Michigan: Land of Riches at 54 Jefferson

by Marilyn Merdzinski
Director of Collections and Preservation. Grand Rapids Public Museum

By most standards, the unique month-long public program and exhibition that was held at the old Grand Rapids Public Museum building on Jefferson Avenue was a wild success.  Unique may be an understatement to describe what transpired at the old Museum building for four weeks in the Spring of 2010.  This was NOT your ordinary museum program or exhibition.  Rather, it was described by writer Austin Bunn, a playwright and assistant professor at Grand Valley State University and former Village Voice columnist and published author in a May 17, 2010 on-line Rapidian newspaper article as "the best civic-art experiment I’ve seen in years."

If you were not one of the lucky 8,000 visitors that had a chance to see this remarkable installation during its Spring 2010 run, it is hard to describe what you missed.  Here are some additional excerpts from  Mr. Bunn’s article that help impart its "flavor"... "every room, every vitrine in the old museum place has been converted into a creative opportunity: a room on weaponry turned the “arms race” into literal doll and mannequin arms, accompanied by guns converted into delicate pillow.  Another purported to be the recovered evidence of a UFO crash, including shrapnel. The show had a sense of humor, with careful, subtle re-workings of museum signage into cheeky surprises..."

The Grand Rapids Public Museum has filled many roles in the community over its long 156 year history.  This special project joined 30 faculty and 200 students from seven Michigan colleges, universities and art institutions, including: Aquinas College, Calvin College, Grand Valley State University, Hope College, Kendall College of Art & Design/Ferris State University, the Urban Institute of Contemporary Art and the University of Michigan, all working together with the Museum’s curatorial staff under the overall direction of Paul Amenta, Adjunct Professor of Art at Kendall College of Art and Design.

The idea for Land of Riches grew out of a 2009 Kendall College Collaborative Studies Class led by Assistant Professor of Design Studies Gayle DeBruyn.  The class was asked by the Museum to help answer the question: "How can the Grand Rapids Public Museum expand its access to the community?"  They suggested that the Museum work with Profesor Amenta who had previous experience as the coordinator of the successful “ActiveSite” special art installations around Grand Rapids.  When approached by the Museum, Paul Amenta jumped at the chance to pull together an engaging and innovative project at the old Public Museum building.

According to the Museum’s President/CEO, Dale Robertson, "The Museum thoroughly enjoyed participating in the project in addition to watching it all unfold.  We have had our own lessons learned."  As the Museum continues its journey to become a significant partner with local school districts, colleges and universities, those lessons are helping us understand just how special and valued the Museum’s vast permanent collections are.  The Museum recognizes the need to find new and innovative ways to share the collections that have been routinely hidden from public view when not on display at the downtown Van Andel Museum Exhibition Center. 

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to recognize that 54 Jefferson is a true hometown architectural gem.  The Museum’s stored collections and this unique building are both underutilized resources in our community.  You will be happy to know the Museum is actively working to help remedy that situation and welcomes your suggestions and ideas.

David Greenwood, Passing Through (Almost Home) - Photo by Emily BrouwersKendall College of Art & Design Graduate Photography, Before Fluoridation
Justin Korver & the Sculpture II Class at Hope College, Paranormal Michigan - UFO's Over the Pleasant Peninsula Brett Colley, Land of Riches
 - posted by mmerdzinski@grmuseum.org