The museum's former curator was in Phoenix in February to reconnect with friends and the local art scene, and when we caught up with him, he was greeted by most everyone he bumped into.
Spiak left his post as curator in August after 17 years to cut his teeth as top dog at a major university art center. (The museum officially begins its search for a new curator this week.)
He's now Director and Chief Curator of Grand Central Art Center at Cal State-Fullerton in his hometown of Santa Ana.
Spiak says his new job is to start the process of helping Santa Ana discover its own artistic identity, and to do so, he's bringing a lot of skills and goals (and artists) from ASU Art Museum to Grand Central: building community, crossing disciplines, making art assessable, and getting up-and-coming artists into the fray.
For example, Spiak plans to fly Paul Ramirez Jonas in from New York to explore a residency program similar to Social Studies, an interactive artist residency and arts research series that began during Spiak's time at ASU. Artist Brent Green, a favorite from Spiak's ASU Art Museum days, should have an exhibition as well.
Santa Ana is a great place to execute this vision, he says, given the supportive arts scene. "The thing that surprised me the most was [...] people came and were really spending time with the work," Spiak says of his first art opening at Grand Central. "It's not just a cruising scene, you know?"
He continues that his new stomping grounds are like downtown Phoenix in many ways -- scattered, gentrified, but creative and promising -- but "whereas the arts scene is kind of on the fringe of downtown [Phoenix], in Santa Ana it's really in the center."
"Everybody just seems really eager to work with you," Spiak says. "Unlike other downtowns, it just has this authenticity to it."
But things aren't all golden in Orange County. Spiak describes downtown Santa Ana having a cultural "border" between the arts district and a neighboring third-gen Latino shopping district.
"There was a lot of fear, a lot of conflict going on between those two districts," he says, "and I want to bring those two districts together."
Spiak says he noticed opportunity when hearing complaints in the arts district about the dozens of Quinceañera shops in the Latino district. Spiak asked how that was worse than the shopping plaza down the street.
"I don't know the difference between the hundreds of
To do that, he's bringing in Phoenix-based, Venezuelan artist Saskia Jorda to attempt an outreach arts program similar to Gregory Sale's Social Studies project on Arizona prisons last year.
"It's creating entry points for art that individuals are more comfortable with," Spiak explains. "We're speaking the language of the individual ... through that, it educates everybody, and we can have a real conversation."
Spiak shoos away the idea that his game plan will face much resistance in Santa Ana: "No! Now I'm the director, so I get to make the rules and dictate the direction of the institution and get things rolling." He says that immediately, he found the Latino community, city council, and local businesses eager and open to work with Grand Central's new vision -- even the cops are down.
It doesn't hurt that Spiak is already a familiar face around town. When Grand Central opened in 1999, Spiak had "hard hat tours" of the three-level, 45,00 sq. ft. space and went on to guest-curate shows there. His annual Short Film & Video Festival traveled there as well, partly because Santa Ana is his hometown.
"[Grand Central] is five minutes from where I grew up, and two minutes from where my grandparents lived," Spiak says. "So it's a downtown I walked around as a kid."
So, basically, there's no reason for John Spiak to miss The Valley of the Sun ... right?
"Oh, no, I miss ASU a lot!" he counters. "I miss that camaraderie we had [at the museum]."
If you could say one bad thing about Spiak, it's that he refuses to say anything bad about anything or anyone else. He's even diplomatic when discussing his departure from ASU.
"It's just a different opportunity," Spiak says of Santa Ana. "I was just, in a sense, the low person on the totem pole here. It was maybe time for me to grow up a little bit and take some more responsibility."
After some cajoling, he goes on about the split:
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"There was never a project I wanted to do that didn't get realized here, but there's a difference between having full control of the institution and not having full control of the institution--and seeing if you can do it."
Before he leaves to check out a multinational exhibition at Step Gallery across the street, we ask Spiak how long he plans to ride the gravy train at Cal State-Fullerton.
He laughs, then says hopefully a long time. "It's a place I'd like to retire from, if things go well. Maybe it's a question of how long they'll have me."