Bridget Lacey and Safekeeping: The Art of Val Polyanin
In June of 2022, Val Polyanin vacated his art environment outside of Crescent City, California, and left a note gifting his vast body of work to the City, his home of more than 20 years. Several city employees immediately saw the value in saving this collection and urged the City of Crescent City to acquire the work. Since that time, they have been diligently working toward a plan to permanently display this collection and tell Polyanin’s incredible story. Thank you to Bridget Lacey for sharing the details of this important project with SPACES in the interview below.
Can you tell us how this collection of Val Polyanin's work came into the possession of the City of Crescent City? How did you become involved?
In May of 2022, I had been asked to research some potential funding sources for adding public art to the Beachfront Park in Crescent City, since public art projects were listed as a recipe to a successful economy in our Economic Development Strategic Action Plan. In doing so, I started imagining new ways to introduce art into the community with funding through the National Endowment for the Arts, a funding source we had never explored before. One of the eligible projects under this funding source was an artist residency program. As a California College of the Arts alumni, I knew that this would have been a highly sought-after opportunity in college and a great way to introduce art from around the world to a community that is lacking exposure to the type of art you would typically only see in much larger cities. I have secretly had my eye on the former Bank of America building for years, as a perfect location for a seasonal haunted house or community event space. So, with this space begging to be used, I started dreaming about the possibilities of using it for an artist residency program with offices that could act as living spaces, a kitchen, and huge open space that could be used for exhibiting and making art.
The City had purchased the building six years ago with the hope of turning it into a new City Hall, yet after years have passed without a clear pathway to making that happen, it has felt like a missed opportunity, especially being situated in such a prime downtown location. Just as my excitement was building around this idea, I got a call from Jon Olson, the City’s Public Works Director, stating that the City had received notice that local artist, Val Polyanin, had just donated his entire collection of over 900 pieces of art to the City and that if the City didn’t accept it, it would be destroyed. He was very excited about what he had seen and needed help conceiving of a plan to save the art from destruction, so he took me to the shipping containers to view it.
Hearing the news of the art immediately piqued my interest, especially because I knew Val and his work personally. His roommate was my mom’s childhood best friend, so I remember visiting him as a kid and viewing his art in his home and as it was exhibited in other venues around town. I knew he was a great artist and I had always found his work very interesting, yet I had no idea how much art he had made since I had seen him last. I had missed the creation of the shipping container gallery space and all the work that had been created since I had left for college.
Once I was able to view the art, it was undeniably awe inspiring. It was clear that we were looking at one person’s entire life, which is pretty incredible and unusual to find in one place, and that a piece of his soul remained with the work. Knowing the artist’s story, and what he went through just to be able to make art freely, I couldn’t imagine allowing such a rich and interesting representation of life and culture go in the trash, especially when we had an empty building that would be the perfect place to exhibit the work in a new way.
Val had been living and making art out of the shipping containers located on Highway 101, across from South Beach and was renting the property from a local company who also happened to be responsible for the county’s waste management. So, disposing of the art would have been a very real and simple solution for the property owner. Apparently, the company had other plans for the property and needed Val and all his artwork to move within a couple of months. Without anywhere to move or store four shipping containers full of art, Val was forced to come up with a desperate plan for his artwork. This is when he decided to donate everything to the City, by leaving a simple handwritten note.
Since the eviction had been served months before we received notice that the artist wanted to donate the art to the City, we were running out of time. So, I passionately pitched the idea to the City Manager and since it wasn’t an approved City project, yet, I spent my personal time researching other similar projects and connecting with other professionals in the field, documenting the work and space, assembling a team of volunteers, and putting together a report and presentation to pitch the idea to city council. At this point, we just needed them to accept the art and move it to the empty building, then I could put a budget and game plan together for the actual exhibition.
Can you describe the current exhibition Safekeeping and how it came to be?
The way that this project came together was truly serendipitous. We had an empty bank, over 900 pieces of art at risk of being destroyed, an incredible story of an artist who risked his life escaping Soviet rule in Ukraine to be able to express himself freely though art, and all of this while – Ukraine itself was being destroyed piece by piece. The value this story adds to the art, including the City’s role in saving it, did not go unnoticed. It quickly became a perfect opportunity to turn this gift into an exhibition which could help elevate the art and give the community something reimagined and unique. The name Safekeeping presented itself to me while standing in the safe deposit box room, admiring the proposed backdrop for the show. The most important elements of the exhibition all seemed to fall in place quite easily. For example, when we realized that there wouldn’t be enough budget for gallery lighting, the bad fluorescent lighting was simply a more present reminder that we were in a bank, not a gallery, and that was all part of the story we were telling. What was important was to give the art the space it deserved, tell the artist's story, and allow the viewer to experience the magnitude of one man’s life’s work.
Why is this collection important to the City of Crescent City? What have you learned about the community throughout this process?
The project started out as an attempt to satisfy a recipe in our Economic Development Strategic Action Plan. The goal was to bring more tourists downtown to patronize our local businesses. What I didn’t expect to see was the amount of local community support that would come from the project. Our opening reception had nearly 200 attendees, filling the massive space as soon as the doors opened. The people showing up were almost all locals, reconnecting to the past, drawing inspiration from the work, and discussing what this project could be in the future. Most hadn’t seen what had been hiding in the shipping containers for years. Many were unaware of the artist’s story. There was a very strong desire to see more, and the second opening had a surprising amount of repeat visitors. I had clearly underestimated our community’s appetite for art and culture.
People connect to art in very different ways. While some may love Val’s art, others may hate it, but there are very few people in this country who don’t share a common desire for freedom. I think this is another reason for the show’s success. It is something that connects all of us. The exhibit, with the theme of freedom present in the artist’s story and work, also serves as an invitation for viewers to become part of the exhibit themselves. Before visitors leave, they are encouraged to write what freedom means to them on an index card and leave it with an attendant. Each index card is put in a safe deposit box for viewing at the next opening. With visitor participation, the exhibit has become an interactive experience, and what is left behind is a growing visual representation of the connection that we all have to what is at the heart of Val’s practice.
What are your hopes for the future of this collection?
I genuinely hope that the collection can find a local home in a space that can help inspire other artists and add an unexpected piece of culture to our small town. SPACES has provided some great examples of other successful projects from all over the country, and I just hope that we can find a way to do something similar with ours. There is a real sense of reciprocity between community and artist when it is done right. I think we’re on the cusp of doing something transformative, and the number of volunteers who are passionate about the future of the collection continues to grow upon each opening. Because of this, we have started a Val Polyanin Art Collection Preservation Committee and have just begun tossing some ideas around.
How has Val responded to this project, and what's he up to now?
Val continues to make art EVERY SINGLE DAY. He is currently looking for some studio space, since the smell of oil paint was too strong for some of the other residents in his apartment complex, and he was asked to stop painting there as a result. “This is crisis!” he urges, since it is so much a part of his life. The volunteers and I are trying to find an adequate space for him, but it is unfortunately difficult considering the cost of rent these days.
While he hasn’t attended any of the openings and probably won’t since he is a surprisingly private person, he seemed very pleased and surprised by the exhibition. Seeing the work cleaned up and displayed in the new space seemed to prompt memories of the past for him. He shared more of the back stories behind some of the pieces and seemed tickled by the arrangement and interpretation of the work. When he saw that we were unable to build a pedestal for all the sculptures that could have used one, he had about 35 of them custom built and donated them to the exhibit within a few days. He seemed very proud and happy with the outcome of the desperate situation he was in with his art just a year ago. Another serendipitous piece to this story: he lives a block from where the art ended up.
Safekeeping: The Art of Val Polyanin is on view the first Friday of each month until October 2023 in the former Bank of America building in Crescent City, California.
Visitors are encouraged to bring a found item to donate to the youth art programing event which will run concurrent with the exhibition. A a series of field trips have been scheduled to allow local grade school students a chance to view the art and create a piece of work inspired by Val Polyanin’s use of found objects. The youth artwork will also be on view during the exhibition.