As PAR-Projects stages the first exhibit in its new home, Jonathan Sears hopes for bigger things

As Professional Artistic Research Projects celebrates the opening of its first permanent home, its executive director looks forward to its next steps.

click to enlarge Jonathan Sears inside the work-in-progress that is his art group’s first permanent home. - Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Jonathan Sears inside the work-in-progress that is his art group’s first permanent home.
Swarms,” the first installation in PAR-Projects’ new home on Northside’s Hoffner Street, is a slow-motion swirl of activity and connectivity — sort of a metaphor for PAR-Projects itself. Kinetic sculptures by Michigan artist Lisa Walcott resemble clouds of insects, yet they barely create a buzz as they circle in near-darkness. You can’t make out everything that’s going on in this space, but you sense that you don’t want to disturb this delicate dance.

After all, Professional Artistic Research Projects has operated in a series of fits and starts since its creation in 2010. The group was uprooted from two other Northside sites. Now, finally, executive director Jonathan Sears is able to celebrate opening the first part of PAR-Projects’ first permanent home. 

The question is what’s next.

Since mid-2012, when co-founder Chris Hoeting left for the Emery Theatre, Sears has led a team of volunteers by himself. Working with what Sears calls a shoestring budget, the nonprofit has produced the Makers Mobile traveling gallery, as well as collaborations with Northside neighbors, Kennedy Heights Arts Center and others. But all the while, Sears has touted a vision of an outdoor movie theater, exhibit space and arts education center built out of shipping containers. 

And that’s still the plan, he says. Things are moving at PAR-Projects, but quietly and gradually, much like those sculptures.

Walcott’s entire exhibit is called Making Space. PAR-Projects could also call it Making a Dream Come True, even though Sears says that getting this far has been “nightmarish.” 

Not long after Sears and Hoeting started their first gallery, Northside House, they were evicted following a dispute with their third partner, who was the building’s owner. Then PAR-Projects had to move from its makeshift spot near the American Can Building to make way for the Gantry apartments. “A 30-year lease died so quickly,” Sears says — PAR-Projects’ 2011 Factory Square Fine Arts Festival there had the unintended effect of attracting developers to the property. 

Through it all, Northside’s diverse community has had PAR-Projects’ back. “They stepped up and said, ‘Don’t leave,’ ” Sears says. The Makers Mobile idea was born as the team looked for a new site.

Now PAR-Projects has its own land. “We own it and can’t lose it,” Sears says. But it’s presented a new set of challenges.

The triangular lot on Hoffner Street, which Sears and his board purchased in 2014 for $30,000, still could be mistaken for a vacant industrial site. There’s no signage. Small piles of brush and debris line the chain-link fence. Weeds pop through the faded asphalt. And then there’s the long two-story building, partially boarded up with plywood, that sits at the back of the lot. One face of the century-old, 6,000-square-foot structure is open, owing to its former use as a lumber-drying facility. Sears and the board originally planned to demolish the structure. But despite decades of overgrowth and neglect, the warehouse’s massive wooden skeleton was built to last. 

“The engineer said it was more structurally sound than anybody ever imagined,” Sears says.

Once they realized they could fix the crumbling roof, Sears and PAR-Projects modified their vision. “We decided to choose a chunk of the building and get the engine turning,” Sears says.

A 1,110-square-foot space called The Nook is ready for visitors. But as a recent invite to the barn-like gallery suggested, leave the fancy shoes at home. Six hours before Walcott’s installation opened Oct. 1, stairs to the space were still being laid. A gas-fueled generator operated “Swarms” during its first showings. The Nook’s electrical system should be installed by month’s end, Sears says. He wants to curate four or five installations there annually. 

Moving to an existing storefront wouldn’t have posed so many construction issues for PAR-Projects, but there would have been more rules to follow — not to mention a lease that could be canceled — and limited room. 

“I believe artists need space to play,” Sears says. Here they’ll have the 6,000-square-foot building and, if plans work out, the shipping container facility and a 3,000-square-foot courtyard. 

Right now the proposed courtyard is the crumbling lot, where the Makers Mobile shipping container and another unit sit. 

“Makers Mobile is now Makers Landed,” Sears says. “It was always designed to be the first piece in the building.”

click to enlarge As PAR-Projects stages the first exhibit in its new home, Jonathan Sears hopes for bigger things
Photo: Hailey Bollinger

Currently, the bright container houses illustrations that Walcott titled “The Kitchen Table Series.” The colorful and fluid scenes, which were inspired by the artist’s visits to Northside over the years, look like daydreams drawn on a napkin. A few resemble PAR-Projects’ own sketches for its build-out. 

Phase 1 will cost under $50,000 and could be realized in a year, Sears believes. “We did the hard part with the roof,” he says. The group has made it this far with funding from grants and donors.

In a few months, he says, workers will stack the two existing containers to create the outdoor theater screen. Sears believes showing movies starting this spring will help generate additional funding and interest from people who might otherwise be uncomfortable visiting a gallery. He then wants to add two more containers to create the first classrooms for media arts, which would bring in more income. 

“We paid off the mortgage in January,” Sears says. “Now we need to continue the progress and get people accustomed to walking our way.” About 50 people came by on opening night, he says, and half the faces were new to him. Sears says he’s building a core of supporters committed to annual giving, and that trust in PAR-Projects is growing. 

Sears, a designer and curator whose background is in fine art and digital media, has put his own artmaking mostly on hold. Still, “everything here informs my practice,” he says.

“Is what I’m doing not art?” he muses. “I’m activating a community, meeting random people, having conversations I was not expecting. And they lead to the next thing.”


PAR-PROJECTS, located at 1662 Hoffner St., hosts another Making Space reception 6-9 p.m. Nov. 12. Other times by appointment through Nov. 27. More info: parprojects.com.

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