John Spiak, Director and Chief Curator of Cal State Fullerton’s Grand Central Art Center (GCAC), wasn’t always sure he wanted a career in the arts. His parents used to take him to museums, but it wasn’t until he started working at a gallery while he was in college in Tustin, that he found his true interest and began exploring the Los Angeles arts scene. Spiak started going to galleries every weekend, before moving to Arizona and taking a curatorial job at the Arizona State University Art Museum, where he would work for 17 years before returning to California. Since being appointed director and chief curator of GCAC in 2011, Spiak’s curatorial emphasis has been concentrated on contemporary art and society, focusing on works in socially engaged practices and video. I recently had a chance to interview Spiak to discuss the history of GCAC, how it’s connected to the university, and how he curates and selects exhibitions for Grand Central Art Center’s gallery spaces.
“Grand Central Art Center opened in 1999,” said Spiak. “It was the vision of two individuals who brought it to the city: Cal State Fullerton Begovich Gallery Director and Professor Mike McGee, and Donn Cribb, who was an arts advocate and community activist in Santa Ana. He had a vision for an Artists Village. Donn brought it to Mike, and Mike was on board as well, so they worked together to get the university on board. Together, they convinced the City of Santa Ana to open Grand Central Art Center as a collaboration between the university and the city.”
Originally built in 1922 (with a second floor added in 1924), the structure that now houses the arts center has a fascinating history. It served as the central market for Orange County up until the 1940s. The market’s construction was started and funded by local residents who had been inspired by the Grand Central Market located in downtown Los Angeles. As a single-story, the building contained stalls for independent grocers, produce vendors, and butchers, among other sellers. Years later, in the late Nineties, the City of Santa Ana bought and converted the old Grand Central building into GCAC, transforming it into the complex it is today.
“This building was the second Grand Central Market for the City of Santa Ana,” said Spiak. “The building right behind us, now a furniture store, was the first. My understanding is that it was built a year before Grand Central, and it was so successful that they expanded it into this building.”
Located ten miles south of the main CSUF campus, Grand Central Art Center has three levels. Classrooms and educational spaces are located in the basement. The first floor houses a Main Gallery, Education Gallery, the Don Cribb Project Gallery, the GCAC Project Wall, a pop-up retail space, studio spaces dedicated to GCAC’s Artist-in-Residence initiative, The Grand Central Theatre, Hipcooks cooking school, the Claudia de la Cruz Flamenco Institute, Maska architecture studio, and The Gypsy Den restaurant. Meanwhile, the second floor consists of twenty-seven apartments. “We have three exhibition spaces that rotate and a video art project space that rotates as well,” said Spiak. “We have a black-box theater, and the CSUF graduate students who live upstairs have studio spaces on the ground floor.”
GCAC is connected to Cal State Fullerton’s College of the Arts through its collaboration with students. Spiak explained that graduate students at CSUF can apply for housing at Grand Central Art Center. Located on the second floor, the studio and single-bedroom apartments are a smoke-free, key-card access environment, with an on-site laundry room, and a community outdoor patio. GCAC is also connected to the university through its programming with the campus.
Spiak said, “Currently, we have a semester-long class here in collaboration with Julie Orser’s Special Studies Photography course. We also host tours for other institutions as well, and we have huge outreach in terms of marketing. We have an email list of over 18,000 subscribers we send out to. We get a lot of promotional materials and articles from different press, from Forbes Magazine to the Wall Street Journal to the L.A. Times and the New York Times. So all this keeps these positive stories about Cal State Fullerton and the City of Santa Ana out in the public realm.”
Focused on artists working in community-engaged practices, Grand Central Art Center offers artists “a space to explore topics of social relevance through contemporary art practice” as they develop projects. Spiak said that GCAC’s artists are working deeply in the community and with the community. Currently, Lexa Walsh, who has been in residence at GCAC for a couple of years, is working with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange on a project titled, Sisters InfoShop, which consists of both an installation in the gallery and a mobile kiosk in the public square in front of the art center. This is just one example of the type of community-engaged artwork that happens at GCAC.
“We have a residency program,” Spiak explained. “We invite national and international artists-in-residence to Grand Central Art Center, and that also provides an opportunity for not only our community to engage, but also allows our students to directly engage with our artists-in-residence. We show artists from a wide range of mediums, everything from watercolors to ceramics to sculpture to video-based works. It really has to have relevance to what’s going on in the world today.”
When I asked him how he chooses which artworks to exhibit, Spiak explained, “I think that ranges. We curate everything here. It’s based on what we’ve shown recently. We’re always looking at what’s being shown regionally and nationally because we also want to be at the forefront. We have connections with artists and curators that we’re constantly looking at and talking to in order to find new artists that we can show. We really like to be a space that has solo shows to emphasize a larger body of work by solo artists, and we like to show artists that are either adjusting their career paths, that are taking risks and doing something they haven’t done before, or that have never had a solo show at an institution, so that way we can pop them into the art scene and see where it goes from there. The quality of work is the most important.”
Exhibitions at GCAC usually stay up for about three months, according to Spiak. Current exhibits on display for spring 2023 include: Kade Twist’s multimedia installation, To Keep a Fire, which consists of sculpture, video, sound, and smell, Lexa Walsh’s Sisters InfoShop, Latent Community’s video work, NEROMANNA, Mariangeles Soto-Diaz’s socially engaged artist-residence project, Gentle Prowess Deliberations, and Christopher Wormald’s YOU + A.I. = A.I.M. On the first Saturday of every month, there are art walks in downtown Santa Ana, similar to those in downtown Fullerton. During these First Saturday Art Walks, GCAC is open from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. This is probably the most active time for the galleries, as they receive at least 1200 to 1600 people outdoors on those evenings.
Admission to all exhibitions at Grand Central Art Center is free and open to the public. On Tuesdays through Thursdays, GCAC is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. On Fridays and Saturdays, they are open from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m., and on Sundays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The building is closed to the public on Mondays. The closest parking is available at the Artists Village Parking Structure on 3rd Street and Sycamore in downtown Santa Ana. The structure is currently free to the public during daytime hours during the week. Rates can vary on evenings and weekends. Metered street parking is also available. For further information about visiting hours, parking or exhibitions, visit www.grandcentralartcenter.com.