Dana Friis-Hansen discovered in college he was hardwired to look at the world in a broader vista than through a microscope. Photo by Michael Buck
Rubber chickens apparently are enough to lure an accomplished arts professional to Grand Rapids.
In March 2011, Dana Friis-Hansen was in town being recruited for the position of director at Grand Rapids Art Museum. One evening he was at dinner with board member Mary Nelson, who informed him she wasn’t able to attend an event the following night.
Nelson said she had to be at Rosa Parks Circle, helping to break a world record. Knowing the park included an ice rink, Friis-Hansen thought maybe she was an ice skater. She corrected him: “We’re throwing rubber chickens.”
He wanted to know more, and she told him it was the kickoff to the first-ever LaughFest event and how the community had come together to support the mission of Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids.
“This is my kind of place, where people are committed to something and take an unusual idea and twist it to do something different,” Friis-Hansen said.
“I’ve found again and again, Grand Rapids does something unique and different. I can be supportive of the creativity that happens here.”
He took the job with GRAM, leaving Austin, Texas, where he had been the executive director of the Austin Museum of Art, the latest in a series of jobs that have taken him across the globe.
It seems that his art career entailed a great leap for someone who had grown up in New England with aspirations of being a scientist.
“I was never a great artist, but I was intrigued by going to museums of all kinds because it opened up the world,” he said.
Friis-Hansen attended a private high school with an emphasis on oceanography near Cape Cod. Because his family had a cottage in Maine, he had developed a strong interest in ocean ecology.
DANA FRIIS HANSEN
“I was very excited, and this is what I wanted to do: understand ecology and how the ocean works,” he said. “That’s what I was jazzed up about.”
He went to Carlton College in Minnesota to study science. Perhaps biochemistry, medicine, or possibly neurobiology was in his future, he thought. Neurobiology was particularly fascinating to him because he wanted to learn about how perception begins and ends in the brain.
Science quickly showed him its dark side, however, when he struggled through a calculus course.
“High school science was very different from professional science, and no one told me that,” he said. “Luckily, I found out freshman year that I was not hardwired to be a scientist.”
During his first year, he also took a pass-fail drawing class. The professor would bring in art books, and one week the class would focus on various artists’ approaches to light, while another week might be spent learning about how artists approach drawing cities.
Friis-Hansen found a connection to art.
“Studying and looking at art had a parallel to science,” he said. “They both look at the world in different ways, and I am more wired to look at the world in a broader vista than a microscope.”
He went to his advisor, who suggested he consider doing an internship to discover if art would be a good fit for him. He found an internship in New York City, which turned into a research fellowship at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1981. He earned credits for completing a research project and organizing an exhibit.
“I soaked up the arts and urban life,” he said. “I learned how the art world works — and that’s the base for the career I’ve been moving from.”
When he graduated from Carlton College in 1983, he was offered two jobs, one in New York and the other in Houston. He agonized about whether he should return to the city many consider the center of the arts world, or move to a city that was just emerging as a cultural center.
He took the risk and went to Houston to work at its Contemporary Arts Museum.
“I’d never been to Texas before, and it was so different from New England and the Midwest,” Friis-Hansen said. “I fell in with a group of younger people who were excited about building the community, and there were lots of older people who wanted the fresh energy.”
Following a little more than two years in Houston, he accepted a curator job at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, where he was tasked with matching contemporary art with the research endeavors of the school. There he met his partner, Mark Holzbach, who, less than a year later, was offered a job in Japan.
Friis-Hansen decided to travel across the Pacific to Tokyo with Holzbach.
“It felt like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute,” he said.
In Japan, he worked at an independent curatorial company and helped put together TransCulture, the exhibition for the 1995 Venice Biennale, which Friis-Hansen called one of the world’s most important contemporary arts shows, held every other year in Venice, Italy. The 1995 exhibition featured works by 15 artists from around the world, including Japan.
In 1995, after five years in Japan, Friis-Hansen was offered the chance to return to the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston as curator.
“I had to make the decision to delve deeper and be a Japanese specialist, or move back and be a generalist,” he said. “Tokyo to Texas was a bit of a culture shock, but it was back to a community I knew.”
He spent four years there before moving to Austin, where Holzbach had built a business. The Austin Museum of Art was growing, and Friis-Hansen eventually was named chief curator and later executive director.
He spent the next 11 years in Austin, before GRAM came calling.
“I hadn’t been to Michigan — it just had never been in my path — and I knew nothing about Grand Rapids,” he said.
He researched the city, state and art scene and discovered there was a growing cultural scene, similar to the one he had moved to in Houston nearly 30 years prior. The LaughFest eve was the push he needed to make the decision to take the job.
“I didn’t want to make a move that wasn’t a step forward for me,” he said. “My friends asked why I was moving to Iowa. I said, ‘You’ll see — and it’s not Iowa.’”
As his tenure in Grand Rapids lengthens, he’s doing his best to move the museum’s mission forward. When he took the job, the board expressed interest in moving the GRAM toward being more community oriented.
“My pitch was we need to think of GRAM as a 21st century museum and to be a community convener,” he said. “Let’s bring people together — use art as a connector. It can be a place to make the community a better place, be a catalyst for creativity and education.”
He hopes GRAM continues to become a more important facet of the community as Grand Rapids gains international attention for its arts culture. Given the growth of the Medical Mile, local colleges and universities and the economy, Friis-Hansen doesn’t see why Grand Rapids won’t continue to grow its reputation.
“We’re trying to build these relationships with the cities that are creatively focused,” he said. “I’m exhilarated to be building the institution. Not all roads lead to Grand Rapids, but you don’t need to be at the center of the world to change it. It’s a platform we can connect with. Most museums don’t think that way, and think of their peers as other museums or artists.
“Museums need to evolve, or they’ll die. To ignore the people who have never been (to the museum) is a big mistake.”