Ai Weiwei, Iron Tree, 2013. Iron and stainless steel, 264 x 264 x 264 inches. Photograph by Dean Van Dis, courtesy of Meijer Sculpture Garden
The latest high-profile addition to Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park — and by extension the overall Grand Rapids arts community — didn’t happen overnight. Great collections take time to develop, and so does a city establishing itself as a world-class reputation for all things artistic.
“The cultural environment in Grand Rapids is very healthy,” says Joseph Becherer, vice president and chief curator of Meijer Gardens.
That’s an understatement by any definition. The park began with the founder’s belief that “culture can elevate the individual and community,” which found no argument and many friends. The reputation of Michigan’s second-largest city as a cultural mecca is framed by several entities — Meijer Gardens, the Grand Rapids Public Museum, and a host of institutions and venues.
The city’s prominence in the art world went into hip overdrive six years ago with the advent of ArtPrize, described by the world’s largest travel guide, Lonely Planet as “the world’s richest and most radical art competition.”
Half a million artistic souls are expected this year, visitors likely to walk through Meijer Gardens, catch a King Tut exhibit at the museum, and revel in what had once been among Michigan’s best-kept secrets.
A work by Rodin at the Meijer Sculpture Garden
How a Garden Grows
The April installation of Ai Weiwei’s Iron Tree at Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park helped mark the attraction’s 20th anniversary, but also reflected a long-term strategy of continuous refinement.
“About two years ago [Meijer Gardens] took a very hard and long look at the collection,” Becherer says. “We looked at where we’d been and needed to make decisions about where we were going.”
Becherer’s review of the past offered much to be celebrated. Launched in 1995 by the one-stop-shopping king with a passion for sculpture, the park has been hailed by everyone from The Wall Street Journal — which rated the collection on par with the Netherlands’ landmark Kröller-Müller Museum — to Art Newspaper, where it made the top 100 in a list of the world’s most-visited museums.
The considerable collection, with works by Degas, Rodin, Moore, and other masters, expanded this year with Iron Tree, a 22-foot tall sculpture by one of China’s most influential — and controversial — artists.
Weiwei’s work includes having co-designed the Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and Becherer says the addition is a decidedly significant piece of work that helped to address a perceived deficiency.
“We recognize the truly international nature and scope of contemporary art. We weren’t representing Asia in a healthy and prominent way, so we took some extra time and thought about what artists we could bring in to make it a more global collection,” Becherer says. “Weiwei came out on top, and also some Korean and Japanese art.”
Becherer says the park’s all-encompassing vision marks the legacy of Meijer, whose eclectic tastes in art complemented Lena Meijer’s beloved gardens, which boasts an equally wide-ranging display of creations.
“Like many collectors Fred went after things he liked — figurative, whimsical — and wanted to build a world-class collection of note, one truly beneficial to culture,” Becherer says. “He was motivated by a love of sculpture and wanting to do something of a high caliber for the public.”
Meijer Gardens opened with modest ambitions, Becherer says, but — due in no small part to the expanding art community in Grand Rapids — early expectations of perhaps 75,000 annual visitors have long been eclipsed. More than 600,000 visitors toured the gardens last year, drawn to the city’s ever-expanding menu of offerings.
The popularity of ArtPrize has generated international attention for the city’s art scene
“It’s not just one item or one event,” says Janet Korn, senior vice president of promotion and tourism agency Experience Grand Rapids. “ArtPrize was a bit of a tipping point, something that was distinctly different.”
Launched in 2009, the nonprofit ArtPrize hosts a 19-day, free-roaming competition for artists of all disciplines and caliber. While the number of annual entries remains at around 1,500, visitors have more than doubled to more than 440,000 last year.
“It’s continued to escalate and grow,” Korn says. “I don’t think [ArtPrize] is going to get smaller; it can only get bigger.”
The success of ArtPrize was no surprise to the city’s cultural community, the institutions that laid the necessary foundation over the course of decades. The collective and often collaborative community was well-prepared to share the artistic spotlight.
“We have a lot going on,” says Dale Robertson, president and CEO of the Grand Rapids Public Museum. “There has been for a while — and continues to grow — an understanding among city leaders that great urban areas have a strong, cultural arts scene that retains and attracts talent.”
The museum ranks as the oldest and second largest in the state, officially formed in 1903 but with origins dating to the 1854-founded Lyceum of Natural History. The museum initially housed private holdings of the city’s well-heeled, a purpose that grew to include a highly acclaimed permanent collection. Key exhibits have been routine calendar items, to include this year’s (current) “Discovery of King Tut.”
The Public Museum is but one part of a central district that boasts five museums within walking distance: The Grand Rapids Children’s Museum on Sheldon Avenue; the state’s lone presidential collection at the Gerald R. Ford Museum on Pearl Street; the Urban Institute of Contemporary Arts on West Fulton; and the Grand Rapids Art Museum, its relatively new square-block home on Monroe Center NW was, when it opened in 2007, the world’s first art museum built completely to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards.
Robertson says the continued growth of each institution reflects a sustained, collaborative spirit, not surprising from a town that pulled off the mind-boggling choreography captured in the viral sensation, cast-of-thousands rendition of “American Pie.”
“I don’t believe any of us look at it as competition,” Robertson says. “It’s a west Michigan way to do things; we support each other. Detroit has its own, very strong arts scene, but I would argue there’s an excellent and strong one on this side of the state.”
For more information on the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, visit meijergardens.org. For general Grand Rapids tourism info, visit experiencegr.com. For more information on Lonely Planet, visit lonelyplanet.com.