John Spiak made his name as a curator at the Arizona State University Art Museum, in Tempe, where he spent 17 years helping to develop an innovative program dedicated in large part to a socially engaged mode of art-making known as "social practice."
He was born and raised in Orange County, however, not far from downtown Santa Ana, which makes his move last fall — to take over as director and chief curator of the Grand Central Art Center — something of a homecoming. "I grew up running around this neighborhood," he says, and he speaks of it today with a booster's enthusiasm.
A tour of the center — which includes several exhibition spaces, a small theater, a shop and 28 residential apartments, most of which are reserved for Cal State Fullerton MFA students — extends quite naturally for Spiak into a walking tour of the neighborhood.
From the recently developed arts district, where the center resides, he loops through the traditional Latino shopping district a few blocks north, established, he notes, in the early 20th century and now home to more quinceañera shops than you've probably ever seen in one place. He circles back past the Ronald Reagan Federal Building and Courthouse, a sparkling behemoth that shares the street with a nonprofit health clinic, a marijuana dispensary and a gay bar.
Spiak, who studied sociology and anthropology before coming into art, clearly relishes the incongruities that make up the working life of such a city and embraces the opportunity to tackle its problems, including questions of gentrification that the very presence of the center, which Cal State Fullerton and the city of Santa Ana teamed to open in 1999, evokes.
"What happens when you move an arts district in?" he asks. "How do you break down those barriers to have true collaboration and respect? How can the art institution be the spearhead, the safe zone in which dialogue can occur?"
Spiak's vision for the center — which, though a division of Cal State Fullerton, is funded largely through revenue generated by the property itself (in the form of rent from students and a handful of retail tenants) — includes a traditional exhibition program.
What most excites him at the moment, however, and will be his focus through the year or so it takes for the center's previously planned exhibitions to cycle through, is the development of a social practice residency program. Spiak characterizes social practice as an approach to making art that is "relationship-based" rather than "material-based," that evolves from collaboration with members of a given community and builds on the expertise these collaborators offer. (In one of the most extensive such projects he organized in Arizona, the artist Gregory Sale worked with prison inmates to produce a broad array of events and discussions exploring the state of the criminal justice system.)
Utilizing one of the center's apartments, Spiak plans to draw a range of artists from all over the world to undertake projects that engage with the fabric of the city.
The idea, he says, is to "bring them here and say, 'Look at this community — what's interesting to you about this community? It's your resource; you tell me how you want to use it.'" The residency currently underway, with Los Angeles artist Jules Rochielle, involves the organization of a "think tank" of artists to investigate topics of work, labor, food and immigration; another currently in discussion, by the Venezuelan-born artist Saskia Jordá, would entail collaboration with the many nearby quinceañera shops.
"Most museums and art spaces are places you walk into that every once in a while develop outreach programs to go out into a specific community," he says. "I'm going in the other direction, where we put our activation space outside the institution, and sometimes bring that energy back in."