Information provided by Kelly Clarke, Executive Director, Kalamazoo County Land Bank. The ‘Inside Out’ project (Credit: Kalamazoo County Land Bank)
What is Inside Out, and how did it come to Kalamazoo?
Inside Out is a global participatory art project organized by JR, a winner of the 2011 Ted Prize at the TED Conference in Long Beach, California. Inspired by JR’s large‐format street “pastings,” INSIDE OUT gives local people an opportunity to share their portrait and be part of something larger than themselves via public art. Over 260,000 people have participated in 129 countries.
Locations for Inside Out have included Ecuador, Nepal, Mexico, and Palestine and many other locations across the US and the world. The Kalamazoo County Land Bank brought Inside Out to Kalamazoo as a part of its efforts to renew, repurpose, and reconnect vacant and underutilized property specifically in a neighborhood commercial node – dubbed Washington Square. The Land Bank has since its inception been committed to including the community in meaningful ways in its work. Since 2014, the Land Bank has been utilizing the arts as a particular vehicle to engage, inspire, and celebrate local residents and local communities in the work of establishing vibrancy in previously blighted or underutilized spaces.
How did the Kalamazoo County Land Bank get involved?
The Kalamazoo County Land Bank has been integrating the arts into its work to renew, repurpose, and reconnect vacant properties for the last several years. This started when the Land Bank coordinated over 13 artists in 2014 to show off their talents via both visual and performing arts in a then-vacant storefront on a distressed commercial corridor. This successful event brought over 500 people to the building and included a number of neighborhood artists, neighborhood youth, and artists from the wider community. Visitors were able to celebrate the arts, the multicultural nature of the neighborhood, and rethink their ideas about this commercial node. The commercial node had previously been the site of an adult entertainment center including a strip club and adult book store. Following this the block had experienced more than 505 vacancy for many years. Many residents including those from the surrounding blocks had been hesitant to venture to the block, which was perceived as an area of high crime and unsafe. Following this successful initial arts event, the Land Bank has facilitated over 15 arts based events on the block, activating a number of vacant indoor and outdoor spaces and bringing thousands of neighborhood and wider community residents to the block. This work has helped to attract tenants to vacant storefronts and has supported existing and new businesses with patronage and new customers.
The arts offer a unique opportunity to bring the community together around celebration, enjoyment, and appreciation. The neighborhood where the Inside Out installation is located is the most culturally and racially diverse neighborhood in the City. The arts provide a unique forum for celebration and appreciation of these diverse cultures. Events have showcased everything from Zumba, African Drum and Dance, to Scottish bagpipes – all showcasing neighborhood residents and neighborhood business owners.
Why was 1324 Portage St. selected as the canvas for the project?
The Kalamazoo County Land Bank has successfully supported and attracted six locally owned businesses to this previously primarily vacant commercial node. These businesses range from local food establishments, a dance studio, a music store and music lessons business, a nutrition establishment, and a local credit union. All businesses have engaged actively with the arts events and activities that have served as a focal point for community celebration and involvement over the last three years. 1324 Portage was donated to the Land Bank in 2017 as a vacant and underutilized storefront on the block. The façade was lacking in windows and in need of cosmetic attention and repair. Given the prominent location on the block, it provided the perfect backdrop for the local installation of Inside Out in Kalamazoo and has been accompanied with two other neighborhood installation locations – the Hispanic American Council and the Edison Neighborhood Association. Across all three locations, 110 portraits are displayed–one of the largest exhibits in the Midwest.
What have been some of the most noticeable impacts of the art installation?
The installation has been a beautiful addition to the efforts to integrate the arts as a powerful unifier and community builder. What better way to have residents play an active role in transforming a blighted building than by being a part of a public art installation on the building itself! In the past, neighborhood residents and others have had opportunities to perform or showcase their visual arts at an arts event. The Inside Out project brought together both artists and non-artists alike to be a prominent part of the story of how Washington Square is being transformed from a formerly vacant and underutilized block to a site of activity for residents to play, learn, interact, and shop. Several photo shoots were organized at various neighborhood locations, from Dia de los Ninos at the Hispanic American Council to a special photo shoot at a senior apartment complex near the square. Neighborhood photographer, Fran Dwight, took the portraits and had huge success in drawing out residents. Since the installation – the response has been fantastic. Residents who participated are frequently spotted bringing their friends and family to the installation to show off their portrait or have their photo taken with the portrait. The installation has also brought out crowds from the larger community to see the work.
The installation tapped into the neighborhoods’ strong sense of community pride and amplified this significantly. It’s joyful, sometimes silly, and beautifully done all at the same time – a great punctuation mark for the type of work that has been happening in the Square for several years.