Paul Amenta's SiTE:LAB returned to the vacant former Public Museum building for ArtPrize 2013. Photo by Michael Buck
Paul Amenta believes in creating his own opportunities. As an assistant professor at Kendall College of Art & Design, he tries to instill that lesson in his students.
“I tell this to my students all the time: If an opportunity doesn’t exist for the type of activity you want to be involved with, make it happen on your own,” he said.
It was an effort to exemplify this lesson that led to the creation of ACTIVESITE and later SiTE:LAB — two projects with which Amenta has been involved that focus on temporary, site-specific art projects.
In 2007, Amenta had just returned to Grand Rapids after years away, including eight years in New York City, and was teaching his first semester at Kendall. He said he began asking students in his classes where they went to see art — who had been to the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts, who frequented the Grand Rapids Art Museum, how many had visited Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art and the Art Institute of Chicago. Barely any raised their hands.
“I said OK, put your stuff away. We are walking to the UICA right now,” he said. “We went there and then we walked down to the GRAM.”
By second semester, Amenta had presented his students with a challenge: to put on their own show.
“I said, ‘We are going to find a space off campus that has nothing to do with Kendall … and we are going to do a site-specific project where you are going to be responsible for everything: You’re going to install the show, light the show, do the cards, do the promotion, work on the logistics, sweep the floors, prep it — everything.’”
He secured the Rockford Construction-owned building on the corner of Ionia Avenue and Oakes Street (now design hub GRid70) for the show, but soon was met with a major challenge: The building was leased out, and the new tenants were planning to begin renovation to turn the space into a restaurant and nightclub.
Amenta reached out to the new tenants and proposed holding the student show there anyway. In conjunction with the art show, the architectural drawings and renderings of the restaurant and nightclub would be displayed. He further involved the new tenants by asking them to create appetizers for the art show opening that would give a sampling of what the restaurant would offer.
“So out of necessity, this sort of idea was born,” Amenta said. “Here is a unique opportunity: It allows us to use the space; it allows them to do some promotion.”
The show brought 450 people and was a huge success. And, Amenta said, the group had pulled it off in less than two weeks.
The following year, Amenta had his eye on the old water filtration plant on North Monroe Avenue (now Clearwater Place). He expanded the scope of the show to include students and faculty from five institutions, and promised the building owner the event would bring a large number of people into the facility.
“This time, 900 people showed up,” he said. “The owner of the building showed up and he was just walking around with this huge grin on his face. He was like, ‘How did you get this many people here? I wish my realtor could get this many people in the building.’”
Amenta had stumbled onto a terrific model for hosting art shows around town that was also good for business.
“What I realized was that owners — particularly private owners — are willing to let you use their space if they feel they get some benefit out of the event, and that basically boils down to: A lot of people are going to come and see an empty space, and maybe something happens because of that,” he explained.
Shows in the former Kindel Furniture building (now the Goei Center) and the Flat Iron Building followed, as well as the adoption of the name ACTIVESITE to market the art shows in empty buildings.
ACTIVESITE’s last event was an entry in the first ArtPrize in 2009, in the building at 40 Monroe Center that is now MoDiv.
“That sort of was the first project that we did where we really changed the model,” he said. “Rather than bring student work in, we decided we were going to design a space that would host, essentially, cultural activity and events. We worked with an architect to design out the space, we worked with builders to create that vision … and we ran events out of our space. The ACTIVESITE project, our entry, was the entire space — the building and everything that happened inside of it.”
With the growing publicity his projects were receiving, the former Public Museum building came knocking.
“That was another sort of game changer in terms of the direction of what we currently do,” he said. “We worked with 30 faculty members and 200 art students from eight institutions for a project we called ‘Michigan, Land of Riches’ in 2010, and it was our first time using the 54 Jefferson space.
“It was a magical exhibit, and it was the first time in 16 years that the public was allowed back into the space.”
On opening night, nearly 5,000 people showed up.
Under the new moniker of SiTE:LAB, Amenta has held four art events: at 54 Jefferson and in the building that now houses LaFontsee Galleries and the former Junior Achievement Building.
This fall, SiTE:LAB was once again at 54 Jefferson for ArtPrize. It is the second year the building served as its ArtPrize home, and probably the last — at least for a while.
“I didn’t want to create a sequel to last year,” he noted. “Usually when I use a building, I sort of feel that I’ve drawn everything out of it that I can, and I’m usually bored with it when I’m done. This building is different. I still feel like I could do something different in this space, but it’s probably time.”
He said this year’s project was about looking toward the future.
“In previous projects, I invited artists in to sort of respond to the history, the nostalgia of the building. … Some artists responded to the decay of the building or the nostalgia that permeates the space. … (This time) I really wanted to challenge artists to come in and respond more to the architecture, specifically, and more with this leaning forward, looking-to-the-future mentality.”
Amenta hopes his journey is a lesson to his students that they can create their own opportunities. He notes that he didn’t see his first art show until he was a junior in college, having been a jock up to that point. He found his career path almost by accident. Wanting a fun and easy semester, he signed up for three art classes, and knew he had found his passion.
“It was really the first time since playing sports that I felt like my sort of competitive personality could fit in somewhere that had nothing to do with sports.”
His parting message: “It’s hard work. It’s not easy. Doing this show has taken me a year, and it’s not a year of my spare time or the weekends or three hours a night. It is seven days a week/24 hours. When I am not teaching, I am working on this; when I am not sleeping, I am working on this; when I am not spending a little bit of time with my family, I am working on this. And it is volunteer — I don’t get paid, no one gets paid. We do it because we love it.
“You have to be driven and passionate about stuff, particularly in the creative world. There are just zero spots — even if you are good, even if you are talented and work hard, there’s zero spots, so you create your own destiny, so to speak.”