The large-scale research and exhibition project

The Heartland has a long history of migration that continues today. The continual conquering of the land shaped it into a space that refl ects a diversity of cultural influences from all over the world while being embedded in the center hinterland. While many Americans associate the word „Heartland“ with a cluster of Midwestern states, we chose to focus on a wider area that encompasses several geographic territories and cultural centers.

Design 99, Heartland Machine, installation view Smart Museum of Art, photo Kerstin Niemann
Design 99, Heartland Machine, installation view Smart Museum of Art, photo Kerstin Niemann

We that is the curatorial team of „Heartland“ the large-scale research and exhibition project: Stephanie Smith curator from the Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago; Charles Esche, director of the Van Abbemuseum and myself, guest research curator and cultural researcher. As a curatorial team we explored the so-called Heartland territory in a series of road trips that begun in summer 2007 and continued in 2009. Our premise of researching art activity in the Heartland was about looking into clichéd images – long-held and outdated notions about both rural and urban areas alongside the Mississippi River and its tributaries. „The body of nation“ or „the lady of rivers“ as Mark Twain describes the river became our point of orientation. It helped us to fi nd and research parameters, make choices about where to go and served as a so-called catalyst for discussions with people we met along the way.

Greely Myatt, installation view Van Abbemuseum, 2008, Photo Bram Saeys
Greely Myatt, installation view Van Abbemuseum, 2008, Photo Bram Saeys

Our on-site research and follow up work led us to see the Heartland as a space for cultural production marked by interdisciplinary approaches, social engagement, and communityorientated work. The series of road trips and its documentation helped us to frame the distinct exhibitions presented at the Van Abbemuseum as well as the Smart Museum of Art. We knew from the outset that the show would evolve as it traveled, and we planned the presentation of Heartland with an eye to each host institution’s audience, location and sensibility. In both institutions, the Van Abbemuseum as well as the Smart Museum, the exhibition offers an idiosyncratic look at cultural production in the American Heartland. It presents the unfettered alternative vision of artists whose work challenges our understandings of place and community, and explores the role of contemporary art in our changing world.

The Van Abbemuseum´s presentation of „Heartland“ was in collaboration with the Muziekcentrum Frits Philips and the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago as its American partner. It took place in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, from October 3, 2008 to February 8, 2009 and consisted of a group exhibition in the Van Abbemuseum together with a musical program in the Muziekcentrum Frits Philips. The exhibition took the visitor on a trip alongside the Mississippi river and its tributaries, through countryside and cities. It featured both commissioned and existing works by contemporary American and European artists. Artists included in the exhibition: Juan William Chávez, Cody Critcheloe, Peter Friedl, Scott Hocking, Carol Jackson, Matthew Day Jackson, Seth Johnson, Kerry James Marshall, Greely Myatt, Dan Peterman, Marjetica Potr, Ernesto Pujol, Michael Rakowitz, Wilhelm Sasnal, Artur Silva, Deb Sokolow, Alec Soth, Aaron Spangler, Design 99, Detroit Tree of Heaven Woodshop, Theaster Gates and the Black Monks of Mississippi, SIMPARCH, The New Kinomatagraphic Union, Jaimie Warren & Whoop Dee Doo Kansas City, as well as artists in residence Jeremiah Day and Julika Rudelius.

The election of a new president as well as the economical downfall shaped some choices about the subsequent Chicago presentation in the Smart Museum, University of Chicago. The presentation chose to present works that seemed especially relevant and revelatory to American audiences. Heartland has been reconceived in Chicago at the Smart Museum of Art, in October 2009 and is on display until 17th January 2010. The exhibition there presents a diverse assembly of work by artists working in—and in response to—Detroit, Kansas City, and other cities and rural communities across the Heartland region.

Artists and artist groups included: Carnal Torpor, Compass Group, Cody Critcheloe, Jeremiah Day, Detroit Tree of Heaven Woodshop, Design 99, Scott Hocking, Kerry James Marshall, Greely Myatt, Marjetica Potr, Julika Rudelius, Artur Silva, Deb Sokolow, and Whoop
Dee Doo.

If you do not have a chance of visiting „Heartland“ at the Smart Museum of Art in Chicago the catalogue documents the full Heartland project. The content from the publication stems from the Heartland exhibitions at the Van Abbemuseum and the Smart Museum of Art. But this book is much more than an art catalogue. Contributors-including novelist Dave Eggers, scholar Hasan Kwame Jeffries, and journalist Rebecca Solnit-explore the region through topics ranging from art to music to urban farming to political history. An illustrated section introduces all of the artists involved in both iterations of Heartland. An appendix surveys the lively state of independent and artist-run cultural initiatives from New Orleans to Detroit.

Carol Jackson, installation view Van Abbemuseum, 2008, Photo Peter Cox
Carol Jackson, installation view Van Abbemuseum, 2008, Photo Peter Cox

For more information on „Heartland“ please visit:


Heartland – A book about the central United
States and its cultural life is part of:
Heartland. Chicago University Press,
ISBN/ISSN: 978-0-935573-47-3

Kerstin Niemann lives and works in Hamburg and Eindhoven as curator and cultural researcher. She works as a guest research curator at the Van Abbemuseum and is director of FILTER, a platform for international contemporary art (www.filter-hamburg.com). Just recently she established FILTER DETROIT a house in progress – a place where social artistic practice and interdisciplinary research activities meet. Together with invited guests, neighbors and local collaborating partners the residency house FILTER DETROIT is developing a „Living Archive“/ hub of investigations and knowledge concerning urban, social as well as cultural movements from Detroit.