The Urban Institute of Contemporary Arts (UICA) announced that it would be closing its doors back in December 2022. In the months following, there has been plenty of vocal opposition from the students of Kendall College of Art and Design (KCAD) who say that this closure is sudden and devastating for the community.
Kendall College which resides in downtown Grand Rapids, was acquired by Ferris State University, located in Big Rapids in 1996. In 2013, Ferris State made the decision to merge with the UICA gallery because of its location in the heart of Grand Rapids. At the time, the gallery was set to close down because of, “debts and monthly expenses outpacing its income,” according to the Ferris State website.
Tara McCrackin, president of Kendall College, said the institute was ready to declare bankruptcy before Ferris stepped in.
“We stepped in and worked with the UICA and their donors for an agreement that their donors would invest and pay off the debt at that time and the UICA would come to Kendall under the Ferris umbrella,” McCrackin explained.
McCrackin said that this agreement gave the institute five years to create a sustainable business model with support from Ferris. “That was in 2013 so we have doubled that timeframe of support,” she said. “We gave them a lot of support and we worked with them and we just have not been able to achieve a sustainable model.”
Despite this, the students at Kendall claim the closure may have been avoidable. A Kendall student and UICA staffer, Sydney Bidel said, “When we were told about the closure it was really sudden. There was no heads up. The actual UICA team was not included in any of the meetings following up to its closure.”
Had the UICA staff been involved in these conversations, Bidel says the outcome could have been different. “Because we wanted to make the arts really accessible (the UICA) changed (their) policies to being free (admission) and free memberships. So through that we did lose a lot of our income that way, but we wanted to make up for that lost income by doing fundraisers, community events, etcetera. Because the community is a really big part of the UICA.”
“When we pitched ideas like fundraising, community events to administration a lot of the time they were rejected and we weren’t allowed to go through with those things,” Bidel said.
However, McCrackin said that Ferris tried to make the organization feasible saying, “We hired and worked with a consultant on creating a fundraising campaign for the UICA in the last couple years and we still have not been able to reach sustainability.”
Following the announcement of the closure, there has been pressure from the students of Kendall and the community at large including a petition for Kendall to open a new public gallery space. On Jan. 25 there was a town hall meeting for students and employees to voice their criticism on the closure and how it was handled. McCrackin and Stephen Halko, the Dean of Academic Affairs at KCAD attended the meeting.
Kendall student Lexi Wierenga attended the event and said that the school was already considering alternative gallery spaces. “(McCrackin) discussed some options on how we could kind of do a similar gallery space and keep it open by partnering with a different source or a different community.”
However, Spencer Hope, another student who spoke at the event, explained that the new gallery space would have a lot to live up to.
“As a federally accredited art and design school, (for) that to be the case, the institution needs to have a public gallery space on campus,” he said. “The UICA is a showcase of contemporary art that is alive and happening in the art world. So it was connecting us to real artists with real impact regionally and outside of just Grand Rapids. So having it be replaced, it’s not just a matter of ‘put something else in and problem solved’ because the content of the gallery is enormously important.”
Hope also said that the closure represents a larger problem with Kendall at this moment. “More of the frustration for a lot of (students) is not just about the UICA. It’s a pattern in history of Kendall losing valuable resources and them not being replaced or reorganized in a way that improves the school and the student experience.”
Hope said that recently the school lost their Materials ConneXion lab, their cafe, bookstore and the hours for other valuable resources have been cut down. Despite these losses, Hope says the students are still paying the same tuition which ranges from about $30,000 to $50,000 according to KCAD’s website.
McCrackin assures, however, that this is not a bad omen for the future of Kendall College.
“We’re not going away,” McCrackin told The Collegiate. “West Michigan is design centric. Michigan’s economy is based around making things and in order to make good things you need design.”
While the fate of Kendall’s on-campus gallery space is unclear, Hope says he’s optimistic about the future.
“I’m hopeful that the meeting wasn’t for naught and that it’s actually going to be implemented and considered moving forward,” he said. “The frustrations and sadness that we all have is because we really care about our school and we really do want to believe in it. Even the administration, we all feel like we’re on one team.”