Art matters to Grand Rapids. Especially public art. That affinity is evidenced in the city’s veneration of La Grande Vitesse, a 42-ton steel sculpture by Alexander Calder that graces Calder Plaza in the heart of downtown. In 2019, Grand Rapids celebrated the 50th anniversary of the beloved stabile – as well as the Festival of the Arts and public art movement that it inspired.
A local effort launched in 1967 by Nancy Mulnix Tweddale and the Women’s Committee of the Grand Rapids Art Museum helped make the $128,000 sculpture installation a reality. The classic Calder-red stabile was installed in 1969 and marked the nation’s first civic sculpture jointly financed by National Endowment for the Arts and private funds.
Since then, the piece has become a symbol of a city committed to public art, inspiring artist Joseph Kinnebrew when he was commissioned to create a new Grand Rapids logo in 1982. The whimsical graphic representation of the Calder standing alongside the city’s namesake Grand River now adorns everything from street signs to city vehicles.
La Grande Vitesse, a public sculpture by American artist Alexander Calder, is located on the large concrete plaza surrounding City Hall and the Kent County Building in Grand Rapids, Michigan, United States. Popularly referred to as simply "the Calder", since its installation in 1969 it has come to be a symbol of Grand Rapids, and an abstraction of it is included in the city's official logo.
Photo by Experience Grand Rapids
In an article for the National Endowment for the Arts, city historian Gordon Olsen noted that the Calder “changed the role of the arts and public sculpture in the life of this community because of the sheer magnitude of La Grande Vitesse and the excitement surrounding it, as well as all the work the community did to bring it here.”
In the 50+ years since the Calder installation, the Grand Rapids community has been expanding its art collection. Much of the work – like the Calder – is in public places and easily enjoyed by all.
Kinnebrew, for instance, has notable artworks within walking distance of La Grande Vitesse. Visitors can explore the Fish Ladder Sculpture along the west side of Grand River near the Sixth Street bridge and Aspiration of Inspiration located on Fountain Street across from Fountain Street Church.
One of the most popular additions to the downtown public art landscape is has been LOVE by Robert Indiana. Installed in May 2018 as a gift to Grand Rapids by the Frey Foundation, it quickly became a favorite photo spot for locals and visitors alike. It’s located at Louis Campau Promenade along Monroe Ave – stop by for your own LOVE portrait when you’re in the area.
Grand Rapids Running Tours stops to admire LOVE by Robert Indiana.
Photo by Experience Grand Rapids
In addition to acquiring art from renowned creators like Calder, Kinnebrew and Indiana, Grand Rapids gives homegrown artists an opportunity to shine. For example, local nonprofit Lions and Rabbits Center for the Arts has partnered with various city entities to employ artists to transform exterior building walls, electrical boxes, storm drains and more with ideas and paint. The Women’s Way Initiative that turned overlooked downtown alleys into tributes to local leaders is a recent case in point.
Artists who live and work here are uniquely situated to confront social justice issues that affect the community. The Diatribe is a local nonprofit that uses restorative art to disrupt historical systems of oppression – and its 49507 Project addresses systemic underinvestment in the 49507 zip code by hiring Black and Brown artists to paint murals on Black and Brown-owned businesses.
Some of the art you’ll see as you explore downtown was originally created for ArtPrize, the global art competition that launched here in 2009. Recognized as the world’s most attended art event in 2014, ArtPrize continues to draw hundreds of thousands of visitors to view all kinds of art from artists the world over, for two weeks every fall.
So, whether you stop by for a LOVE selfie, enjoy a late summer picnic at Fish Ladder Park, or plan an art-focused getaway to Grand Rapids, remember it all began 50+ years ago with a community passionately committed to making art accessible for all.