As home to dozens of neighborhood galleries, two downtown art museums, one of the largest volunteer-driven arts festivals in the nation, a top-100 most visited art museum worldwide and an internationally renowned art competition that draws more daily visitors than any other public art event on the planet, Grand Rapids has plenty to keep even the most avid art enthusiast happy.
Some point to Alexander Calder’s La Grande Vitesse as the piece that started it all. The 43-foot tall, 42-ton stabile was installed in a public square in front of City Hall in 1969. It was commissioned by the City of Grand Rapids and the Kent County Board of Commission and made possible through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and private funding, making it the first civic sculpture jointly financed by federal and private funds.
The iconic undulating red metal structure, which took its inspiration from the rapids in the city’s namesake Grand River, immediately became the symbol of the city and now serves as the backdrop for everything from concerts to political rallies.
It also inspired the launch of the Festival of the Arts. This free, volunteer-driven community celebration of visual arts, dance, music, poetry and film takes over the streets of downtown Grand Rapids the first weekend of June, with the 47th annual event scheduled for June 2-4, 2017.
But the history of Grand Rapids’ love for the arts dates back even further to the establishment of the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM) in 1910.
Since opening the doors to its current 125,000 square foot home in the heart of downtown in 2007, GRAM has served as an anchor for the city’s art community. The museum engages visitors with exciting special exhibitions and a growing collection of more than 5,000 works of art, including American and European 19th and 20th century painting and sculpture and more than 3,000 works on paper. GRAM also offers lecture series and hands-on classes, as well as an eclectic concert mix. The building – the world’s first LEED® Gold certified art museum – is itself a design masterpiece and attracts over 240,000 annual visitors.
A few blocks to the east of GRAM, the Urban Institute for Contemporary Art (UICA) serves as the second downtown anchor for the arts. With provocative special exhibitions; unique galleries on four floors; a state-of-the-art movie theatre featuring indie, foreign and documentary films; a youth studio; and strong educational programming including ArtWorks summer team internships, the institute has grown to become Michigan’s largest multidisciplinary contemporary arts center.
UICA’s dedication to protecting freedom of artistic expression is grounded in the belief that such expression is essential to a thriving community.
A 10-minute expressway drive east of downtown takes visitors to the third anchor of the Grand Rapids art community – Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park – ranked by Art Newspaper in the top 100 most-visited art museums worldwide. Masterpieces by Rodin, Henry Moore, Roxy Paine, Oldenburg and van Bruggen and Richard Serra grace a variety of natural settings connected by waterways, wooded paths, lawns, meadows and quiet walkways. The accessible outdoor sculpture park is open year round and is particularly dramatic when set against the stark, snowy landscapes of a Michigan winter.
Meijer Gardens 200 plus-piece permanent sculpture collection is complemented by three temporary exhibitions annually. A special exhibition by Ai Weiwei opens on January 27. In this, his first exhibition in a botanic garden and sculpture park – Ai Weiwei at Meijer Gardens: Natural State – the internationally renowned artist and activist utilizes galleries, conservatories and public spaces to display work that stands apart both for its craftsmanship and its commentary on Chinese and global culture. The exhibition runs through August 20, 2017.
Small spaces with big impact
But art in Grand Rapids is not confined to sprawling museums. Visitors with an adventurous spirit will find an eclectic mix of galleries and studios nestled in the city’s neighborhoods.
On the near south end of downtown, for instance, Avenue for the Arts is a hyper-local art-focused commercial corridor where live-work spaces have attracted a community of artists, galleries, retail shops and public art — all accessible via The Rapid’s Silver Line. Events include First Friday Gallery Hops, educational programming and an annual Art. Downtown. collaborative featuring 400 artists at 30 locations.
One artist-run gallery on the Avenue, Sanctuary Folk Art, features folk art made, primarily, by self-taught artists from Grand Rapids and other parts of Michigan.
Venture outside of downtown to discover fine art galleries that display works from local and international artists alike. Some neighborhood gems include Richard App Gallery, Lafontsee Galleries, Tanglefoot, MercuryHead Gallery and Gallery 154. Several offer a variety of art services such as custom framing, appraisals, installation, even restoration, so check with the proprietor.
Area colleges and universities play a vital role in cultivating the next generation of artists. Multiple downtown gallery spaces at Kendall College of Art and Design, including The Fed Galleries and the Galleries @ 17 Fountain, feature contemporary artists from around the globe as well as student, faculty and community work.
Center Art Gallery at Calvin College’s campus in southeast Grand Rapids features work by Calvin fine arts students, faculty and alumni, as well as exhibits by international secular and religious artists of note dating from the 16th-century to the present.
And the Grand Valley State University Art Gallery presents multicultural and interdisciplinary exhibitions throughout the year at six changing gallery spaces on both the Allendale campus and Pew campus in downtown Grand Rapids. Download the university’s “Art at GVSU” mobile app for self-guided tours and access to its collection of over 14,000 works of art.
Outside the walls
Beyond the walls of galleries and museums, outdoor art is ubiquitous throughout the city.
The latest bronze installation in what will be a series of 25 statues honoring Grand Rapids’ community legends, depicts the country’s first female CEO, Anna Bissell. The 7-foot sculpture by Ann Hirsch pays homage to the mother of five who took the reins of the Grand Rapids-based carpet sweeper manufacturer after her husband’s death in 1889 and built one of the largest international corporations of its time.
Of course, Grand Rapids’ favorite son, President Gerald R. Ford, is memorialized in bronze at the Gerald R. Ford Museum on the banks of the Grand River. The statue by Grand Rapids-area native J. Brett Grill is a replica of the sculpture that was commissioned for the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall.
Another pair of bronze statues mark the entry to Rosa Parks Circle, a 3.5-acre park at the foot of the west entrance of the GRAM. Ed Dwight’s depiction of civil-rights leader Rosa Parks stands resolutely on a black marble pedestal in the northwest corner of the park. Across the street, a bronze by Toby Mendez depicts Senator Arthur Vandenburg, the Grand Rapids-born U.S. Senator who was instrumental in organizing the United Nations.
At the center of Rosa Parks Circle, Maya Lin’s Ecliptic is reflective of the Grand River with its rolling mounds evocative of rapids and water in liquid, gas and frozen states. In summer, the park is filled with downtown workers lounging near a tree-sheltered reflecting pool and a misting fountain. In winter, skaters glide over 166 tiny fiber-optic lights that shine through the ice rink depicting the millennial constellation of the sky over Grand Rapids on January 1, 2000.
More than two dozen large-scale murals grace building exteriors, underpasses, fences and other outdoor structures within a few-mile radius of downtown. Some lively and whimsical, others contemplative, they range from street art to commissioned works and often – like "Nuestra Historia, Nuestra Voz" ("Our History, Our Voice") – reflect the culture of the neighborhoods where they were created.
While murals, sculptures and street art have long adorned Grand Rapids buildings and plazas, the scale and number of pieces have grown exponentially since the advent of ArtPrize in 2009.
Billed as a radically open, independently organized international art competition, ArtPrize has earned the distinction as the most attended public art event on the planet, according to The Art Newspaper.
In 2016, the 19-day event attracted 1,453 artists from 44 countries and 40 U.S. states who competed for $500,000 in prize money awarded according to public and juried votes. Over 23,000 visitors per day toured 170 venues including museums, coffee shops, churches, office buildings, public squares and parks to view entries by novices and professionals, alike. But beyond viewing, people engaged, casting 400,000 votes for their favorite works of art.
The legacy of ArtPrize – now entering its 9th year – is multi-dimensional. It serves as a catalyst for critical discourse about art. It’s a moment when everyone has an equal voice.
It also acts as a community curator for public art. Many ArtPrize entries remain after the competition closes to adorn formerly blank exterior building walls and fill previously art-less public squares and building lobbies.
The streets of Grand Rapids truly are the palette and the result is a cityscape that showcases the power of art in placemaking. Come and enjoy.