ALONG THE GRAND: THE FLOW OF CONTEMPORARY ART HISTORY IN GRAND RAPIDS, MICHIGAN

By: Joseph Antenucci Becherer, PhD
Snite Museum of Art, University of Notre Dame

This essay, written on July 8, 2019, is from the Project 1 by ArtPrize catalog.

The history of art gives us a sweeping survey of human expression, centers of creative activity, and audience engagement. In the years following World War II, the centerpiece of the avant-garde in the visual arts transitioned from Europe to America. Paris, war exhausted and depleted, was supplanted by a vibrant and burgeoning New York. Modernism would soon give way to what is universally heralded as Contemporary art which, in most currents, flows into the present day. Earlier chapters of art history are always being refined as research provides new discoveries, but rarely they are completely altered. Because it is so fresh and among us, research and discoveries on the fullest story of Contemporary art merits an important discussion around public art and Grand Rapids, Michigan.

While measurably different than cultural epicenters like New York, this mid-sized Midwestern city has played a highly unique role on the national stage of the visual arts for the last fifty years. The story of public art and Grand Rapids may, in fact, be one of the most compelling refinements to the history of art’s unfolding chapter on Contemporary art. The story goes beyond museums and art institutions; it exists for all in city streets and public plazas.

Located about thirty miles from Lake Michigan, Grand Rapids is the centerpiece of the West Michigan region. The Grand River flows through the heart of downtown and has been the physical and symbolic life force of the city since its founding in 1826. Originally servicing first trade then the logging and lumber industries, the river would eventually come to serve as a source of artistic inspiration as well. Several families who earned their fortunes through lumber emerged as cultural leaders. By the end of the 19th century, lumber transitioned to furniture and Grand Rapids became known as the furniture capital of America. “Furniture City” was a deserved moniker that lasted into the 1960s. Although architecture—whether commercial, ecclesiastical, or residential—was a source of civic pride, the visual arts did not play the same role as in other Midwestern cities.

A visitor exploring Grand Rapids in the “Furniture City” era would have found a columnar Civil War Memorial, an Abraham Lincoln monument, and Tiffany works at Park Congregational Church and Saint Cecelia Music Society. Many stately homes, offices, and institutions would have displayed the canvases of American Impressionist Mathias Alten (1871-1938) who, until relatively recently, was the most celebrated artist of Grand Rapids. Any broader sense of art collecting was modest. Now a centerpiece of the downtown experience, the Grand Rapids Art Museum was initially a small enterprise. Martin Ryerson (1856-1932), one of the greatest American art collectors of the age, was from one of Grand Rapids’ great lumber families. However, he bequeathed his vast art collection to the Art Institute of Chicago, in his adopted hometown. Ryerson’s trajectory was similar to many of lumber and furniture wealth: Grand Rapids roots but presence and legacy in larger metropolitan areas. This tradition has greatly reversed itself in recent decades.

Perhaps the singular touchstone that prefigures the importance of public art for Grand Rapids in the Contemporary period is the over-life size bronze sculpture of John Ball by Italian-American sculptor Pompeo Coppini (1870-1957). Dedicated in 1925, the sculpture features the seated city father surrounded by two children. Rather than describing Ball as a standing, pontifical patriarch, Coppini makes a grand statement that allows the viewer to get close to the figures and feel a part of the narrative. It takes little effort to discover legions of photographs of generations of Grand Rapidians posed around and on the sculpture. A rare until recently example of figurative public art, it embodies the critical need for audience engagement to allow public art to flourish.

Nothing in the aforementioned narrative seems to foreshadow the revolutionary events Grand Rapids brought forth nationally in the late 1960s. As in many industrial cities, urban renewal was underway. Signature efforts in this renewal were new city and county buildings designed by the famed firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM), and forecourt to the structures that served as an open gathering plaza in the urban core. A traditional, figurative fountain was planned in front of the taller city building,

BUT THE FOUNTAIN WAS NEVER TO BE—NOR WOULD DESCRIPTIVES LIKE “TRADITIONAL” AND “FIGURATIVE” BE APPLICABLE.

Enter Alexander Calder, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and catalyst to all—Nancy Mulnix Tweddale.

Nancy Mulnix-Tweddale and Alexander Calder
Courtesy: Grand Rapids History and Special Collections, Archives, Grand Rapids Public Library, Grand Rapids, MI.

Ever gracious and insightful, Mulnix Tweddale discovered a new program
established by the NEA that would provide funding for public art commissions to communities across America. With equal measures of civic pride and cultural savvy, the young mother and community volunteer recognized a great opportunity in the SOM building plan and set her sights on the grant money as an opportunity to bring Contemporary art to Grand Rapids in an affirming but bold new way. Grand Rapids prevailed over Houston and Seattle to become the first city to receive public funding for art through the NEA’s Art in Public Places program. Additional funding was realized locally, evidencing a tradition of public-private partnerships for which the community is enviably celebrated even today. Attention turned to the artist selection process and a committee of national distinction was assembled including art world luminaries, community leaders, and SOM principals. Distinguished American abstract sculptor Alexander Calder (1898-1976) was the unanimous choice; work on the resulting sculpture, La Grande Vitesse, began in 1967 and the sculpture was dedicated with great fanfare in 1969.

The first group to fully comprehend the potential of public projects with Contemporary artists as critical to the cultural and intellectual future of the city was the Women’s Committee of the Grand Rapids Art Museum. Highly organized, devoted to research, and skillful at fundraising, this group of volunteers curated a series of critically important temporary exhibitions that greatly nurtured “Calder City.”

Foremost was the landmark Sculpture Off the Pedestal exhibition in 1973, with twelve large-scale sculptures across the downtown business district. Further transforming the urban core in the spirit of La Grande Vitesse, the Women’s Committee brought many of the most important young public sculptors to Grand Rapids, including Clement Meadmore (1929-2005), Stephen Antonakos (1926-2013), and perhaps most consequential, Mark di Suvero (b. 1933). The local public was encouraged to rediscover the city through Contemporary art, while the national press was astonished to witness such extraordinary events flourish in a most unlikely venue.

Three exceptional and culturally defining personalities emerged from the Sculpture Off the Pedestal success: Mary Ann Keeler, Mark di Suvero and Robert Morris. Keeler, a luminary figure of a long standing Grand Rapids industrial family, realized a profound calling in the aura of the Calder phenomenon and through the Women’s Committee. “Art for all” is her cherished motto. It would be impossible to find a single major art initiative of the last half century in which was she was not engaged. Together with her late husband Miner S., known to all as Mike, the Keelers’ significant investment in the arts in Grand Rapids helped redirect the course of prominent families giving to focus on the cultural well-being and future of their own community. Of the many artists with whom the Keelers have been closely engaged, perhaps no bond is stronger than with the legendary American sculptor, Mark di Suvero.

Composed of colossal I-beams painted red, Are Years What? (For Marianne Moore) was di Suvero’s contribution to Sculpture Off the Pedestal and was sited prominently in direct relationship to Calder’s La Grande Vitesse. Both the sculpture and the sculptor were widely popular with audiences and there was
great hope the work would remain. Are Years What? was eventually acquired by the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and placed on the Mall in Washington DC, but di Suvero would return to the same Grand Rapids location in 1977 with the monumental and interactive Motu Viget. Taking its name from the city’s Latin motto, “Strength through Activity,” the sculpture is defined by three extended I-beams conjoined in pyramidal form. From the tip of one beam hangs an extended wire holding an industrial tire swing that audiences can sit in. Moving back and forth and through the sculpture, the swing offers an opportunity to experience space and time through sculptural constructs. Owing to its interactivity, the photographic popularity of the work recalls the energy around the aforementioned John Ball sculpture. Perhaps an extraordinary comparison, underscored by the fact that abstraction is on equal terms with figuration, di Suvero has delivered human expression, creativity, and audience engagement.

Mark Di Suvero, Are Years for What (For Marianne Moore), 1967. Processed image from Grand Rapids Art Museum 1973 exhibition catalogue Sculpture off the Pedestal. © Grand Rapids Art Museum
Robert Morris, The Grand Rapids Project, 1974. Image from the Grand Rapids Art Museum’s 1975 catalouge Robert Morris: The Grand Rapids Project. Photography by Craig Vander Lende. © Grand Rapids Art Museum

On an even grander scale, audience engagement is central to experiencing the earthwork X Project by Robert Morris (1931-2018). Associated with both Land Art and Minimalism, Morris originally proposed a massive endeavor using hillside acreage overlooking the downtown during Sculpture Off the Pedestal. However, it was dedicated later, in 1974, and was the first earthwork to have received federal support. A broadly conceptual endeavor calling to mind ancient topographical sites but experienced through the rigors of geometric pathways, X Project placed Grand Rapids at the very forefront of the avant garde in the visual arts. Owing to its location and scale, the work has never attained the iconic status of the Calder or Di Suvero, but it was foundational to an understanding of place as integral to public art. A companionable, but more accessible, work is Joseph Kinnebrew’s Fish Ladder of 1974. Placed physically in the Grand River, the two-story construction allows fish to navigate upstream, and invites audiences to engage with the river through a series of platforms and bridges. A painter and sculptor based in Grand Rapids in the 1970s and 1980s, Kinnebrew’s popularity with the public is associated with works like the Fish Ladder, but also because he achieved national recognition—a post for local artists only inhabited previously by Mathias Alten.

Public art in Grand Rapids was completely re-energized and re-imagined in the 1990s owing to the foresight and civic pride of the Frey Foundation, a family foundation now in its third generation of stewardship. They envisioned a public art project of consequence to commemorate the forthcoming change of the millennium, and to parallel the momentous building and renovations happening across the city. A cross-community committee conducted a rigorous search process resulting in the selection of Maya Lin, renowned American artist and architect. Lin created Ecliptic, a 3.5 acre triangular park for visitors to experience the convergence of three elements: gathering places, water, and sky.

Gently undulating hills with trees recalling Native burial mounds frame the work, representing a location not far from the Grand River where people have gathered for millennia. The signature park highlights the importance of water in three ways: with the black granite water table and steam fountain in warmer months, and with the circular plaza transformed into an ice skating rink in winter. Embedded in the plaza are 166 fiber optic lights, commemorating the night sky over Grand Rapids as the night of December 31, 1999 brought us to January 1, 2000, and into the third millennium. In summer months the plaza hosts a wide array of gatherings much like the plaza spaces around La Grande Vitesse. Conceptually and aesthetically diverse, the works by Lin in 2001 and Calder in 1969 represent a challenging but rewarding framework for public art in Contemporary art history that few communities across the globe proffer, let alone just blocks apart.

In the course of merely fifty years, the city of Grand Rapids has reimagined itself in nationally consequential terms through the vibrancy of public art. Majestically, the tradition continues to unfold. Just recently, the Frey Foundation again stepped forward with a major civic initiative that brought a monumental example of Robert Indiana’s (1928-2018) iconic Pop art, LOVE sculpture to the city center. The sculpture seems to summarize the sentiments of many about Grand Rapids. Simultaneous to the decidedly Contemporary additions are the contributions of more traditional, figurative statuary. Foremost, Community Legends, founded and supported by Ambassador Peter and Mrs. Joan Secchia and family, brings over life-size bronze portrait sculptures of historical city leaders from across the annals of Grand Rapids history. Through this noble endeavor, Ambassador Secchia brings an important historical genre of public art that was nearly absent previously to the community, and encourages its citizens to understand who they can be through the lens of acknowledging those that have come before them. The city embraces both Contemporary and more traditional trends, understanding that public art is essential to the creative and intellectual well-being of its residents.

In addition, major cultural institutions have been transformed, some even born. A dynamic, new Grand Rapids Art Museum building faces the now famed Maya Lin Ecliptic at Rosa Parks Circle. Retail magnate Fred Meijer established a sculpture park and botanical garden which is widely considered to present one of the finest collections of Modern and Contemporary sculpture in the world. Although just outside the city limits and a ticketed museum experience rather than a public entity, Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park is truly harmonious with the history of public art in Grand Rapids as represented by the major art historical masters. In philanthropic terms, the Meijer family fully represents long term cultural investment in community through public art as shared with the Keelers, the Freys and the Secchias, among others, in contrast to the local scions of earlier generations wherein an artistic legacy for the city was largely left unexplored and the notion of public art was likely unimaginable.

The Frey Foundation unveils Michigan’s first “LOVE” sculpture from artist Robert Indiana on Louis Campau Promenade in downtown Grand Rapids
Courtesy: Grand Rapids History & Special Collections, Archives, Grand Rapids Public Library, Grand Rapids, MI.

Exploration and imagination are synonymous with the DeVos family’s widespread commitment to Grand Rapids. It is impossible to imagine the many flourishing avenues of civic life without the guidance and support of Richard and Helen DeVos, their children and grandchildren. Specific to art, the advent of ArtPrize, brainchild of grandson Rick DeVos, has set the international art world spinning. The temporary exhibition hosted every fall from 2009-2018 quickly emerged as among the most dynamic and popular events in the art world. The free, public event is presented as an open conversation with exhibitions and installations across the heart of the city and at Meijer Gardens. Unlike the permanently placed endeavors by Calder, di Suvero and Lin, ArtPrize draws energy and creates excitement from its temporary nature. In its encouragement of audiences experiencing new works of art and offering a fresh perspective on the urban core, it is harmonious with the spirit of Sculpture Off the Pedestal. Further, it is heir to the annual Festival of the Arts, established on the tails of the dedication of La Grande Vitesse; in fact, Alexander Calder himself designed the festival’s logo and promotional materials 50 years ago at its start.

As ArtPrize transitions to a biannual event in the grand tradition of venues like Venice and Sao Paulo, it has embraced a project series in the opposite years beginning with Project 1 in the autumn of 2019. Extremely focused on specific sites and strategically curated, it maintains the experimental spirit of ArtPrize and is poised to contribute to the continuing legacy of public art in Grand Rapids. Likely, as with so many chapters across the last fifty years, it will surprise the art world and cause consideration for the fullest understanding of the Contemporary within the larger history of art. It could be argued that at its scale, Grand Rapids merits a notable and lasting position in that history. If human expression, a center of creative activity, and audience engagement converge so notably with unique commitment to the public anywhere in the United States, it is likely along the shores of the Grand River.