studio programs coordinator within the education department.

Krajniak followed her time at GRAM with two years at Saugatuck Center for the Arts, serving as the head of its education and curatorial departments.

“It was a wonderful challenge to stretch myself in that way,” Krajniak said. “Education and curatorial have more in common than most people think, and it really changed how I view education and curatorial.”

In the UICA’s search for an executive director, Krajniak’s experience stood out, and the organization’s leadership reached out to her to discuss the opportunity.

“It was an interesting choice for them,” Krajniak said. “Education is not usually the background of the executive director of a nonprofit. It’s a very different direction.”

The move seems to be an indication the organization is, in fact, thinking differently about its recovery and how that will be achieved.

Krajniak’s background was the right fit for what UICA leadership identified as its key needs in an executive director: the ability to recognize and promote leaders, evaluate and reorganize programming, and connect with the public.

“I am here to recognize the leadership within the building and take that forward, and also to recognize leadership within Grand Rapids that can help us move.”

Krajniak said one of the first leaders she’s identified is Nicholas Hartman, who was working at UICA as a projectionist.

“After speaking with him and seeing his work, the leadership was very apparent,” Krajniak said. “He had a true passion — not just for the UICA and where we are going, but for film and for the public’s interaction with film.”

Hartman was promoted to head the film program.

Programming has been an important component of UICA; however, since its move from the Sheldon location, programming has struggled, in part due to an overly ambitious expansion due to the excitement over the new building and its possibilities.

“That is one of the things that we are doing here is actually letting go of programs to focus down on what we are known for —which are films, openings and events,” Krajniak said.

Finally, the UICA needs to have a welcoming and approachable face in the community, and Krajniak has hit the ground running, meeting with constituents and giving a presentation on the results of a membership survey that highlighted what members think UICA does best and the direction it needs to take to regain its footing.

“It’s really important that, within my position, I am completely open to the public,” she said. “Every person is important.”

Hartman’s elevation to head of the film department is one part of the UICA’s response to the desire for a strong film program, which will become more family friendly.

“Downtown is changing; more families are coming here,” Krajniak said. “Heritage Hill is bursting at the seams right now, and as more people see downtown as the place to raise children and have families, we need to reflect that.”

UICA attendees also can expect to see a giant leap forward in exhibitions. For the first time in its history, it has hired a full-time curator, Alexander Paschka.

“The goal is to have three to four running exhibitions concurrently,” Krajniak said. “The times of a big, empty building are over.”

“Sheldon was easier to curate because there were two spaces, but now that we’ve moved into a new building, we have many floors and specific spaces per floor that need to be taken into consideration,” Krajniak explained. “We really needed the vision of one person who could look at three years, and then start to scaffold shows into the appropriate space, the appropriate season.

“That vision had to come from someone who was here all the time, who really understood the building, how people walk through the building … and who was willing to go out into the community and make the necessary connections to get that to happen.”

Krajniak said Paschka, who has spent seven years with GRAM working in nearly every department, was the right fit.

“He is very forward thinking, very dedicated to the art scene in Grand Rapids. He is one of the original Division Avenue area arts folk, who helped create that corridor. He is very dedicated and ready to take on something of this magnitude.”

Paschka said that he would be responsible for figuring out how to best utilize the exhibition spaces, ensuring they meet professional exhibition standards, and re-networking the UICA regionally, nationally and internationally.

“I really think that the UICA needs to be three years out booking exhibitions so that they can form business partnerships and also create a timetable for the staff to create engagement experiences and educational resources that are relevant and wanted by the community.”

Krajniak wants to make sure UICA members are appreciated as much as its donors.

“One thing we definitely heard from the community within our constituent meetings was that our events, though they were highly popular, had started to price out our members,” she said.

This year members will find ticket prices for Odd Ball and Live Coverage have been lowered.

“I’m always keeping members in mind when we create events and fundraisers so they can come,” she said. “They deserve to come and they should come — we want them there. It’s time to rethink how we do our fundraising and who comes to our fundraisers.”

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