GRAM is a place for experiences, collaborations and conversations


Its location in the center of downtown makes Grand Rapids Art Museum a cultural hub. Photo by Michael Buck

As ArtPrize readies for its seventh year, Grand Rapids’ arts culture continues to develop around the annual event.

Dana Friis-Hansen, now in his fourth year as director of the Grand Rapids Art Museum, is excited to see where the city is headed.

When he left Austin, Texas, for the job at the GRAM, he said many friends were confused as to why he’d move to West Michigan. He recognized the potential, he said, and all he could say was, “You’ll see.”

“I was very excited about what I saw. It was a lively city that was comfortable in its own skin,” Friis-Hansen said. “This is the type of place that has an independent spirit and isn’t always looking over its shoulder.”

Boston — where Friis-Hansen was employed by MIT — is always looking over its shoulder at New York City, he said. Often the community in larger metropolitan areas isn’t looking out for itself but rather is concerned with keeping up with others. In Grand Rapids, an independent self-awareness is helping drive the city to new artistic heights, he said.

Friis-Hansen feels GRAM is a key part of that movement. The location of the museum — on prime real estate in the heart of downtown — is crucial to that role and a sign the city is taking art seriously.

It took nearly a century for the community to get to that point, however, because it was just eight years ago when GRAM secured its first building that was constructed specifically for housing and showcasing art.

“I don’t know the specifics of how that held us back, but that might be part of why the culture is just starting to come out,” he said. “The transformation has happened gradually, and there are a few milestones, such as Grand Rapids Ballet’s production of ‘The Nutcracker.’”

GRAM’s new building was widely acknowledged when it was first constructed and has become a “cultural beacon and civic anchor,” Friis-Hansen said.

He said the downtown infrastructure of parking — “you have to pay for it, but that’s what urban cities do” — and great restaurants and other arts organizations help create a critical mass for a quality urban experience.

When Adam Weinberg, director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, was in town earlier this year for the opening of In the Air, one of several exhibits from the Whitney to come to GRAM, he echoed Friis-Hansen’s thoughts.

Weinberg said having a building designed by international architect Kulapat Yantrasast at the center of a city that has excellent art schools such as Kendall College of Art & Design and arts organizations such as Grand Rapids Ballet, Opera Grand Rapids, Grand Rapids Symphony, Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park and Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts, is a focal point for the movement.

The vibrancy on various levels from schools to museums to events that draw people from across the world, such as ArtPrize, help develop a vast ecology of cultural life, Weinberg said, and it all radiates from the heart of the city.

“This anchored in the middle of the city is a signal: It says, ‘Arts matter,’” Weinberg said. “It means a lot more here than if it were on the outskirts of the city.”

Friis-Hansen said he wants to bring down the barriers to art and believes that, just as people shouldn’t drink alone, they shouldn’t go to an art museum alone. Within his first six months on the job in 2011, he said he began to meet with people across different fields throughout the city trying to find ways the museum can interact with the community.

“It’s not only about hanging art on the walls and what you should know about Rembrandt or Matisse,” he said. “Museums should be fun. It’s something people don’t expect. It could be a stuffy, ‘Shh, this is an art museum,’ but we want people to talk.”

Talking about art and culture is a great way to spur new ideas, Weinberg said.

“You want everyone to have as much access to music, dance, theater — the whole range of arts as it strengthens the fabric of our culture,” he said. “The connections made in the community through the arts can help imagine not just what there is, but what there can be. And it’s something that you might not get from other parts of life.”

ArtPrize has been a great membership driver for GRAM, as well; nearly 500 people joined or renewed their memberships during last year’s event. Friis-Hansen said more steps have been taken to ensure the museum is user-friendly.

“The first step is making connections, and ArtPrize helps,” he said. “My philosophy is: We have them here once, how do we get them back?

“It’s making them feel comfortable and making them feel engaged.”

GRAM now hosts activities such as Creativity Uncorked — where people can drink wine, look at art and create their own — and the GoSite, which acts as a hub and helps co-promote the city with other organizations. He wants the whole museum to be a place for experiences, collaborations and conversations.

Keeping GRAM involved in the conversation of shaping the city’s future is also important. He said a vibrant culture is important to attract, retain and refresh the city’s leaders and young talent.

“We can become part of the dialogue in how we continue to improve and keep this special spirit we have right now,” he said. “Grand Rapids is becoming more and more visible. People already knew about Steelcase, Amway and Herman Miller, but we’re putting together a lot of other great things.”

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