An artist and a provocateur, David Ford does not shy away from cultural, political and social themes in his work. His installation, painting, performance and sculpture are fearless. Full of American history and its accompanying diaspora, East-West political relations, racism, economics and fear are presented through dark humor and intelligent truths. His collaboration spans a range through class and cast including everything from clergy, to exotic dancers, demolition derbies and African-American drill teams. These collaborations draw his audience closer to these complex and difficult conversations. – From Whitehot magazine, 2013
Ford likes the hunt and the adventure; to find the thing within that is weird. An idea about finding or discovery as retold to me, is gleaned from a quote by Joseph Campbell, the American writer, best known for his work on comparative religion and comparative mythology: “‘Jesus is standing on the corner at Fifth Avenue and Twelfth Street at 3:21 pm, every day.’ You can stop at the corner every day and see someone different each time. Is it Jesus holding that shopping bag? Or is it the person looking at their watch? You won’t know. You’ll never know. But you will go back every day to find out. This is the assignment of value – the philosophical aspect that plays into the arts practice.” A willingness to look for Jesus on a street corner.
Blair Schulman: Tell us about your earliest art space in Kansas City.
David Ford: It was called The Left Bank, first located at 2122 Washington, where El Dorado Architects are now. We started around 1986 and ran through 1994. Steve Collins, Jeff Robinson, and Mark Westervelt were all involved with the space too. We also gave Stretch (Kansas City sculptor and artist) his first art show while he was a student
The space moved a few times after that, didn’t it?
Yes, it moved to 23rd and Summit for about 3-4 years – the top floor and bottom floor, but it got too expensive. Then we moved to Columbus Park, where we bought that space.
How did the Left Bank come to be?
KC is a great place to make art, but not a great place to be an artist. Differentiated galleries, granting, opportunity, differentiated capital. There’s never been a mechanism for the maturing or the mid-career, but I’m sitting having a whiskey with Jim Leedy, watching a 2200 degree kiln. I’m a reticent capitalist in a field of opportune egoists.
When I opened – I started curating in 1984, The Hyde Park Festival, United Missouri Bank, some of those artists are still practicing, yet still in a compromised spot.
Why do you say compromised?
One of the shows I did was at the old United Missouri Bank at 43rd and Main, Stephen Collins made a piece of a gun and a martini glass and it was taken down. At that point I was working with Anne Winter and the Coalition Against Censorship (CAC).
Who is Anne Winter?
She ran Recycled Sounds (record shop) and died six years ago. A dear friend to much of the community.
In 1986, 1987, she published a Peter Von Ziegesar piece – this is a bibliolife. He wrote about our Artists for Amnesty. People were being tied to poles and being walked over in cages. There were three stages and a bunch of poets, including artists John Puscheck and Leonard Peltier.
And this was at the Left Bank?
No. This was me before Left Bank. That’s why I did the Left Bank. I was already so involved in curatorial, political and I dedicated myself to the gallery scene which was in Westport then. Hugh Merrill and Black Squadron Press were one of the first progressives in this neighborhood (Crossroads). The rent was $200 a month to get a building and I had recently traded him a mask.
It all ties into the way Kansas City works. As a reticent capitalist, I work with trade.
I get it. We don’t want to profit off one another. So, back to Left Bank. You were working independently and wanted to bring it into a dedicated space?
Yes. So myself and Stephen Collins rented upstairs of what was Richland Fabrics and because they wouldn’t let us be residents, we made it a 24-hour gallery.
And you really meant 24 hours!
Sure. People were always dropping by, and that’s how I met Bill Drummond, who showed up with Anne Winter, who was then living in Omaha, Nebraska, at two in the morning to play ping-pong. I next worked with Anne and a man named Jeff Smith to do the Amnesty International thing, which the New Art Examiner reviewed.
It tripled the Amnesty International budget and over a few years, and actually freed one political prisoner.
Literally, Stephen Collins, a city employee who is now retired, taught me. He had the complete works over at 39th and Troost. He knew about Russian Constructivism and Italian Futurism. And me learning, at seventeen years old, be an auditor for a motel in Independence, Missouri, and he always kept his deep legitimacy.
You know where the Next Space is? (In the Crossroads, up a half a block from Grinders). He lives upstairs and rented out parts of his space for very alternative shows.
When you got yourself involved with Left Bank and all these people, did you start to think differently about curating?
I wanted to fit in. At that time, you think I’m a little idiosyncratic now…
To use a 60’s hippie expression, was the art scene back then a little…establishment?
No. Not even close! It had zero organization. Walls were collapsing, things were moving over to Troost. The Bottoms at that point in time….Ika and Kirsten (who owned the building that housed the Old Post Office), I knew all these names, but it was casual.
There wasn’t a dollar to fight over. What you got going on now are people with a dollar to fight over. And the second dollar is the realtors who are driving creative professionalism rather than professional creative-ism. Kansas City used to be a great place to make art, now it’s a not a great place to make art but it is a great place to be an artist. You have to wade through more to get to it.
Did you ever think about programming? Did you think in those terms or closer to saying, ‘I want to do this and I am going to do it?’
I was extremely impulsive in the curating, but I was extremely professional. Nancy McGalliard was my gallery manager for three years. She and her husband lived with me for a year previous to that at the Left Bank, so they were two Left Bank locations. And she was the one trying to teach me DOS, a weird computer language. There were two languages in the 80s or 90s. I middle-fingered it. In fact, I took my entire computer system down from the Left Bank down to Central America to the most remote tribe I could — with the help of a museum — just to protect themselves. They’re going to get their first electric bill, and they’re clan-based, and even in that old computer language there was a way to have a translation service, print-out, and they would give you a document. In situations like that all you really need is a printout. These days you’ve got (points to my smartphone with a recording app)…
In that first year, (my curating) involved Amnesty International; it involved one of the first all-women shows curated in town. This was an awakening. The Tiananmen Square show was huge (1989). We had a two-story replica, going down Main Street in a parade, similar to how we do parades now. We protested at the Nelson (over the NEA decency clause in 1992 as part of the era’s Culture Wars). We would bring out some very large crowds, especially for that era. It became so aggressive that I needed to learn a new philosophy. Positive, in a way that I could maintain my own artistic vision. I like my drama on the pillow and on the canvas. Being kicked out of parties, countries, cities, I really wanted to make the best decisions and continue my advocacy and it’s a cultural advocacy. Then it behooves me because I feel like I belong.
You consciously made these decisions because now you had the place to do it?
Yes. The thing about it is, I wanted to learn a cooperative complicity rather than an exclusive complicity. I’m culturally Epicurean (based on the teachings of the Greek philosopher, Epicurus): it is poetry, it is wine, it is ceramics, it is this conversation…it’s not just the fine arts, it’s the music. I do interesting things, my friends do interesting things. The only thing that changes is there are a lot of framing devices now. You can still go out and see great shows and have interesting conversations, and now there’s this elaborate framing device on the street, t-shirts and bands. From an inside perspective it looks one way. From an outside perspective it looks another.
What was your most memorable show at Left Bank?
The “Erotica” show where you had to pay to leave – this was 1988 or 1989. It consisted of varying interpretations of LGBTQ intellectual, bifocal extravaganza – Nancy McGalliard, presented installation and live art, Davin Watne, and (Archie) Scott Gobber also participated.
They could walk in and there was a recording on a loop that talked about this experience…it was 17 artists. Wes Grimm, third generation, famous tattooist, was tattooing that night. Nancy McGalliard had these multiple bleeding portals out of a wall. And they dosed the crowds that night.
I refer to a show at the Hobbs Building with the man cutting up onions as you walk in…
That show was kind of a retrospective of some of my performances. It comes from Gunter Grass’ novel, The Tin Drum, page 186. There’s a German club owner during the war who plays jazz there and the war has killed his business. No one is showing up. He’s asking the band to help make the soup that night. I had to fire my waitress. Now, the four patrons that come in, can you chop the onions? There’s a bowl of soup for tonight. And the smell envelopes this jazz club in Berlin. The patrons sit down, he hands out the soup, the jazz players play, they eat the soup together and it’s a lovely night.
That’s how it’s in Kansas City. A similar metaphor for both the capitalism and the aestheticism. You’re making soup out of what you got left with onions and people that you know or don’t know and everybody sits together and enjoys it.
Were sales ever a part of the space’s operations?
No! We needed a place to work (and) to sustain an art life. I’m fortunate that after 30 years, I have been self-sustaining (and an artist).
Was burnout ever an issue for those involved?
Your body is a roadmap of burnout. Having good people around helped.
What was your biggest takeaway from the project?
It provided a shared language with my corporate community, neighbors, national and international community. “Artists with passports are important.”
Let’s talk about waiting. How does timing play a role in the work you’re doing?
I’m not in a hurry. It’s difficult – the role of the curator becomes important, have the work made and then have someone come in and look. Forcing the issue not to have a studio practice is as natural as you present it.
What are the concerns and values that you think artists are conscious about?
An artist has to be honest to the dance, a willingness to commit to their art. The same way scientists or clergy have to put out a proposal that this philosophy is right. The art gets in your eyes, nose, mouth, things; the work is performance that tries to incorporate all five senses. (In the end) it becomes an act of faith.
Would Left Bank continue today?
Absolutely, it would be a strong space – we were doing alternative before there was an alternative and gaining stature. It would continue to be a voice of curation and consideration. Front/Space does that very well, same as Dirt Gallery did (in its day).
Looking back, going forward, is commodification a concern or an inevitability?
The initial piece is never a commodity, propagation of the same type of gesture repeatedly is quantified. It’s the origin of the species. Artists should not be afraid to cash the damn check. I check the box, ‘professional,’ so I am professing my role which has to be compensated. What is it doing to the way art is created and critiqued?
Not threatened by worshiping that dollar. It’s what won’t you won’t do to make money. I will not be stealing, I won’t run guns….
Let’s talk about taking an active point of view and what that means to you.
Taking the buyout or not puts things into perspective. Economics gives you an active point of view; ever since artists began signing things. Provenance is an active point of view.
Do you think about legacy?
Ford looks around his huge studio, filled with works in progress, finished pieces, ephemera, and all sorts of knickknacks, mementos, talismans, basically every object one could imagine related to an artist who has seen the world and documenting it all, says,
Who’s going to clean up all this shit?
Artist Run KC is a print publication from Informality that encapsulates a partial history of artist-run spaces in Kansas City.
Artist-Run KC features interviews with former Charlotte Street Foundation Artist Award Fellows who have managed spaces or contributed in a meaningful way to Kansas City’s artist-run scene. This zine was produced by Informality in collaboration with PLUG Projects and commissioned by the Charlotte Street Foundation for their 20th anniversary celebration, Every Street is Charlotte Street. Artist Run KC features interviews with David Ford, Tom Gregg, Peregrine Honig, Mike Erikson, Madeline Gallucci, Erica Lynne Hanson, Garry Noland, Glenn North, Dylan Mortimer, Sean Starowitz, Caleb Taylor, Heidi Van, Jaimie Warren, and Davin Watne.
Artist Run KC launched at PLUG Projects on NOVEMBER 12th 2017 alongside their revised PLUG book! If you are interested in a copy email firstname.lastname@example.org