When John Spiak began his job as director and chief curator of Cal State Fullerton's Grand Central Art Center, it was like coming home.
John Spiak is leading Grand Central Art Center into a new era.
Spiak – born and raised in Orange County – spent the past 17 years curating art projects at Arizona State University, becoming known for exciting social practice endeavors. One of them focused on incarceration, involving controversial Sheriff Joe Arpaio and inviting inmates to campus to participate in creating art. In the months Spiak has been directing Grand Central, he has worked to attract nationally known artists who plan to exhibit their work in the downtown Santa Ana facility and beyond.
"This is home for me," Spiak said in a recent interview. "My philosophy is very much focused on community, looking at art in society and the conversations that can be addressed through the institution of art. I believe we should look at art from all different perspectives, making it a mutual territory where difficult conversations can be had.
"We want to present multiple perspectives, things we agree
with and don't agree with, letting visitors make up their own
Spiak's efforts make the center a hub for social practice, a
genre that involves engagement with communities and incorporates
social goals, networks and cultural practices. Social practice
art often blurs the distinction between artist and subject, and can
include activist art, social work, protest performance, community
art, and other activities that can represent social and political
As part of his mission, Spiak has invited various artists to
work and live at Grand Central in pursuit of their art. Tony
de los Reyes, a Los Angeles artist, is featured this fall, displaying
paintings that examine the U.S.-Mexican border and its influence
on Southern California.
"I'm interested in the border as an abstraction – a space
that has become defined through color and line," de los Reyes
said. "I'm working in an area where culture and politics intersect.
America is always on a march to claim new territory; I look at the
border as a division of space that defines cultures."
Grand Central Art Center is at the heart of Santa Ana's vibrant art community.
Setting Grand Central Art Center apart from other gallery
spaces in Southern California, Spiak believes, is the philosophy
of art as a crucial part of the community, a philosophy that keeps
with the center's history of community involvement and its birth
as a cornerstone for Santa Ana's Artists Village.
As a critical part of the village – known for creating a
vibrant arts district from a formerly blighted downtown neighborhood
– Grand Central is a block-long edifice that includes several
exhibition spaces, the Black Box Theatre, a shop and 28 apartments,
26 of which are reserved for Titan students pursuing their
master's degrees in the College of the Arts and two of which house
artists in residence. Each student artist has studio space in which
to create art. Also included in the center is a future classroom to be dedicated to offering free computer access to Santa Ana high
school students; a flamenco dance studio; and The Road Less
Traveled, a locally owned store dedicated to modern natural living
and community education, offering workshops on everything
from fiber arts to food crafting and do-it-yourself technology.
The Artists Village takes a front seat during First Saturdays.
On the first Saturday of each month, the neighborhood comes
alive. A multitude of visitors attend the area's galleries, restaurants
and shops, and street vendors, public performances and musical
acts add to the atmosphere. Grand Central hosts more than 4,000
visitors during First Saturday events.
"I've always loved this place," Spiak said of Grand Central,
"with the residency component and storefront space that makes
it open to interaction. I love nearby Fourth Street's energy and
culture, and we aim to extend that energy to our visitors.
"My vision is that the center doesn't consider its walls as
barriers, but is an institution that exists through all of Orange
County, Southern California, the West and beyond."
It all came together in 1999, when the Grand Central Art
Center was dedicated. It was the culmination of years of work by
artists, government agencies and the University to create a satellite
campus in the heart of the Santa Ana arts community. Originally
a redevelopment project, Grand Central was championed by
mayor and CSUF alumnus Miguel Pulido '80. The University
partnered with the city in large part because of the living/working
environment it provides
vision embraces artists from
throughout the country who
want to work with him at
Grand Central. He is also
working with a variety of
on plans to incorporate
art throughout Santa Ana
and other Orange County
One of the artists he
has asked to work at Grand
Central is Lisa Bielawa, a
New York-based artist best
known for creating art in
public spaces that incorporates music, performance and visual art.
Her upcoming works feature a sound piece with 600 musicians
at Tempelhof airfield in Berlin and Crissy Field in San Francisco,
both now public parks.
A Yale literature graduate, Bielawa believes, like Spiak, that
art can create new relationships and bring the community together.
"A place like this can reach out to other existing organizations
and groups involved in community missions," she said. "It'sall about leadership – how the center sees itself in the community. 19
What's unique about this place is its position as a collaborator
whose work complements the community."
Bielawa, a composer and vocalist, was at Grand Central
in 2013. Another artist, Saskia Jorda, began her residency at
the center in January 2013, working together with the city's more than
20 quinceañera shops on a project emphasizing the quinceañera as
a coming-of-age ceremony affecting not only the girl celebrating
her newfound womanhood, but on the community at large.
Artist Saskia Jorda, seated, began her residency at Grand Central Art Center focusing on the quinceañera in her native Venezuela, examines the traditions behind this rite of passage, study family values, and view body images as perceived by the teenagers themselves. Joining Jorda at Grand Central are, from left, Paula Martella, Isela Vasquez and Jocelyn Mendieta.
A Venezuelan artist now based in Arizona, Jorda believes
the rite of passage can engage the community in dialog. "I'm
happy about this opportunity to bring my work to a larger,
broader audience – it's larger than just working in a gallery space.
The new framework that goes beyond the walls of Grand Central
is really special."
Paul Ramirez Jonas, a renowned New York-based artist,
lived and worked at Grand Central in summer 2014 on a project
based on transportation involving travel from the East Coast to
the West Coast via a series of volunteer passengers and chauffeurs.
He is impressed by the center and its director.
"John's enthusiasm and the convergence of his track record
and the exhibit space brings long-lasting believability
and the willingness to experiment," Jonas said.
One of the artists now involved in reaching
out to the Santa Ana community is Jules Rochielle,
a Los Angeles artist and consultant who is pursuing
a $10,000 California Humanities grant in support
of a Santa Ana oral history project. Rochielle
is working with the Santa Ana Public Library, El
Centro, Sacred and other groups in support of
creating local histories about Santa Ana residents
who've experienced violence in the Townsend/
Raitt neighborhood. The stories would be collected
by college and high school students who live in the
"This is social practice with an interest in the
community," Rochielle said. "When I began coming
to Santa Ana and learning about it, listening to
where the community is, I began to believe that it
will support socially engaged work with the artist
becoming embedded in the community. The art will
be visible to the community but not necessarily the
The surrounding arts community is one
reason why Stephen Howell chose to live at Grand
Central. An M.F.A. candidate in acting, Howell is
interested in the politics surrounding theater.
Originally from Arlington, Texas, Howell selected
Cal State Fullerton based on its programs, but has
found living at Grand Central an added attraction.
"What could be better than living here, with the Black Box Theatre below, in such a diverse neighborhood, in
an acting program?" Howell asked. Grand Central is close enough
to the campus that he can ride his bike to classes in Fullerton
along the Santa Ana River trail.
Another graduate student pursuing an M.F.A. in acting is
Julie Cardia, who said living at Grand Central provides "kind of
an instant family," with students pursuing graduate degrees and
living and working at the center. "We're all going through the
same things and we're neighbors," Cardia said.
Downtown Santa Ana is a special place, agreed graduate
student Bonnie Massey, who is pursuing her Master in Social
Work degree and creates prints, etches and linocuts. "Santa Ana
has a rich history and a very interesting mix with lots of different
groups of people living respectfully with one another," Massey
said. "I'm intrigued by that, and by what John is doing with
social practice and artists engaging in the community."
"It's a wonderful location," noted Patrick Faulk, a graduate
student in drawing and painting whose recent installations
have featured sound and distractions. "The community is
wonderful. It's very colorful, very beautiful and it helps
promote the creative spirit."
1 Artist, musician and vocalist Lisa Bielawa in residence at the center in 2013.
2 First Saturdays attract a multitude of visitors to the Santa Ana Artists Village.
3 Graduate student Stephen Howell and his girlfriend Britney Hudgins enjoy a quiet moment inside their apartment at Grand Central Art Center.
4 Manuel Cortez shows off some of his artwork in the center’s Second Street Promenade during a recent First Saturday.
5 Howell acts in the center’s Black Box Theatre.
6 Artist Tony de los Reyes at his “Border Theory” exhibit.
7 John Spiak guides Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez (D-47) on a tour of Grand Central Art Center.
8 Looking toward Broadway Boulevard from the roof of Grand Central Art Center, patrons are seen pouring out of Memphis at the Santora restaurant and into the Second Street Promenade.
9 First Saturday openings of
exhibition and program schedule draw large crowds to the center and surrounding Artists Village.
CSUF Reaches Out to Underserved Communities
Grand Central Art Center is just one example of Cal State Fullerton’s outreach to
Orange County’s diverse communities. CSUF’s partnership with Santa Ana College
and the Santa Ana Unified School District, ¡Adelante!, offers qualifying students an
opportunity to be first in line on the path to college and provides expert guidance
along the way. The program guarantees priority registration at Santa Ana College
and transfers to attend CSUF. In another program, 30 Santa Ana high school
students, including nine incoming freshmen, moved into CSUF student housing last
summer to experience what their future could be like. The students – from Century,
Saddleback, Santa Ana and Valley high schools – participated in CSUF’s Upward
Bound, a program designed to assist eligible high school students with preparation
for admission to a university and success in earning a college degree. At left, Leo
Cota ’04, director, and Eileen Jimenez, academic adviser, both in the back row,
welcome Upward Bound students living and attending courses on campus last
summer, including incoming freshman Edith Mendoza of Century High School
and Saddleback High School students Raeleen Perez and Brian Avila.