Grand Rapids, Michigan’s Unknown Artist Enclave

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Grand Rapids, Michigan’s Unknown Artist Enclave

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).