Public art is a defining urban characteristic


Many essential ingredients transform cities and create a powerful and lasting impression. Public art, especially thoughtful permanent pieces, are among the most impactful for enhancing the lives of residents, visitors and tourists, and creating a dynamic sense of place.

As a fourth-generation Grand Rapidian, I view the history of public art in Grand Rapids in two chapters: pre-Alexander Calder's majestic La Grande Vitesse (1969) and post. With the arrival of the monumental stabile nearly half a century ago, our city witnessed an aesthetic game-changer. The bold and sweeping sculpture, perhaps one of America's proudest examples of public art, gave Grand Rapids identity, pride and a sense of place and permanence. We are one of the rare urban hosts to a masterwork by one of the premier sculptors of all time. It is a nearly singular distinction.

From the tire swing of Mark di Suvero's Motu Viget to the rushing waters across Joseph Kinnebrew's Fish Ladder, the succession of public art initiatives further established Grand Rapids as a city determined to distinguish itself from others.

The stately midcentury modern Split Ring by Clement Meadmore showcases the special tradition of public art in Grand Rapids. Originally acquired and displayed in 1973, Split Ring returned permanently to its original site just last year. Many persevering, thoughtful and visionary public-art enthusiasts — from the Women's Committee in the 1970s and 1980s to forward-thinking and purposeful arts patrons, foundations and corporate leaders today — deserve the credit for maintaining the momentum of this movement alive. Take a bow!

One of the Frey Foundation’s most earnest expressions of its commitment to community has been the creation and installation of Ecliptic by luminary landscape architect and memorialist Maya Lin. Fulfilling its mission to provide Grand Rapids a unique sense of place, it is both a highly unique park and a signature work of art, welcoming more than 750,000 people every year. We are overjoyed with Lin’s work and its magnetic appeal that surpasses all reasonable expectations.

Now, Robert Indiana's bright and bold LOVE sculpture joins the community and creates a dazzling new sense of place. More than merely a sentiment, the sculpture is an icon of the famed Pop Art movement and resides at the epicenter of this dynamic city. Scholars praise it as one of the most important works of the 20th century American modern-art movement.

Variations of LOVE appear selectively around the planet, bringing Grand Rapids further into the global cultural conversation. With this vibrant and bold addition to our public art ensemble and the permanent collections of the Grand Rapids Art Museum and Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, we have a city like few others. Rejoice!

LOVE is now and forever a part of the noble tradition of Grand Rapids. One should hope that experiencing it once or frequently will put a bounce in one’s step and a glint in one’s eye. The arrival of LOVE is yet another important marker in the city’s destiny for distinction.

In my youth, I couldn't imagine Grand Rapids with such extraordinary public art, now I cannot imagine our city without it. Let us remain committed to our unique tradition of placing exceptional works of public art at highly visible and distinct locations for all to savor. More than just improving this exceptional city, each artwork will contribute to the escalating reputation and glow that is Grand Rapids. Onward!

David Frey is a board member of the Frey Foundation and co-founder of Grand Action.

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