Art And The City


Another look at the class structure of the era comes through a set of 10 factory-worker trading cards, free to museumgoers, which draw on the historical record to describe various jobs. On one side is a cartoon portrait of a worker; on the reverse his or her story. “My name is John Mancewicz and I am 14 years old. I just started working as a lugger in the furniture factory. I wanted to quit school and start working here a lot sooner, but all these laws were passed that made me stay in school until now.” The lugger makes 18 cents an hour. George Randall, who handles the ripsaw, gets 40 cents, while Clara Loomis, a clerk, is paid $10 a week, “less than the men I work with, but that is expected. I don’t have a family to support.”

Furniture City of the 1920s is evoked via some wonderful old photos and an entertaining narration that introduces the wholesale Furniture Market, a twice-yearly event that lasted until the 1960s. At its peak it was an effervescent three-week-long party and that excitement is conveyed through a perfectly imagined chat between two characters, a salesman and a store owner, that could have come straight from the pen of Sinclair Lewis. “The market is the tonic for whatever ails,” says the salesman, and his companion agrees: “You go home all filled up with ginger.” I felt a pang to see the streets of the town not yet sundered by urban renewal, but I left that part of the exhibit full of ginger.

Moving on to modern times, I found Johannes again, this time as a systems installer of Steelcase workstations. Steelcase has confronted some hard times lately, since offices aren’t exactly expanding these days, but its largess and that of its retired director Peter Wege manifest themselves in many ways, including an exquisite restoration of a Frank Lloyd Wright house and the recent gift of $20 million from Wege’s foundation for a new addition to the city’s art museum.

Even on the briefest visit to Grand Rapids certain names become familiar. For instance, the Public Museum is part of the Van Andel Museum Center, and the nearly million-square-foot DeVos Place currently rising along the river will be one of the Midwest’s largest convention centers. Jay Van Andel and Richard DeVos, whose Dutch-born forebears settled here at the turn of the twentieth century, founded the Amway Corporation in 1959. It achieved fame as either a masterpiece of direct selling or a highly lucrative pyramid scheme, depending on who tells it. In recent years the company has reconstituted itself as Alticor and sells household goods and other products worldwide.

The hotel I stayed in, the Amway Grand Plaza, is divided in two. There are a soaringly modern tower, with great river views, and a magnificently restored historic section, built in 1913 and still called the Pantlind. The older wing has a spacious lobby and public rooms aglow with crystal and gilt, plump Edwardian furniture, and very appreciative patrons. There were weddings by the bushel the June weekend I was there, and I heard one departing hotel guest exult, “Isn’t it wonderful there’s something like this in Grand Rapids!”

Frederik Meijer, whose grocery and discount stores blanket the Midwest, is another local benefactor. In 1995 he and his wife, Lena, founded a sculpture park and botanical garden, reflecting their respective passions. A 10-minute drive from downtown Grand Rapids, the 125-acre facility is home to works by some of the world’s great sculptors, from Auguste Rodin to Richard Hunt. Last summer Louise Bourgeois’s bronze and marble spider brooded on 30-foot legs over the hills and flowery meadows of the carefully uncultivated landscape. The Meijers, now in their eighties, clearly revel in the amazing and ever-growing treasure they have brought forth. When I attended a concert at the brand-new amphitheater, Frederik Meijer strode briskly to the podium and with great aplomb led the musicians in a rendition of “Stars and Stripes Forever,” using his cane as a baton.

Grand Rapids started to appreciate modern sculpture in the late 1960s, when Alexander Calder, perhaps an unlikely patron, was persuaded to create a 43-foot-tall stabile. Titled La Grande Vitesse, the piece expresses the power of the swiftly flowing river. Almost immediately the flame-colored steel sculpture became the heart and soul of the city. Nancy Mulnix, in 1967 a young mother of three and a volunteer at the local art museum, was the catalyst.

“We invited the art critic Henry Geldzahler to speak at the museum,” she told me. “We were in the midst of urban renewal, and when I showed him the holes in the ground where the new city hall and county administrative buildings were going, he mentioned the brand-new National Endowment for the Arts, saying, ‘This is the perfect place for the NEA’s first grant for public sculpture.’

“I began to correspond with Calder; he was somebody who had always touched my heart. And he agreed to do it. I got our congressman Gerald Ford’s support. The NEA came up with a matching grant of $45,000, but in the end it came to $127,000, and Calder helped us out. He asked me to pick out some gouaches, and he let us auction them to raise the money. Then the purchasers donated them to the art museum.”