The art scene is an integral part of Grand Rapids and locals know there are pieces of outdoor art that everyone can enjoy. Whether it’s your first visit, or you live nearby, here are suggestions for “must-see” outdoor art and art-related experiences. Each of the following ten works of art have an interesting place in Grand Rapids’ history and are easy to access as you walk around downtown.
An integral part of Grand Rapids, a likeness of La Grande Vitesse is in the city's official logo.
Photo by Experience Grand Rapids
La Grande Vitesse
In 1967, Grand Rapids commissioned American sculptor Alexander Calder, widely considered one of the most important American sculptors of the 20th century, to create a piece of art for the city. Two years later, La Grande Vitesse was installed in Vandenberg Plaza. The sculpture celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2019.
The bright red, 42-ton sculpture measures 54 feet long, 43 feet high, and 30 feet wide. The sculpture is a great photo op and has long been a favorite photo spot for locals and visitors to Grand Rapids.
La Grande Vitesse was the first public artwork funded by the Art in Public Places program of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), making it an important part of history for both Grand Rapids and the United States. The sculpture and plaza have come to be known as “The Calder” and “Calder Plaza” respectively, as a nod to the sculptor.
The installation of La Grande Vitesse showed city leaders the power of public art, inspired a flourishing public arts program, and became a symbol of Grand Rapids’ creative and artistic spirit, which continues to thrive today.
The sculpture has become such a part of Grand Rapids’ history that artist Joseph Kinnebrew incorporated its likeness into the city's official logo. You’ll even see it on the city’s garbage trucks. Its name is also a tribute to the Grand River, as it translates to “the great swiftness.”
Reinforcing its importance to the city, the plaza where La Grande Vitesse is located is the centerpiece of Grand Rapids’ annual Festival of the Arts celebration, held every year since 1970, and for many other cultural events including the Hispanic and Pride Festivals.
This Pop Art-style sculpture by Hy Zelkowitz, which resembles a 14-foot-wide red button, was installed for Grand Rapids’ 1976 Festival of the Arts. Its buttonholes are large enough to peek through, providing a great photo op.
Given the composition and intent of the fiberglass and urethane foam sculpture, which won a 1976 playground sculpture competition and encourages children of all ages to play on it, Lorrie’s Button experiences a lot of wear and tear.
Located in Ah-Nab-Awen Park near The Gerald Ford Presidential Museum, it’s one of the Grand Rapids’ most expensive sculptures to maintain. Showing a commitment to public art in Grand Rapids, in 2015 the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority authorized restoration of the sculpture to prevent further deterioration and ensure safe play for kids.
The name "Motu Viget" is Latin for "strength in activity."
Photo by Brian Craig for Experience Grand Rapids
Made from 12-tons of industrial steel I-beams and rubber, this kinetic sculpture, designed by Mark di Suvero in 1977, stands 33-feet high.
Motu Viget has a controversial history. The sculptor, now a National Medal of Arts honoree, originally created a 40-foot tall steel structure in Grand Rapids as part of a 1973 exhibition. That structure was moved to the National Mall in Washington, D.C. and the U.S. General Services Administration commissioned a new sculpture for Grand Rapids.
The new piece di Suvero designed varied so dramatically from the original that the General Services Administration considered rejecting it. Grand Rapids residents, who wanted the new sculpture installed despite the fact that it was so different from the original, wrote letters and signed a petition to have Motu Viget permanently installed.
The people prevailed, and the new piece was installed in 1997 on the lawn behind the Gerald R. Ford Federal Building, on the Northwest corner of Calder Plaza. Its name, Motu Viget, is a Latin phrase that means, “strength in activity.” It’s also the official city motto of Grand Rapids.
When you visit the sculpture, you’ll see that it does promote activity. The industrial I-beams support a seven-foot-wide rubber tire, which is suspended in the air, resulting in its nickname, “the tire swing.”
The sculpture was removed and re-engineered in 2013 for safety, making it stronger than before. Generations of local children and adults alike have enjoyed swinging on the giant sculpture.
Civic Auditorium Reliefs
The Civic Auditorium opened in January of 1933 and for fifty years was home to myriad events, including furniture shows, concerts, and circuses.
The fortunate building escaped the demolition that razed the other buildings on its block in 1982. Its edifice features two square limestone relief sculptures on the exterior front façade by Corrado Parducci, called “Fine Arts” and “Music.”
The reliefs are beautiful examples of "Art Deco" style, inspired by those of ancient Greece and Rome. Multiple symbols and signs, including the city and state seals, are included, with a shell and wave motif at the roof line. The figurative reliefs at each end represent music and fine arts.
Grand Rapids had long wanted a public auditorium and, wishing to employ people during the Great Depression, City Manager George Welsh coordinated a one-and-a-half million-dollar public bond effort in 1930 to fund the construction project. The original building, designed by local architects Robinson & Campau, included an exhibition hall, meeting rooms, a concert space, and the main arena for a total capacity of over 8,000 spectators.
The Civic Auditorium was renamed the George Welsh Civic Auditorium in 1975. Almost 30 years later, when the DeVos Place Convention Center expanded in July 2003, the original civic auditorium was imploded. But its beautiful façade with the limestone reliefs and its sleek, polished metal and marble Art Deco-style lobby remain intact and today are a part of the Steelcase Ballroom at the convention center.
Ecliptic artist, Maya Lin, also created the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Photo by Experience Grand Rapids; Ecliptic, by Maya Lin
Local swing dance fans and ice skating enthusiasts know all about the unique sculpture by Maya Lin called Ecliptic. Installed in 2001 and located in the 3.5-acre plaza known as Rosa Parks Circle, Lin designed a 13,000-square-foot oval concrete amphitheater, Ecliptic as experiential art.
During the warmer months, Ecliptic hosts concerts, cultural festivals, and large public events, like watching the Olympics.
In the winter, it’s used an ice skating rink, where stars appear to twinkle from beneath its surface. The 166 fiber optic lights are part of the sculpture itself and mirror the stars in the sky over Grand Rapids at midnight on January 1, 2000, the start of the new millennium.
The ice in the skating rink is one of three ways the sculpture incorporates different forms of water, illustrating the importance of the Grand River to Grand Rapids. Besides the solid form in the winter ice rink, the sculpture also features a mist fountain, representing water in vapor form, and a tablet of flowing water, representing water in liquid form.
Water is often a theme in Maya Lin’s work, which includes the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
In 2017, the American Planning Association named Rosa Parks Circle one of the top five public spaces in America.
Stand Up For Rosa Parks Statue
Rosa Parks Circle in Grand Rapids is home to the aforementioned Ecliptic, as well as this bronze statue of the parks’ namesake, which rests atop a black marble base. Created by Denver artist Ed Dwight, the statue is a likeness of and tribute to the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement,” and it welcomes visitors to the park. Stand Up for Rosa Parks was erected and dedicated towards the end of the 2010 ArtPrize competition.
For this statue, sculptor Dwight, also America’s first African American Astronaut candidate, chose to depict Rosa Parks standing, rather than seated. The powerful posture portrays the strength inherent in her historic 1955 decision in Montgomery, Alabama to not yield her seat to a white man.
The front side of the base includes a brief memorial of her life and resistance. Etched into another side of the base is this Rosa Parks’ quote:
“I would like to be known as a person who is concerned about freedom, and equality, and justice, and prosperity for all people.”
Spirit of Solidarity
The three larger than life bronze figures in the Spirit of Solidarity monument, carved and cast by Roberto Chenlo, symbolize the people involved with and affected by the great furniture strike of 1911, when 4,000 workers took off their shop aprons and walked away from their jobs.
Twenty years earlier, Grand Rapids was the furniture-manufacturing capital of the U.S, with many new immigrant residents toiling in the woodworking factories. A nationwide industrial slump in 1905 exacerbated existing divisions caused by differences in religion and culture, skilled and unskilled workers, and immigrant and native-born workers.
The strike created a spirit of solidarity among workers who’d been divided by these forces as, together, they sought better working conditions and wages.
The four pathways that lead to the monument represent the four ethnic groups that were involved (Polish, Lithuanian, Dutch, and German) and a fountain surrounding the sculpture of the bronze figures represents both the Grand River and the turbulent times. Granite surrounds the statues, representing the fortitude and hardships faced by the workers.
Inspirational quotes are etched into the granite, including this one, by Frederick Douglass: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”
The shapes in the The River’s Edge reflect the wildlife typically found by a river, like fish and birds.
Photo by Brian Craig for Experience Grand Rapids
The River’s Edge
This 25-foot tall abstract painted steel sculpture was created by internationally acclaimed sculptor James Clover in 1988. As you walk around it, you’ll see that he designed it so the organic and geometric forms appear to playfully interact with one another. With each step around The River’s Edge, the shapes appear to shift slightly, interacting with the others in different ways.
The shapes in The River’s Edge reflect the wildlife typically found by a river, like fish and birds. Like many of Clover’s sculptures, it reaches towards the sky and appears almost improvisational, reflecting his love of jazz.
You’ll find The River’s Edge on the downtown campus of Grand Valley State University (GVSU), where Clover taught for many years. Clover has other sculptures around the country, but locally you can see more of his work on GVSU’s Allendale and Holland campuses and in the nearby cities of Grand Haven and Muskegon.
Located adjacent to the Grand River and the JW Marriott Hotel, this 33-foot tall structure by contemporary Dutch artist Cyril Lixenberg commemorates Grand Rapids becoming the first city in the world to add fluoride to its drinking water.
The five-ton Steel Water sculpture uses steel-shaped waves, painted bright blue, to represent flowing water. The sculpture sits in a specially-designed plaza adjacent to the Grand River, and the JW Marriott, and is illuminated at night by a custom lighting system.
The heavy sculpture is designed to sway gently in the breeze, but don’t worry – it’s sturdily anchored in the ground. Near the railing by the Grand River, you can read a commemorative plaque and take a sip from the fluoridated water in the drinking fountain.
River's Edge Environment Sculpture
Not to be confused with The River’s Edge by James Clover, you’ll find this granite and stone sculpture by Vermont-based sculptor Michael Singer and Sasaki Associates Inc. downtown, between Fulton Street and the Blue Bridge, on the east bank of the Grand River.
Commissioned by the Grand Rapids Art Museum, it’s possible to walk by and miss seeing the River's Edge Environmental Sculpture because the artist integrated the layered sculptural wall so thoroughly into the river’s landscape.
Singer carefully preserved existing plant life along the river, including the mature cottonwood trees growing there, in his design. He then added native Michigan plants, Michigan boulders, and Vermont granite slabs.
The result is a striking 600-ft long, 200-ton sculpture that transforms as the sun moves over it, with flickering light enhancing color, and shadow forms moving along the granite blocks. Not only is it a beautiful piece of art that creates habitat and engages the public, it also serves a practical purpose and was carefully engineered to withstand flooding.