When Grand Arts closed in the fall of 2015 after a 20-year tenure in the Crossroads, Stacy Switzer, the artistic director of the organization (calling it a "gallery" would be inadequate), said it had been a place of "extraordinary" freedom for artists.
“If something didn’t come through, if we took a risk and it didn’t materialize in the way we expected, that was OK," Switzer said. She also promised that a forthcoming book would document thirty projects that the Grand Arts team considered their most complicated, challenging, provocative and interesting.
When it was published this year, Problems and Provocations: Grand Arts 1995-2015, wasn't just a collection of striking images and accompanying essays.
Across the course of nearly 450 pages, exhibition images are accompanied by reproductions of notes, emails, and other evidences of the work behind the work.
"The book really captures a spirit of fearless exploration," says Switzer, who, along with Eric Dobbins, Annie Fischer and Lacey Wozny, left Kansas City and re-constituted themselves in Los Angeles as a non-profit called Fathomers; Jeff Eaton remained in Kansas City where he acted as the book's archivist and production editor. They celebrated the book's release at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in October.
Grand Arts Founder Margaret Silva is also involved in Fathomers, which casts itself as “a philanthropic research institute that convenes radical thinkers across disciplines to create new worlds together” by cultivating “the ideas of die-hard dreamers,” commissioning “projects that seem far-fetched,” and developing “relationships based on mutual risk-taking and transformative effect.”
The team had been thinking about the book for years before leaving Kansas City.
"We knew it was a really ambitious project," Switzer says. "We knew we wanted to do at least 30 projects, and look at the most complicated among them, so that was our lens for deciding which projects."
By "complicated," Switzer means projects that would allow the book to show how an artist's proposal went through phases of research and development "to see what came out on the other end."
"Especially for art students, curators and curious people, that's what was special about the Grand Arts process," Switzer explains. "It wasn’t that an artist would propose something and we would fabricate it according to the artist's specs. Often, there was a long conversation about how to push, pull, and tease the idea, pull out the most provocative threads and find other people in other fields who could help us enhance it in other ways."
In Los Angeles, the team found a designer named Michael Worthington who allowed them to realize their vision.
"We all agreed that we wanted to create a book you didn’t have to read from beginning to end, but that you could flip open, dive in and say, 'That’s a really interesting project,' close it and look again on another day," Switzer says.
It's that magazine-like quality that makes the book compelling for not just artists, art students and curators, but also for Kansas City's First Friday crowd.
"That spirit of deep mutual respect and collaboration is part of the artist's community in Kansas City, and the book reflects one aspect of that," Switzer says. "There are the many, many artists who create a context for each other."
Now, the team of Kansas City expats is gearing up for its first Fathomers project, which involves Michael Jones McKean, whose Riverboat Lovesongs for the Ghost Whale Regatta occupied Grand Arts for seven weeks in the fall of 2006.
"In Hollywood, we work in co-working space — there's no gallery anymore — which is an exciting thing because we’ll be realizing projects on their own terms out in the world," Switzer says.
Besides bequeathing Kansas City with a hefty volume verifying that decade of extraordinary artistic freedom, Switzer has another parting gift: She confirms that Angelenos are aware of what's happening back in her old town.
"People know Kansas City has a thriving arts community," she says. "That's mostly what we hear: 'Oh, Kansas City. Interesting. I haven't gone, but I've always wanted to.'"
Until then, they can just look through Problems and Provocations.
C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.