In the pantheon of artistic epicenters throughout the U.S.—NYC, LA, Philly, DC—the Michigan city of Grand Rapids often isn’t included. Trust me, that’s an oversight. The city boasts a strikingly robust history with contemporary art and design. That mid-century modern aesthetic that came roaring back in the wake of Mad Men? Much of that revolutionary furniture design links back to Michigan’s own Herman Miller and his relationship with Charles and Ray Eames, who had the vision to bring art to something as utilitarian as a chair. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Meyer May House—an iconic example of the famed architect’s Praire School era built in 1908-09—sits on an unassuming street in Grand Rapid’s Heritage Hill Historic District. And in downtown, the large concrete plaza surrounding City Hall is punctuated with a vibrant red public sculpture by Alexander Calder, La Grande Vetess, installed in 1969.
But Grand Rapid’s affiliation with the art scene isn’t merely anthropological. Each fall the city hosts ArtPrize, the largest public art contest in the country, with works from 1,453 artists spread across 171 venues with a public voting component driven by an app. The Grand Rapids Art Museum boasts an extensive collection that ranges from Renaissance to modern, with a special focus of 19th- and 20th-century European and American work from artists like Picasso, Warhol, and Egon Schiele, along with rotating exhibits like the recent profile of Leo Zulueta’s tattoo art. And the multi-use Urban Institute of Contemporary Art features a constant flow of rotating exhibits as well as art film screenings and art events. Need further evidence? Visit the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park before Augusts 21 to see “Natural State,” a landmark exhibit of famed Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei’s work, easily one of the most important—and controversial—visionaries working today.
Here’s a round-up of some of the best art spots the city have to offer, as well as a spotlight on a few pieces from the Weiwei’s “Natural State.”
Photos by Nathan Borchelt unless otherwise noted in caption.
Nathan Borchelt is a gear-obsessed travel writer and adventurer whose collection of shoes, backpacks, jackets, bags, and other “essential” detritus has long-outgrown his one-bedroom apartment (and his wife’s patience).
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The only professional company in the state, Grand Rapids Ballet focuses equally on presenting original productions and childhood education, with an end-of-the-year performance at the end of each school season. They pull an array of talent from across the globe for world-premiere events; late last April, they staged playful, visually arresting interpretation of "Alice in Wonderland." Several costume studies were on display in the second-floor knitting studio.
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Luis Grane, an animator and visual effects artist who has worked with DreamWorks, Pixar, and Disney, served as the show's visual artist. Here are his illustrations for the costumes of the Queen's court.
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But even if the theater is dark when you visit, make the trek to the studio anyway. On the back side you'll find an extensive mural pained by Louise "Ouizi" Chen. The piece was one of the many entries to ArtPrize, an international art competition and festival that includes pieces from just less than 1500 artists, spread across 171 venues throughout the city.
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ArtPrize takes place each fall across three square miles of Grand Rapids, with $500,000 in prize money awarded in both juried selections as well as public votes.
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Think of the Grand Rapids Public Museum as the Smithsonian American History Museum's eclectic cousin—one obsessed with all things Michigan. Its three floors are filled with historical artifacts collected from the state, everything from Eames furniture to a 1928 carousel.
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But to really plumb the depths of the museum's collection, arrange for a private group tour of their archives, where you wander a maze of warehouses filled with…pretty much anything imaginable, from an iron lung…
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…and old toys like Howdy Doody…
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…to the Snurfer—the first snowboard, made in Michican in the late '60s. You'll also peruse mid-century advertisements and an extensive collection of vintage clothing.
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Built in 1908-09, Frank Lloyd Wright's Meyer May House offers free tours of the house (along with a short documentary film), and offers a refreshing window into the inspired madness of the famed architect's philosophy. The house feels subversive even today; the hedges that line the property and what should be the front of the house have no breaks, forcing visitors to wander around to the only public-facing entry into the house, a modest "front" door on the side, up the driveway. The overall design emphasizes horizontal lines to evoke the native prairie landscape.
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Grand Rapids Art Museum's extensive collection of contemporary art is spread across two floors and countless galleries, with worth that includes all the expected 19th- and 20-century European and American artists, along with Japanese prints, fine examples of Michigan's prized mid-century modern furniture, and piece like this—"The Blunt-Tailed Dog"—from Alexander Calder.