It’s a great time to go on an art tour to Grand Rapids, Michigan. From Ai Weiwei’s monumental show at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park to Finders Keepers at the Grand Rapids Art Museum to the solid work presented by local artists year round at galleries like LaFontsee, there’s a lot to take in. Be sure not to miss the full four floors of important work at the city’s center, where the Urban Institute for Contemporary Art presents “US IS THEM,” a traveling exhibition from one of the most important art collectors in the country.

Building avenues of conversation

Heather Duffy is tired of hard conversations. Or better said, she’s tired of entering so many important conversations with the disclaimer that they will be hard. Duffy wants us to get a little more comfortable being uncomfortable. If that takes a little Southern hospitality and a lot of smart and beautiful art, then that’s what she’ll bring to the table.

Duffy, Exhibitions Curator at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts (UICA), is navigating those conversations deftly in part by bringing a collection of not-to-be-missed important work to the UICA, found smack dab in the very center of Grand Rapids.

“We are living in a time where conversations about race or religion or politics are almost always preceded by the disclaimer that ‘this conversation is going to be hard.’ Which really doesn’t set us up to have that conversation confidently or comfortably,” says Duffy. “In addition to being exemplary successful artworks on their own and as a group, the content [in US IS THEM] is something that most communities need right now. Having art step in as a third in a conversation can take some of the weight off of us. That can take some of the pressure off and hopefully build avenues for conversation.”

The content she’s referring to is now filling two floors of the UICA, and it’s gorgeous, stunning, often world-renowned work. There’s also plenty of colorful and playful work, like The Soundsuit by Nick Cave (the artist, not the musician, so we’re clear). So don’t think a trip to the UICA right now will be a drab experience.

Soundsuit by Nick Cave, courtesy Pizzuti Collection
Soundsuit by Nick Cave, photo courtesy Pizzuti Collection


Will it open you up to new perspectives and truths we too often ignore? Yes, probably. Will its beauty help you navigate and stay engaged with the content? Absolutely.

When Duffy saw the original exhibition of “US IS THEM” in Columbus, Ohio at the Pizzuti Collection in 2015, she knew her dream show had already been created. Rather than try to recreate something already working so successfully, she reached out and proposed turning the exhibit of 42 artists of color into a traveling exhibit.

“The idea of making space to lift up intersectional identities and stories seemed really important then, and I think it still is now,” she says. “It seemed like an opportunity to do something really impactful – with really great art.”

This really great art comes from the Pizzuti’s extensive collection of over 2000 works of art, and is honed down at the UICA to about 50 works by 42 artists. The collection is regularly named as one of the top collections in the country.

“A selection of these works – the Kehinde Wiley and the Jeff Sonhouse and the Hank Willis Thomas – were hanging on a gallery wall in Ron’s home, and he looked at them and said, ‘Look what I’ve done’” says Greer Pagano, curator at Pizzuti Collection. “US IS THEM” then blossomed from that discovery: a realization that a collection of work that Pizzuti had just naturally gravitated towards contained important conversations and commonalities that could be built into a full show.

Wild Man, by Kehinde Wiley
Design for a Stained Glass Window with Wild Man, by Kehinde Wiley, photo courtesy Pizzuti Collection


“We have to understand and appreciate our common humanity,” Pagano says of the goal of the exhibit. “The title of the show ‘US IS THEM’ is very much a call to action and a call to contemplate what we share, what we have on common, and how we have to treat each other…There is no them, we are all us.”

The chance to see such an important collection alone would be enough to make a trip to Grand Rapids.

We are all connected

But Duffy has taken this opportunity to create a full suite of exhibitions that build on the themes of “US IS THEM” and added two more floors of visual conversations with “Here + Now.” This suite of exhibitions includes solo exhibitions, performances and community events that fill the first and lower levels of UICA. With these important additions, Duffy has filled all four floors of exhibition space in the UICA with work that centers the experiences and voices of artists of color. Smart, shocking talent overflows every corner and available space.

She brought in additional perspectives to shape the experience. Centering guest curators, speakers, and other decision-makers that were all people of color was important to her, as she worked to navigate an experience that would not be from just her own perspective.

Meeting at the Crossroads" by Jeff Sonhouse: CLOSE UP
Detail of "Meeting at the Crossroads" by Jeff Sonhouse, photo credit Holly Bechiri


As visitors to the work, we also have a chance to see the world from perspectives other than our own. Black hair, Asian one-child policies, Israeli allegory and homelessness, Cuban identity: there is a lot of “them” filling the walls right now at the UICA. The more we compare notes with the “other,” the more we learn not just how we are different, but also and overwhelmingly how we are also – inexplicably, gorgeously, shockingly – one.

We are all connected, we are all one. This art doesn’t insist upon this truth, but rather, it takes our hand and guides us through the right questions to get us there. The best art, like the not-to-be-missed exhibitions on view at the UICA through May 14, helps us ask new questions we didn’t even know we had – all while surrounding us with its enthralling beauty.