Sometimes, a work of art is just what its creator says it is. And sometimes, an art gallery is exactly the offbeat destination intended by its design.
Rarely do these two phenomena play together as though they were made for each other, but that’s what’s happening this month at Open House, a quasi-guerrilla space in a West Plaza house.
On display is an amusing and provocative project by Kansas City Art Institute graduate Paul Shortt, titled “How to Loiter” and made to encourage just that.
Over the past three years, in cities including St. Louis, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., Shortt has fabricated signs that read “Reserved for Loitering” and placed them close to the usual state-issued instructions to keep it moving.
He photographs the signs — the city’s and his — together, depicting them in a kind of conversation. And he has begun distributing versions of his signs for others to place. A selection of laser-printed photos of these placements, along with about 100 signs for visitors to take with them, make up his Kansas City show, which opened May 4 at Open House, where one of Shortt’s neon-and-Plexiglas “Loiter Here” signs glows in the front window.
Shortt’s project finds an ideal complement in Open House, which is its own experiment in urban squatting.
Co-directors Brandon Forrest Frederick and Olivia Clanton, with a $500 ArtsKC Inspiration Grant, another $1,000 in crowdfunding and the blessing of a sympathetic landlord, opened the gallery last year in a teacup bungalow that had been vacant for years. The exhibitions so far, with titles such as "Making Do" and "Down Home," have similarly touched on issues of comfort and community.
Outside the house, a plain yard sign mimics a real estate placard. Inside, the art hangs on studs rather than from walls, a blankness apart from typical smooth white surfaces. The setting lends an extra illicit jolt to Shortt’s photos, as though you’ve found them in a treehouse behind a museum.
“For me,” Shortt says, “the project is about subverting the idea that loitering is negative. It’s about who has access to public space. Here, the phrase ‘reserved for loitering’ makes a positive out of two negatives. The word ‘reserved’ usually is about telling you no. When I put these signs in other people’s hands, it’s about the owner or renter declaring where people can be.”
That’s roughly the story of Open House’s good fortune. Frederick and Clanton, who live next door to their gallery, introduced themselves to the new owner of a nearby house that was being rehabbed last year. The new neighbor had also bought the place that would become Open House, but hadn’t decided what to do with it.
Well, the couple asked, what if we showed art there for a while?
It wasn’t so far-fetched. Frederick, 29, had years of experience with live-work spaces. In 2011, he and three fellow KCAI students leased a West Bottoms studio, moved in and began putting on artist exhibitions and music shows. By the time they’d decamped to the basement of the nearby Chambers of Edgar Allan Poe haunted house in a space they called the Roost, the group was making rent with its events.
“I have my day job so that I can afford to do this,” says Clanton, 23, who also is an Art in the Loop resident this summer. “It’s the most exciting thing about my life right now. I’m starting a native-to-Missouri flower garden. It’ll be a you-pick thing for our neighbors. And there’s a garage off the house where I’ll program workshops, teaching some of my own that have to do with weaving, dyeing, quilting. Workshops for anyone, but targeted to our neighbors.”
“It's unusual to have available capital with no real profit motive involved,” Frederick says. “We want to take advantage of this while we have it, make something cool and unique while we can.”
Scott Wilson is a writer and editor in Kansas City. Contact him at email@example.com.