Amanda Browder in Conversation with Kevin Buist

Amanda Browder, Kaleidoscopic, 2019.
Bryan Esler Photo.

This interview — which took place at Amanda Browder’s studio in Brooklyn, NYC on April 30, 2019 — comes from the Project 1 catalogue. Edited for length and clarity.

Amanda Browder produces large-scale fabric installations for building exteriors and other public sites. For Project 1 she invited members of the community to donate colorful fabric and work alongside her to sew immense striped textile pieces that wrap around multiple buildings and structures, resulting in Kaleidoscopic, an installation spanning all three Project 1 locations*.

*The installation which wrapped this lodge at MLK Park was de-installed on October 14, after 55 days in the community.


Welcome to my studio.


Thanks, it’s great to be here! So, what are you making for Project 1?


I’m creating a large scale fabric installation. We’re covering numerous buildings in the city with fabric donated from people in the city. The project is put together during a collection of sewing days, sewing the pieces together to cover all these spaces.


How did you begin this process of organizing these sewing days and donations and then having that feed into these massive works? Take me back into your artistic practice: where did the public art begin?


I started sewing was when I was a kid. I grew up in Missoula, Montana and I learned how to sew through 4-H. I loved fabric because the colors were really rich, the patterns were really unique and I love the fact that each pattern had somewhat of a history. It felt like it had this mystery of who this person was that picked this pattern or what it was going to be. There were all these questions around each piece of fabric that was chosen.

Amanda Browder with Kaleidoscopic.
Katrin Eismann Photo.

So I just started sewing odd things like pillows, soft sculptures, and blankets—but they never really felt like they had to be functional objects. I really used the fabric as this structural medium. I would go to secondhand stores and at that time in the early ‘90s, the secondhand stores were filled with fabric from the ‘70s and the ‘60s and people just had tons of fabric they were getting rid of that was so beautiful. From there I started sewing regularly. I saw it as a mathematical process: I use planes to put together these large scale things. I was a math major for a couple of years, figuring out constructions and measurements, and fabric was a place for me to start working and it was a free material. After school, I started teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and I was making all these small soft sculptures. At that time people were not really giving me credit for doing it. I mean I was a female artist, sewing fabric pieces and so immediately I was thrown into this camp of the “lower” arts like craft or functional art, which I don’t consider myself doing. I was coming from a mathematical, structural perspective so it frustrated me.

The first piece that was on a building was in Chicago. It was called Rapunzel. I sewed all the fabric that I had collected in five years into one huge fabric piece and I threw it outside my apartment window and I just called friends and announced it. It was up for two days and that was the beginning of my career working with buildings. I realized fabric itself is structurally very sound. A lot of times we think of it as more of a private object because it’s connected to our bodies, or in this private zone of the home. When I put it on the outside of the building people have that sense of comfort and familiarity with the material but making it that large really gives that sense of awe and excitement. Being able to make these big fabric pieces encouraged people to understand why fabric is structurally strong and important and empowering. So after Chicago, I moved to Greenpoint, Brooklyn and started working with the community. I decided to do an art project that introduced myself to the community. I worked with the North Brooklyn Public Art Coalition, and we started having these public sewing days. All the fabric was donated, and it became the beginning of doing these large scale projects. That was the beginning of working with the community and learning how contemporary art can be expressed to larger communities of people beyond just the art community that we see are surrounding the institutions like museums and galleries.


What’s the importance of the donation process? It seems like it’s a really key part of the whole thing. It’s not just collecting and culling fabric by any means necessary. You end up knowing people in the communities that they are donating these fabrics. Why are you working with this constraint?


Amanda Browder, Rapunzel, 2006.

I think in contemporary art it’s really hard to encourage people to come and participate. We see fabric in our everyday practice but it’s something that’s close to us. It’s not like bricks; I don’t hug a brick at night. Fabric donations are a way for people to think about how they can physically connect to contemporary art and be a part of the project as well. When people donate they say things like, “Hey, you know this was from my grandmother,” and tell me the different histories that come with the piece of fabric. This project is an opportunity for people to release that fabric and also know it’s going to be paying homage to the people and the stories that were part of it. The pieces are a representation of physical community. The fabric, to me, is a representation of not only the person that donated it but also the people who are connected to that person. I love it when people come see the project at the end and try to find their pieces of fabric within the building because those are moments of ownership of the art piece. I think as artists we really need to remember that we need to appreciate our audience and thank them for participating and being part of this project.


So yesterday we went to Pantone [1] in New Jersey, which was fascinating. They donated fabric they couldn’t use because it had minor flaws. For their purposes as a standard-bearer of color, they have to just get rid of this material because of slight imperfections, which you mentioned made it more interesting to you. It’s a different kind of donation from fabric with personal stories.


What I love about this industrial donation is that it becomes a sustainability conversation too. How do we manage all of this material and not just throw it in the garbage? I really love that we’re including that into the project. One part of my aesthetic choice is to make things vibrant and colorful. In our urban spaces, we are inundated with greens, browns, and grays. I love including reds, oranges, everything that you wouldn’t expect. I love color so getting these pieces from Pantone was really important because it incorporated the contemporary art aspect and technical aspect of what Pantone is, which is high-end color construction and the scientific nature behind it. We can use that conversation about what the story is of Pantone within our community by including it into the piece and putting it next to the humans and community of Grand Rapids. I mean Pantone is in Grand Rapids: they employ people who live there. So that’s a really important part of this project. All of the pieces that I make are site-specific to the town. I think about the history and where people are employed. I think about the places where fabric is coming from, and the buildings that we’re putting them on. It’s all taken into context. So when I’m finished, it is an homage to Grand Rapids. It is part of ArtPrize’s Project 1, but it also is for the town and we have to always remember that.


Tell me about building selection. What makes a good site for one of these installations?


The first thing I think about is scale –that’s a big part of my work. I grew up in Missoula, Montana, where mountains were a big part of our lives. And so, you know, first there’s humans, then there’s buildings, and then there’s mountains for scale. With these works being so big,


One part of the work that we’re doing for Project 1 is on the skywalks. My favorite part is that we’re really opening up the landscape by doing these pieces in different locations. All of a sudden the city doesn’t create this bubble around you, but rather it opens up a little bit more and encourages you to feel free to think about where you’re standing, and where you need to go. People are able to walk underneath it, or even see the piece from the inside out. Traditionally, if you were just walking through the sky bridge it might be just another view of the street, but now it’s going to be completely enveloped within this colorful stained glass magical experience and change what it looks like when you walk from point A to point B.

In the Martin Luther King Park space, what’s great about that site is the green space around it. This building’s going to be this really nice sculpture in the middle of this big green space.


We spoke earlier you mentioned your admiration for classic Disney comics. Talk to me about the influence of comic books on your work.


Totally. As a kid I collected Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comic books. It was a big part of my life. My dad collected the R. Crumb, so I had this unique blend of counterculture and Donald Duck as a kid, which made me feel more comfortable questioning how we alter our everyday experience. Kind of like Gilbert and George, everything was an opportunity to make something, life was art. It’s a little cheesy when I say that, but I love the idea that any space is available for making something and that’s where I want to infuse comic books in our everyday lives. So I started making soft sculptures and bright things. I was wondering, how can I make this weird character, but in our world, not just in the box of a painting. The portal of a painting seems too restrictive to me. I want fantasy and reality to intermix. One of my favorite experiences is when you’re about to fall asleep and you have this dream-like moment but also a touch of reality, and that’s the space I want to intersect. I want to be the kind of experience that people have when they see my work. It’s not in this isolated white cube where they’re like, ah, this is art, and I can solidify this as an explanation, check. I always like when reading comic books when there would be an explosion but everyone would be fine afterward [laughs]. I make explosions out of fabric.


Let’s return to the idea that people have a different sense of fabric because of its familiarity. It’s a common interior material that you’re putting outside. This gets at something that I think is running through a lot of the work in Project 1, which is the relationship between those concepts.


The public-private conversation in contemporary art has been shifted a little bit with fiber. Fiber is something we’re familiar with, so more audience members can connect with it, in my opinion. Painting has a deep history, which is great, but it definitely has an exclusionary element to it because it is about the white box, it is about the museum. What’s exciting about fiber being included within more contemporary art practice right now is that it’s opening up an audience and saying, this stuff that you have at home can actually be contemporary art, and maybe even opens up opportunities for younger people or anybody to kind of see what they’re making as important.

One of my favorite moments is when people come to the sewing day and they say they’re not creative. I really enjoy encouraging them to feel more ownership about being creative, because I think that’s a problem in our contemporary art world. If you’re an artist, you are supposed to sequester yourself as contemporary artists—and everybody else who makes stuff, eh, they’re kind of there but we don’t really care. An important part of the process is to get community members to feel more excited about being creative. I want them to know that their process is important. The people coming and volunteering is an important part of this project. It makes them part of the community of contemporary artists.


You’ve set up a process of production that can’t succeed without them.

More than 600 volunteers contributed over 2,000 hours of work to complete Kaleidoscopic.
Bryan Esler Photo.


Exactly. It’s all based on the people that show up, and the fabric that is donated.


There’s a kind of vulnerability in that, isn’t there?


Totally. Exactly. It’s based on the people that show up. It’s based on the fabric that we get. I mean all my designs are really just templates for what might happen [laughs]. But we don’t know what’s going to happen. And so things change and they alter and public art is not stable, you know. It changes over time but we just push forward to the point where it’s finally finished. ■


[1] Pantone’s parent company, X-Rite, is headquartered in Grand Rapids. Amanda Browder’s work was underwritten by X-Rite and Pantone.

To Belong in Art

By Holly Tumbarello

Holly Tumbarello, GVSU Senior

“What does it mean to belong?” These words stared back at me as I viewed the Project 1 page for the first time after discovering their internship program. My mind went in hundreds of directions and I wondered how the artists’ pieces were going to answer that question this year.

I’ve actively attended ArtPrize for the past few years since moving to the West side of the state. The art pieces capturing my attention and challenging me to view the world through a perspective different than my own every fall. When I found out about the ArtPrize internship program, my passion for creativity was sparked and I was curious to see how the different aspects of ArtPrize come together to create a city wide event. This year, specifically, under the theme of belonging. Entering my senior year at Grand Valley State University, that theme has been relevant in my life throughout my college education. Every year, thousands of new students moving to the Grand Rapids area from their hometown who really just want to be a part of a community here and to belong.

This season, I worked with the development team learning how our sponsors play a role in helping ArtPrize run. From visiting the locations of the Project 1 sites before construction began, to contacting local businesses, to attending ArtPrize events specifically to celebrate our sponsors and donors, I got to experience the rush of this new project firsthand.

Getting the chance to talk with the artists about their art, learning how they viewed community, and why they chose their specific locations throughout Grand Rapids helped shape my view on belonging. Not only did I attend parts of Grand Rapids I had not visited before, but it also challenged me to look at buildings and the surrounding area with a new perspective.

It was an honor to work with the team at ArtPrize and watching the team handle challenges with ease and solve problems working with artists, performers, sponsors, staff, and the like to bring the exhibition to life. I learned a lot from the ArtPrize team, and their leadership ability to problem solve.

To belong is to have a supportive community. Not just be present in the community, but to have a role in shaping the community, to learn from and teach others. I am thankful to be part of a team this year that values the artists and shapes our community through the lens of art. Having the opportunity to visit our sponsors and learn how their contribution directly impacts the artists and Grand Rapids showed me how much of a community Grand Rapids really is. How even through our differences, our different visions and values, we can all come together to question and appreciate art.

The Project 1 by ArtPrize internship program is underwritten by Deloitte and Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University.

Where Art Becomes Agora

Over 600 community volunteers worked with artist Amanda Browder in creating her Project 1 installation, Kaleidoscopic. Photo: Edgar Hernandez

This essay, written July 19, 2019 and addendum written September 13, 2019, comes from the Project 1 catalogue.

By Rebecca Carbin, Independent Curator

In her 2015 anthology of recent practices in public art, titled Out of Time, Out of Place: Public Art (Now), Claire Doherty writes, “public art remains cast in the collective imagination as either unwanted guest or mass entertainer.” Doherty is suggesting that people only think of art in the public realm as being one of two paradigms: the monumental sculpture or the arts festival. But these paradigms are polarities on the public art spectrum.

Grand Rapids, Michigan has a particularly interesting public art history. The city’s story offers extraordinary examples of both ends of this public art spectrum and, in 2019, endeavors to capture the public’s imagination at a space in between.

In 1969, the city’s iconic La Grande Vitesse, by international art superstar Alexander Calder, was the first public art project to be realized through the Art in Public Places program by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The NEA funds fell short of the city’s ambition for this project, and La Grande Vitesse was made possible thanks to the addition of significant private contributions from the Grand Rapids community.

Almost 40 years later in 2009, Grand Rapids saw a major philanthropic investment in public art again with the launch of ArtPrize. ArtPrize is a unique event that sees the entire downtown—museums, parks, restaurants, theaters, hotels, functioning shops, and vacant storefronts—devoting space to artists of every conceivable medium and calibre, and opening doors to hundreds of thousands of art viewers. By year 10, ArtPrize attracted an estimated 500,000 visitors to a city whose population numbers 200,000.

Rob Bliss, 100,000 Paper Planes and Melodies Over Monroe, 2009.
Photo by Brian Kelly

While Doherty’s claim implies a negativity that does not capture Grand Rapids’ opinion of La Grande Vitesse or ArtPrize, these two public art examples perfectly embody her statement about the dominant perception of what public art is or can be. As happened in 1969 and 2009, the 2019 launch of Project 1 sees a major philanthropic investment supporting a bold vision for public art in Grand Rapids. Project 1 is a new foray into the space that lies between the hulking heroic monument of La Grand Vitesse and the fully democratized festival atmosphere of ArtPrize.

In this part of the public art spectrum—between the modernist monument encountered by accident and indifferent to activity around it, and the festival framework which encourages people to suspend normal expectations and seek out the unusual—there lies public artwork that temporarily occupies, engages, disrupts, and disorients. If curated with integrity, work in this middle space encourages dialogue and democracy in a way that is unique, resonant, and invaluable to social cohesion. This is a space where, when done well, public art can fulfill its “noblest function,” which is “to nurture participatory citizenship, to create an unfettered intellectual space for debate and socio-political engagement.” [1]

Project 1’s inaugural iteration takes to heart the opportunity for dialogue that comes with a curated program of temporary art in the public realm. The thematic narrative and selected artist projects confront timely issues around access, ownership, dispossession, opportunity, and identity. The 2019 program, Crossed Lines, addresses the boundaries that define an urban landscape and how these lines—some more obvious that others—delineate who has access to what, where, and how, and invites questions of why. These lines define opportunity, demarcate the prosperous from the marginal, define inequalities, and delineate public from private.

Project 1 artworks are sited within key public sites that shape everyday life in Grand Rapids. For example, Heather Hart’s The Oracle of the Soulmates, with twin structures in two locations at Rosa Parks Circle and Martin Luther King Park, is neither monument nor festival. Instead, it engages aspects of both in a series of large scale, temporary interruptions in the day-to-day landscape. This unfamiliar rupture in the fabric of this familiar site will provoke questions, conflicting responses, and debate.

In the 1970s, German artist Joseph Beuys famously declared that “everyone is an artist.” [2] However, he was not suggesting that everyone has the ability to paint or sculpt. The full statement reads, “Every human being is an artist, a freedom being, called to participate in transforming and reshaping the conditions, thinking, and structures that shape and inform our lives.” Beuys’ proposition refers to a shift in the location of meaning that happens when we consider art more as a process of communication and exchange than as a product. In other words,


Audiences can be more receptive to difficult messages when delivered through familiar means. In the fields of social or participatory practice in which a number of Project 1 artists work, artists have a variety of tools for creating points of access for the public to engage with the complex concepts and difficult issues they are addressing. Examples of these entry points are beauty, humor, food,
performance, and craft.

Bryan Esler Photo

Amanda Browder has been working with local Grand Rapidians over a period of months to create the enormous textile environments she will be mounting for Project 1. With a Beuysian spirit, the very publicness of her project Kaleidoscopic was already embedded in the work before it is even installed for exhibition. Browder’s works “redefine the structure while entangling the community in the mystique of fine art creation.”[3] The artist employs the accessible nature of craft as a gesture of empowerment and agency and engages the public in stitching these issues right into the fabric of the work.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer positions the public as the generator of meaning in his work Voice Bridge, which is activated by the voices of viewers who determine what is said and transmitted in this work that bridges two sides of Grand River. Similar to his Park Avenue Tunnel project in New York City in 2013, “At any given time, the tunnel [rings] with the voices of the past seventy-five participants.”[4] Again, this work requires a level of public interaction that invites an audience to become performers. Capitalizing on a widely-held desire to “be heard” and to see the impact of one’s actions, Voice Bridge raises critical questions of authorship, agency, information, freedom of speech, censorship, official vs unofficial narratives, and associations with social geography and opportunity.

Paul Amenta and Ted Lott’s Critical Infrastructure, realized in collaboration with DisArt, [5] builds an environment that addresses issues of accessibility, both perceived and concrete, by temporarily transforming a private space into a fully accessible public space. The project connects formally and conceptually to a previous collaboration, Elevate Fashion Show, realized in 2016. It was touted as “Incredible!” by Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art Curator Chad Alligood, for the project’s nuanced handling of the feeling of the space and authenticity of participation. He continued, “That’s social practice right there! And really, really beautifully done!”[6]

There is, however, danger in a program like Project 1 that takes, head-on, this opportunity to confront big issues. The danger is that the work may fall short of inspiring new ways of thinking and perceiving the world around us. The way to avoid this pitfall is to ensure that all projects are “art first.” In the Age of Enlightenment art was understood as a universal language, a powerful connecting force. When moralizing, proselytizing, or grandstanding are dressed up as art, they fall short of anything transformative or even interesting. This is simply because at their heart, they are not art: they do not speak a universal language.

Bryan Esler Photo

Successful works, in contrast, are rooted in a strong artistic practice stemming from clear aesthetic concerns and deep inquiry. These practices allow space for simple acts—sewing, speaking, walking along a ramp, jumping from a false roof, or sharing a community meal [7]—to become something that fundamentally shifts perception or expectations. In so doing, these art-led experiences seep into our experience and understanding of the world around us in a slow-burn fashion that can be surprisingly subversive or radical.

The space for public art in which Project 1 situates itself lies somewhere between unwanted guest and entertainer, between hulking monumental hero and detached from reality festival. Projects in this particular space can push buttons and boundaries far more than projects that exist at either end of public art’s spectrum. They can ask questions that are as provocative as those asked in a gallery, and ask them in a language that is immediate and rooted in the everyday experience of a place, albeit interrupted and reoriented.

Such platforms present the opportunity for art to be truly public, in the way that the ancient Greek term “agora” referred to a social commons or public marketplace, a space where people convened to discuss issues big and small. Art projects in this space become agora, a social commons, reclaiming, re-centering, re-orienting. Publicness is not an issue of location as much as engagement, interaction, dialogue, and debate. The next chapter in Grand Rapids’ unique story of public art is full of potential, positioning public art as the agora: the social commons where ideas are exchanged and democracy flourishes with the universal language of art at its center.


In the weeks leading up to the opening of Project 1, a controversy erupted over the planned opening night performance of Drag Syndrome. Originally booked to take place at Critical Infrastructure (Paul Amenta and Tedd Lott’s installation at Tanglefoot), the venue owner pulled out overstated concerns for exploitation of the performers. But let’s face it if the show was a Christmas pageant, would these concerns have been expressed? The drag performance goes against the common and misguided belief that people with Down Syndrome are eternal children. In fact, people with Down Syndrome do become adults and as such, have sexual desires and needs. Moreover, these sexual desires are not necessarily hetero. In a specially convened panel before the opening, the performers clearly and unreservedly stated that they are empowered by their art.

ArtPrize worked closely with DisArt, the project partners, to find an alternate venue and the show went on. Four hundred people within the theatre applauded the performers, while a smaller number of people protested on the street. Due to the first show being sold out, a second show was booked for the following night. Drag Syndrome and the surrounding controversy showed up in numerous news outlets across the US, including the New York Times. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a suit against the venue owner for discrimination. In booking the US premier of Drag Syndrome, Project 1 has catalyzed a nationwide discussion about the need to update mainstream public perception of the agency and sexuality of people with Down Syndrome. As a new “social commons where ideas are exchanged and democracy flourishes,” that’s a pretty impressive start.

[1] Cher Krause Knight, Public Art: Theory, Practice and Populism, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008), 38.
[2] It is interesting to refer to this often misunderstood statement in Grand Rapids, whose ArtPrize festival reveals just how many people are feverishly devoting their time and passion to artistic pursuits of all kinds and calibres, often completely divorced from the vocabulary, trends, and institutions of Contemporary Art. Beuys did not mean that everyone has the ability to produce fine art.
[3] Jenny Molissa Spring, Unexpected Art: Serendipitous Installations, Site-Specific Works, and Surprising Interventions, (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2015), 22.
[4] Spring, Unexpected Art, 102.
[5] DisArt is an arts and culture organization that focuses on creating public art events that cultivate and communicate a disabled culture.
[6] SiTE:LAB, Rumsey Street Project, Everything is Transformed, (Grand Rapids, MI: SiTE:LAB, 2016), 27.
[7] The 2017 ArtPrize Juror’s Grand Prize was awarded to Seitu Jones, for The Heartside Community Meal, in which Jones served a healthy, locally-grown meal to over 250 people at a 300 foot long table, “revealing the food rituals of the cultures that gave birth to our diverse population.” Jones’ ArtPrize entry was curated by the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts (UICA).


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,


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.

ArtPrize, Deloitte and Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University Announce Continuation of Internship Program to Increase Professional Opportunities for Students

GRAND RAPIDS (MI)–September 11, 2019 — Project 1 by ArtPrize, in collaboration with Deloitte and Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD), are excited to announce the continuation of an Internship Program that welcomes college students from across West Michigan who are eager to learn important leadership skills and gain professional experience within creative fields and non-profit administration.

“In everything we do, KCAD strives to cultivate student-centered learning opportunities that fuel the regional economy with creative leaders and critical thinkers who approach their work with a global perspective,” said KCAD President Tara McCrackin. “The ArtPrize internship program provides a focused way to not only support paid professional development experiences in the arts and design but also actively showcase creativity as an important cultural and economic building block.”

Through the support and collaboration of all three organizations, students participating in the Internship Program will engage in experiential learning opportunities in education, visual arts, design and non-profit development. Additionally, ArtPrize will connect these students to area and global leaders across a wide range of industries, as well as national and international artists and cultural institutions.

“Deloitte is a longtime sponsor of ArtPrize and we’re excited to support this incredible program,” commented Tina Wheeler, Grand Rapids Managing Partner, Deloitte LLP. “Helping to develop and retain talent in West Michigan is a top priority and this internship program is an important step in that direction.”

ArtPrize is an advocate for the community, the arts, creativity and economic development across the region. The organization is dedicated to connecting young people to the arts through a variety of learning opportunities and is, thanks to our sponsors, uniquely positioned to provide degree-seeking students with paid internship opportunities.

Project 1 by ArtPrize is the first in a series of multi-sited public art exhibitions in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Five international, national and local artists will create multifaceted installations, urban interventions and community-oriented projects, exploring the lines that unite and divide a city, and what it means to belong.

Located in the heart of downtown Grand Rapids, Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD) is committed to creating lasting impact in West Michigan and beyond through collaborative partnerships, cultural innovation and an educational model that prepares students for leadership in the visual arts, design, art history, and art education. For more, please visit

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Margaret Paxton, ArtPrize Communications Assistant

Elena Tislerics, KCAD Chief Communications Officer

Jane Broski, Central Region Public Relations Leader, Deloitte

Project 1 Opening Day Celebration: September 7
Project 1 Closing Ceremonies: October 27