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The Guilfordian

The student news site of Guilford College

The Guilfordian

The student news site of Guilford College

The Guilfordian

Elsewhere Art Collaborative: where old junk meets fine art

(Hannah Sherk)
(Hannah Sherk)

On a Saturday afternoon, a father and daughter stroll through a downtown museum theorizing on the merits of the piece before them. “That’s what art is supposed to do,” says the man, imparting wisdom to his inquisitive teenager. “It’s supposed to mean different things to different people – Ooh! A Ouija board!” At the Elsewhere Artist Collaborative in downtown Greensboro, this is what art is supposed to do: get people excited about old stuff.

While most museums separate visitors from artwork with a slab of glass and a few hulking guards, Elsewhere encourages its guests to make fingerprints. The collaborative calls itself a “living museum,” where guests are allowed to interact with the art they observe. They do more than watch – they play.

“It’s not a stuffy museum where you can’t touch anything for fear of being fined a billion dollars,” said senior Alyzza Callahan, who is applying for an artist residency at Elsewhere. “It’s interactive. You are the art while you’re in there.”

Of course, the content of the exhibit lends itself well to this interaction. For the 50 years before her passing, Greensboro resident Sylvia Gray ran the building as a thrift store. She began by collecting and reselling useful or unique items, but turned into something of a hoarder in her old age.

“People tell us stories of coming into Sylvia’s store years ago,” said Elsewhere media director Dan White. “They would bring their items up to the front to make their purchase and Sylvia would say, ‘No, you can’t have it.’ She had to like you to sell you her things.”

Gray’s particular taste in customers and indiscriminate affection for things was a recipe for merchandise mayhem. Today, the three-story South Elm building brims with odds and ends. Like the space underneath your childhood bed, Elsewhere is littered with old toys, working instruments, and dress-up clothes.

“It gets people who’ve forgotten how to play to play,” White said.

Collaborators encourage interactive observation with projects set up throughout the museum. In the library, a fort constructed with pillows offers a space for guests to spend time with a remembered book. The cathartic “Confess-a-torium urges visitors to speak their secrets into the voice message of an ancient telephone. In short, Elsewhere is a place where people live out their nostalgia.

When discussing their materials, the museum directors regard their collector with awe. The name Sylvia is spoken with either a solemn reverie or bemused laughter.

“Sylvia is kind of like a Greek god,” White said. “We worship her like a deity and even protect her objects. We have a lot of respect and awe for how she collected her things, but are also baffled by them. Our relationship with her things is like we’re asking, “Why did you put this on this earth?” while also saying, “Thank you for putting this on this earth.”

These Elsewherians imposed the order that brought life to the “living museum.” According to White, parts of the building even speak.

“There are certain lines that are repeated in certain parts of the space,” White said. “Over there by the toys is the, “I had one of these!’ section. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard visitors say that as they come around that corner.”

And it’s that familiarity that makes Elsewhere a unique space. Visitors recognize elements of their past in the collection, while the museum’s in-house artists recognize art in the relationship between people and objects. Residents become friends, and visitors become residents in the Elsewhere evolution.

“I like to say that our biggest competition in Greensboro is hanging out on porches with forties,” White said of Elsewhere’s party-like atmosphere.

But Elsewherians do more than hang out.

While the group is focused on the museum’s internal community, Elsewhere is also a 501c (3) non-profit organization committed to outreach in greater Greensboro.

On April 22, the Elsewhere group will celebrate Earth Day at City Center Park with their downtown neighbors. Later this month, on April 24, they will open a project called “SKEWL,” which offers children after-school art classes at Raleigh’s North Carolina Art Museum.

“I’m interested in seeing how they are combining the local and global,” said senior Kat Siladi. “I’m looking to become a part of the cooking and sewing co-ops. That way I can stop in for a meal on my way to work (at the Children’s Museum).”

“Over the summer I interned at the BCC (Beloved Community Center), and Elsewhere is right around the corner from us,” Callahan said. “They reached out to us to say, ‘Hey, we’re here, too. Let’s get together.'”

Callahan referred to “CITY,” a game invented by museum members but open to all, as a powerful social tool. In the game, Elsewhere becomes a city where players take on different social roles according to objects chosen from the collection.

“CITY actually models what’s going on in Greensboro,” Callahan said. “At the BCC, we have the same goals but with a different means of achieving them. Both groups can be seen as a social tool.”

During a visit to Elsewhere, you find yourself meeting objects like old friends. But in this reincarnation, junk becomes part of an art piece, a workspace, or a social mechanism.

“This is not just a museum,” said White. “This space is a community resource.

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