George Bayard is safeguarding African American history.
He is the executive director of the Grand Rapids African American Museum and Archives (GRAAMA). Bayard is tasked with showcasing and preserving African American art history and has spent his life as an artist doing so, whether it is photos, paintings, drawings, sculptures, memorabilia or artifacts.
The Delaware native inherited a love for art and history from his father and grandmother. Although his dad worked many jobs, Bayard said he was an artist because he would draw cartoons and pictures and do upholstery.
“My dad’s outlet was doing upholstery, doing furniture,” he said. “People would bring chairs that needed to be repaired and he’d take them all down and put new fabric on them. They would look like they just came out of the store.”
Bayard said his grandmother’s home was filled with historical items.
“She saved things and it was that that got me into the history part of it because I saw all kinds of things that I know now were quite valuable,” he said. “She had revolvers, all kinds of hats and outfits, and thousands of photographs and old books. I mean just all kinds of stuff and the basement was full. There was a Civil War uniform in there, old toys. She just saved everything.”
Although Bayard loved drawing and painting, he was conscious of the notion of a “starving artist,” so when his high school began offering a commercial art course, he was the first to sign up.
“At one point I realized that painting pictures was not going to be enough to earn a living because they’re always talking about the starving artists,” he said. “I didn’t want to be a starving artist. I wanted to be an artist who made money, so I always tried to figure out a commercial way to sell art. I knew I always wanted to learn picture framing and all the side things that go with the art field in case my artwork didn’t sell.”
He learned photography, design for album covers, printmaking, picture framing, silk screen printing and other printing methods.
Bayard later went on to the University of Delaware, where he learned much more.
Organization: Grand Rapids African American Museum and Archives
Position: Executive director
Birthplace: Wilmington, Delaware
Family: Wife, Deborah; children, Ciena, Joshua and Kamarah
Business/community involvement: Member of the Grand Rapids Historic Commission, Association of African American Museums and Grand Rapids Symphony Celebration of Soul Committee
Biggest career break: “When we first opened the art gallery and won the award from the state of Michigan. I think that really set us off because we were really a small little place. We had our vision, but it was just a small little place. We’d only been open less than a year and the other companies that were honored were bigger Black-owned businesses.”
“It gave me a path and to say, ‘Oh, wow, you don’t have to sit in front of an easel or paper?’” he said. “There are always other ways that you can create artwork. And that’s what I did when I went to college, is to really concentrate on more printmaking and other ways to do artwork that would allow me to make money at it.
“I learned different ways of how to take my artwork and use it for things other than just a picture on a wall. It could be for T-shirts. It could be for albums. It could be for greeting cards and things like that. That was the kind of application that I learned. We did some book-cover illustrations and I learned ways to make my artwork tell a story as opposed to just one image. Those were the things that I really gravitated to, and I really liked to do.”
He also took some art education classes and after graduating he went on to become an art teacher within the Wilmington Public Schools system. Bayard said he didn’t like it, however, so he took some graduate classes at Temple University Tyler School of Art and Architecture in Philadelphia.
He found another job in Delaware where he learned the art materials trade, then went on to become the regional manager at one of Philadelphia’s largest art and picture frame franchises.
In 1988, Bayard moved to Michigan with his wife, but even before then he was interested in the idea of opening an art gallery. He looked in East Grand Rapids but the price was prohibitive.
After searching throughout the city, he found a location on Michigan Street NE in Grand Rapids. He opened the Bayard Gallery of Fine African American Art not knowing whether people would buy African American art like they were doing in Philadelphia. His gallery included works he collected over the years.
“I started collecting things that not only my grandmother had, but I had started collecting art,” he said. “I always was an art collector. I did that because I was an artist and an artist once told me that a lot of artists would just trade artwork. That’s how you would get a lot of famous artists to give a piece of their work. That’s what I did, I started trading my work for their work and I had a master collection.”
Bayard’s offerings included prints, paintings and items he collected while he was in the Philadelphia area. He found there was a market in Michigan for African American art.
“The artwork started selling on the first day we opened the doors, and we knew we had something special,’ he said. “We had art that was mainly by African American artists, and these were famous artists like Ernie Barnes, Romero Bearden and Jacob Lawrence.
“When I was trying to buy the gallery in East Grand Rapids, I learned about all the local artists like Paul Collins, John MacDonald and Herschell Turner. I knew who they were, I just didn’t have a space to show their work. When I got my own space that was the very first thing we did. We had a group show and people came from all over.”
Bayard Gallery of Fine African American Art became an award-winning gallery when it won the Michigan Young Entrepreneur Business Award.
After 10 years on Michigan Street, Bayard moved his gallery to a newly renovated building on the corner of Wealthy Street and Fuller Avenue SE in Grand Rapids because it was able to accommodate the growing collection.
He renamed the gallery Bayard Gallery of Fine African American Art & Books after receiving donated books.
On average, Bayard said about 50 people would visit daily unless there was an artist opening or holiday event, which would draw more than 100 people. Bayard also traveled to festivals throughout the state to publicize his business.
After spending 10 years at the Wealthy Street location, Bayard moved his gallery to a smaller space on Kalamazoo Avenue SE and renamed it Bayard Consulting. While there, he also earned his art appraisal license and continued to do framing.
A burst pipe sent Bayard searching for new space again.
“We didn’t have a lot of stuff damaged, but it was a mess, so we just put everything in storage. That was the point where we decided if we open up again, we’re going to open up more as a museum than as an art gallery. We had the same amount of collections and we had started to get people to bring in things to us all the time when we were on Wealthy Street and until we moved to Kalamazoo Avenue.”
Bayard stored some of his collection at Life Quest Church in Grand Rapids, but in the spirit of making people more aware of African American art and history, he revamped the way he was going to showcase some of those pieces.
Bayard started the Underground Railroad Show, a traveling exhibit of African American history. It included photographs of Grand Rapids boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr., Negro League baseball teams in Grand Rapids and the 1967 riots in Grand Rapids. The exhibit also included documentaries, African artifacts, books and items from the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia on the campus of Ferris State University.
In 2015, Bayard opened GRAAMA at 87 Monroe Center NW in downtown Grand Rapids. He said the name is an ode to his grandmother.
GRAAMA immediately reaped the benefits of ArtPrize because people were able to see Bayard’s collection during its first year of opening, and in subsequent years Bayard participated in ArtPrize as GRAAMA became a location to display artwork for the competition.
GRAAMA won the Most Outstanding Venue award during ArtPrize 10.
“We are the last top venue to win the award,” Bayard said. “The smallest venue to ever win the top venue award. It’s still something we brag about.”
Now, Bayard and his team are in the process of purchasing and moving into a three-story building with a parking lot at 245 State St. SE in Grand Rapids later this year or early next year.
“Hopefully, it’ll be a place where people would like to come and come more than one time,” he said. “We found in our research that a lot of the African American museums in the country are one-time visits. People come one time and that’s it. ‘I’ve seen everything they have. I don’t need to go back.’ We want to keep a fresh agenda of things that we’re showing and hopefully have people want to come back to see different things or meet different people.”