Noble Experiments: An Interview with Kate Lewis of Neighbor Gallery
By Steve Davison
If you’ve attended any Avenue for the Arts First Friday events over the last six months, there’s a fairly good chance you’ve passed by or through Neighbor Gallery. The gallery is the brainchild of Kate Lewis, a stalwart of the Grand Rapids art community.
Frankly, Neighbor Gallery is hard to miss; at times brash and loud, beautiful and sublime and others slightly chaotic and downright bizarre, the exhibitions are a collision of styles, genres, worldviews, aesthetics and sentiments. In that regard the gallery resembles more of a ramshackle laboratory, with artists, musicians, writers, community organizations mixed and matched in boiling beakers and test tubes with Lewis acting as the mad scientist making sense of it all.
Here, we speak with Lewis about being given the keys to a Gallery space to do with whatever she pleased, “incubating risk” (love that term) and why Midwestern Nice maybe bad for art.
Can you explain the origin story of Neighbor Gallery and what your goals were when starting it?
Kate Lewis: The opportunity was offered to me in July to curate First Fridays and some special events at 42 S. Division as a pop-up gallery annexed to Craft House, run by my close friends Amanda Carmer and Brandon Alman. It is both a temporary project and an extension of my curatorial practice. I hope to develop the idea after I take a break from First Fridays at 42 M.Div. and give it time and space to transform and maybe pop up in other locations.
The project began with being given a space that I could show whatever art I felt like in. Instead of doing the same old, I took the opportunity to be the change I wanted to see in the [local] art community. So I focused on incubating risk, getting people to collaborate who wouldn’t normally think to work together; cross-pollinating the creative communities in Grand Rapids that seem to operate insularly, build community to develop the unique arts culture in Grand Rapids (independent of ArtPrize and large cultural institutions) and address social issues while connecting to the community organizations.
I believe that art has the power to uplift all of the people in this city, and to help Grand Rapids overcome its trajectory towards becoming a gentrified city with unnecessary racial tension due to the extreme economic disparity that correlates to these conditions.
What have been some of the more meaningful aspects of the experience of curating the exhibits?
KL: I wanted to do something meaningful with my opportunity to curate this space. I set out to create an example of what a diverse art show would look like, and this project helped me to achieve that vision.
The number of connections to creative people in the community has been priceless. These people inspire me to continue doing what I do because they are also putting energy into the creative renaissance of Grand Rapids. This project helped me to realize that as a person who enjoys a variety of social groups, I can act as a conduit to help foster connections.
This project has helped me learn to trust my intuition again and to trust people in general. I tend to believe if you want to do something right you must do it yourself, but working in a collaborative manner you start to realize nothing will ever be done exactly right. It’s the journey towards expressing that perfect art show that brings a diverse community together for social good.
What have you learned about the Grand Rapids art community that I didn’t know prior as a result of your experiences with Neighbor Gallery?
KL: Everyone is hungry for collaboration but hesitant because the channels have not been established.
I have been inspired by the energy and work ethic of the Grand Rapids Hip Hop artists and have found it easy to connect with like-minded creative and cultural visionaries within that community. Dante Cope (Brandon Copeland) produced a short film which debuted at the first Neighbor Gallery show with live beats during the First Friday event, Matt Black (Peace to Mateo) of the Young Heavy Souls DJ-d the 2nd First Friday; Fable the Poet (Marcel Price) did a feature during the February First Friday and Choppy Blades, president of the Grand Rapids chapter of the Grand Zulu Hip Hop Nation, Dj-d at the March First Friday. We cross promote with the Beat Suite and the Death House events and in general have started to share and build energy towards elevating and expanding our culture through creative collaboration.
How were the theme for each exhibit conceived?
KL: There was a suggested list of themes on the website form that artists could choose what they were interested in. I curated artists together based on these shared interests, dates available, and fluidity of pairing the work styles.
Was it [the theme for the event] something you thought of and then presented to the artists or were they conceived by the artists?
KL: This was a collaborative aspect. I identified social issues that seemed important to address in this space at this time and artists expressed their interest in the issues through the form on the website.
Sometimes artists were recruited from real life instead of the internet form and sometimes the content of the work drove the content of the show, like for On Repeat (Part 5) in March. That show began with choosing to display the performance piece and identifying the themes in the piece that related to the list I had made on the form: Economics & Human Rights
What will be the theme for April?
KL: It’s April Fools, so humor…and we are just celebrating the basic themes of Neighbor Gallery. This show really pushes the concepts of incubating risk, getting artists to collaborate who wouldn’t normally and building community. I believe LINC will be our community partner, and they are a community building foundation. They have thriving First and Third Fridays programming and there is not much cross-over with the Avenue for the Arts. So, the theme is community building and the power of art to change the course of this city for the better, in a way that expresses the unique creative identity of the working artists and cultural visionaries here.
Having curated five of these exhibits over the last five months, what have you learned from the experiments? What sort of feedback have you received from other members of the arts community?
KL: -I think people kind of like what Neighbor Gallery is doing but they didn’t always understand it or feel comfortable in the space. They like to know it is going on but don’t make it to the openings. In the future putting more planning into each individual show with a team of collaborators could help foster a greater connection between the viewers and the artists for future projects and hopefully inspire a greater community involvement.
No one is ever on time! (Lol, but seriously) so be flexible but firm.
Midwestern nice is real and I am not sure why, but I crave some deeper discussion. I think it is necessary for us to tell each other when something isn’t working and to hold each other to high expectations. I got discouraged after asking a handful of acquaintances for feedback and not getting a response, but have been fortunate to have some tokens of unsolicited remarks that helped me gain perspective and make the events progressively better.
Integrating art, music and performance requires finesse. I have a lot of respect for event producers who achieve this seamlessly.
What’s working and what is not working?
KL: The main drawback has been the amount of energy I can devote to this project is limited and although I am collaborating with others on each show, in the future I would like to work with teams of like-minded people or give myself more time to be able to give each project the attention it deserves.
This project was a once-in-a-curator’s-lifetime opportunity to do whatever I wanted in a gallery space for seven months, so I pushed myself to achieve as much as humanly possible, and then worked a little bit more.
Integrating performance and art has been tricky the whole time, and that’s another area that could be worked on. Balancing the energy of the music with the energy of the visual art in the space so that viewers can appreciate both. Perhaps the performance enhancing the visual art experience instead of competing with it.
The things that are working: community building, cross-pollinating creative communities, diversity on the Avenue for the Arts, incubating risk and challenging the white box gallery norm, getting artists to collaborate who wouldn’t normally and getting artists to show work in a space on South Division who wouldn’t normally get engaged with First Fridays, getting artists from Holland, Kalamazoo and Detroit to collaborate with artists in Grand Rapids.
For me personally it helped me meet a lot of awesome creative people and get out of my shell. As an artist, I enjoy doing my ceramic work enough that I would spend my time alone in the studio doing that if I wasn’t interested in the success of my curatorial projects and doing something positive with my energy for the creative community here. I made a 5-10 year commitment to teach this city’s kids after school pottery at the Cook Arts Center, and it’s also my job there to teach the kids how to be better people. I figured I should dig into the community here and try to make a real difference if I was making the time commitment to be here anyway.
By inspiring myself I can inspire these kids and hopefully they will inspire us with the choices they make and direction they take the future of this city.
Do you feel that you’ve succeeded in your goals to address social issues and connect community organizations?
KL: A little bit. Perhaps the seed has been planted. The surface has been skimmed. I have had to be patient with myself as my ambitions often exceed the energy I personally possess.
Note: Portions of this interview were edited for clarity
Upcoming events at Neighbor Gallery:
Friday April 1 (6-10p)
Saturday April 2 (2-7p)
CRANIUM collection pop-up
‘Words on Clay’
Saturday April 9 (noon – 9p) during Art.Downtown.
A solo exhibition representing over a year of Kate Lewis’ investigation into words, ceramics & printmaking with 3 collaborative elements and live music.
Join us for the culmination of Neighbor Gallery events at 42 S. Division before the project takes flight, transforms, and pops up elsewhere.