Art in the Heartland

Participants in the Inland Visual Studies Center Symposium listen to Justine Nagan's lecture on the position of the Midwest in the arts.

April 23, 2010

Too often people assume New York City and Los Angeles represent the artistic flavor of the entire United States.

While that’s true to an extent, the Inland Visual Arts Center at Bradley University is attempting to change that mindset by focusing on visual arts produced in the Midwest.

The center sponsored its second annual visual arts symposium Thursday, bringing in regional artists to discuss the differences in Midwestern art and design and relationships between urban, suburban and rural sites in Mid-America.

“We want to make sure that our students recognize that art doesn’t just exist in New York City,” said Dr. Paul Krainak, Bradley’s art department chair. “We need to recognize some of the history in this area and that we are right in the center of incredibly fertile ground in terms of visual arts, not just in the U.S., but in the world.”

That includes traditional art, such as paintings and sculptures. But it also includes modern architecture, which was defined in the Midwest by the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan, and agricultural design, whose grain elevators and silos also influenced modern architects.

When students are better informed about the Midwest and its cultural history, they can make better decisions about what to do with their profession while having a sense of pride about the region in which they live, Dr. Krainak said.

The Midwest doesn’t have the cultural areas seen in bigger cities, Dr. Krainak said.

“But we have other things that influence the way we see things, that affect our taste, that become part of our identity,” he said. “The national identity of the United States has this huge debt it owes to the Midwest.”

The symposium, titled “Differentiating Space: Identifying the Local in Visual Culture,” explored ways to redefine the character and visual culture of the Midwest, as well as ways to showcase that culture globally.

Panel members included Buzz Spector, the dean of art at Washington University in St. Louis; Justine Nagan, a documentary film director and producer from Chicago; and Preston Jackson, a sculptor and artist-in-residence at the Inland Visual Studies Center. The symposium also offered a reception and film screening.

Bradley houses the visual studies center and partners with Washington University and Ohio State University to produce the only academic center in the country devoted to the study of visual practices in a specific cultural zone.

The core concern of the center remains to find patterns between visual arts produced in the Midwest and their expressions in the media, popular culture and art in other parts of the country and world.

Dr. Krainak points to the influence of jazz music and architecture, among others, that shaped the modern culture.

“It happened here first,” he said, referring to the Midwest. “That’s an amazing cultural history we don’t tend to teach to the degree we should.”