As home to dozens of neighborhood galleries, two downtown art museums, one of the largest volunteer-driven arts festivals in the nation, a top-50 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 in 1970. 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 each year.
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.
A few blocks to the east of GRAM, the Urban Institute for Contemporary Art (UICA) serves as the second downtown anchor for the arts. UICA hosts provocative special exhibitions in and around its classic Beaux Arts-style building, offers educational programming for people of all ages and operates a gift shop showcasing local and regional artists and designers
An auxiliary enterprise of Kendall College of Art & Design of Ferris State University, UICA is dedicated to the proposition that sharing perspectives through contemporary art helps grow an equitable, thriving culture and community.
A 10-minute expressway drive east of downtown takes visitors to the third anchor of the Grand Rapids art community – Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park – ranked by Art Newspaper in the top-50 most visited art museums worldwide. Masterpieces by Rodin, Henry Moore, Roxy Paine, Richard Serra and Oldenburg & van Bruggen 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.
The permanent sculpture collection of nearly 300 works is complemented by three temporary exhibitions annually. Magdalena Abakanowicz, Dale Chihuly, Rebecca Louise Law, George Segal, Yinka Shonibare CBE, and Ai Weiwei are among the contemporary masters who have been showcased to widespread critical acclaim. Many temporary exhibits have included outdoor installations.
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 bus. Avenue for the Arts organizes Third Thursday sip, shop & stroll events and offers a wide range of resources for artists and art admirers.
One art studio on the Avenue, The Arts at Heartside Ministry, offers space for guests of the ministry to create and allows guests and neighbors of the ministry to sell their art in their gallery.
Venture outside of downtown to discover fine art galleries that display works from local and international artists alike. Some neighborhood gems include Gallery 154, Grand Valley Artists, Lafontsee Galleries, Lions & Rabbits Center for the Arts, MercuryHead Gallery, and Muse GR. Some offer a wide range of art classes and/or custom framing, appraisals, installation, and even restoration.
Area colleges and universities play a vital role in cultivating the next generation of artists. Multiple downtown galleries on the campus of Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University feature contemporary artists from around the globe as well as students, faculty, and community work.
Center Art Gallery at Calvin University’s campus in southeast Grand Rapids displays a wide range of temporary exhibits, including major loan exhibitions and work by Calvin faculty, alumni, and students. Works from Calvin’s permanent collection of 1,800 pieces dating from the 16th century to the present are also featured.
And the Grand Valley State University Art Gallery presents multicultural and interdisciplinary exhibitions throughout the year at six changing gallery spaces on both its downtown Grand Rapids and its Allendale campus (18 minutes west of the city). Download the “Art at GVSU” mobile app for self-guided tours and access to its collection of more than 25,000 works of art.
Outside the walls
Beyond the walls of galleries and museums, outdoor art is ubiquitous throughout the city.
The Community Legends Project is an ongoing initiative to install 25 bronze sculptures of notable figures in Grand Rapids history around the downtown area. Chief Noonday, leader of the Grand River Band of Ottawa Indians in the late 19th century; Lucius Lyon, a surveyor and pioneer who represented Michigan in the U.S. House and Senate from 1833-1839; Anna Bissell, the country’s first female CEO; and professional boxer Stanley Ketchel are among those who have been immortalized thus far.
Of course, Grand Rapids’ favorite son, President Gerald R. Ford, is memorialized in bronze on the banks of the Grand River outside the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum. A bronze sculpture of First Lady Betty Ford is situated elsewhere on the grounds. President Ford is also depicted in bronze outside the Gerald R. Ford International Airport, 20 minutes from his namesake museum.
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.
Dozens of 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 the seven murals of the 49507 Project – 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.
Held in mid-September through early October every year, the 18-day event attracts hundreds of artists from around the country and around the globe to compete for $450,000 in prize money awarded according to public and juried votes. Since its inception, millions have participated in ArtPrize, displaying their work, opening their spaces to artists and visitors from around the world, and sparking countless conversations about what art is and why it matters.
The legacy of ArtPrize – still growing and evolving after more than a decade of operation – is multi-dimensional. It serves as a catalyst for critical discourse about art. It’s a moment when everyone has an equal voice.
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.
Grand Rapids is Michigan’s fastest growing metro area and one of the nation’s strongest economies, fueled by a creative, collaborative spirit that generates global, national and entrepreneurial investments. Experience Grand Rapids highlights leading sectors of the local economy to underscore the city’s suitability for innovation-focused meetings.