Regional Reports

Grand Rapids, Michigan

Published in: GIA Newsletter, Vol 9, No 2 (Fall 1998)

E. Gabriel Works

A critic for The New York Times, wrote about last winter's Perigino exhibit at the Grand Rapids Art Museum in Michigan, "This is perhaps the most important exhibit of the decade, in the least important of places."

What the writer was not aware of is that Grand Rapids has a history of supporting the arts.It was among the first cities to install public art with Alexander Calder's "Le Grande Vitesse," and has since commissioned Mark DiSuvero and Michael Singer among other artists to grace the city with their work. And by the end of the year 2000, Grand Rapids will have an experiential park designed by renowned artist, Maya Lin, in the center of its downtown.

The design was commissioned by the Frey Foundation, a family foundation that in 1996 began the artist-selection process with input from more than 100 local citizens, civic leaders, and arts advocates. In the design, Lin incorporates the three states of water with a central gathering area for concerts in summer and ice-skating in winter, a misting fountain, and a reflecting pool with a water cascade. Sculpted grass "waves" echo the rapids of the Grand River to the park's west and honor the feature for which the city is named.

Lin said about the design, a model of which is currently part of a Grand Rapids Art Museum exhibit of public artists who have worked in Grand Rapids, "This project has created a wonderful opportunity to start a dialogue between art, architecture, and planning. Very rarely is an artist brought in at the beginning of an urban design situation such as this, in which the art acts as a catalyst for the reshaping of this central part of the city of Grand Rapids. I really value the opportunity to create a work of art that has such great potential to help shape and revitalize the downtown area of Grand Rapids...and to bring art, architecture, landscape, and urban design together for such a unique collaboration.”

In an effort to continue to develop unique collaborations, be a catalyst for reshaping Grand Rapids, and encourage community support of the arts, the Frey Foundation Trustees in 1997 reshaped their arts programming to emphasize audience engagement.

The Foundation has as one of its goals providing tools that will increase arts organizations' capacity to engage new audiences. As a first step in the process, the Foundation funded the Arts Council of Greater Grand Rapids to provide a series of leadership forums for arts professionals and, more recently, to launch a comprehensive community cultural assessment by ArtsMarket Consulting, Inc. The assessment will report on the perceptions, attendance patterns, and influence of venues among regular, infrequent, and non-attending adults in the community. ArtsMarket's report, which is scheduled for release in January 1999, will include recommendations for improving audience development and will be shared by twenty-two participating arts organizations.

The overall objective of the Frey Foundation's program is to ensure community members' meaningful participation in the arts. The grants and initiatives described here are among our first, but critical, steps toward fulfilling the objective...and in some measure may be cause for a New York writer visiting Grand Rapids in 2001 to write: “...It is an important exhibit/presentation/original production — in a culturally vibrant community where seemingly every resident supports and embraces the arts.”

E. Gabriel Works, Frey Foundation