There’s no doubt the COVID-19 pandemic put a strain on just about everything. Beloved restaurants and shops closed their doors and social spaces sat vacant for months. Times were tough, but even so, art persisted in Grand Rapids.
The tenacity of the arts community radiated through the bitter cold during the World of Winter Festival and battled the heat as artists gathered to paint in celebration of Black stories for the #WindowsGR project.
Things are starting to feel familiar again, but the lessons learned about equity, accessibility, support and the value of community will not soon be forgotten. It’s a new day for the arts in Grand Rapids, and the future looks bright.
Art as solace
Undeterred by the incredible challenges the COVID-19 pandemic imposed on the city, Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. (DGRI) was able to continuously support public art projects and activate outdoor spaces around downtown.
“Even during the COVID pandemic, DGRI was able to fund over 350-plus public art installations in 2020 to 2021 to date,” said Kimberly Van Driel, director of public space management at DGRI. “Public art was one of the very limited things citizens could get out and enjoy within our community safely, and it sure did bring people together. We had over 400,000 attendees come to see the World of Winter art installations alone. This was a huge economic benefit to our city and a giant uplift to our community during a difficult and desolate time.”
As COVID-19 (hopefully) approaches the rear view and a sense of normalcy returns, people can expect to find a whole host of new art projects and initiatives to welcome them back to the city.
“A lot has changed in our city within the last year that has helped push the needle on a lot of positive movements,” Van Driel said. “We are now allowed to have social zones, walk down the street with an approved alcoholic beverage, ride scooters and so much more.
“With new outdoor seating and beverage zones, our team, along with Lions & Rabbits among local artists, is able to create more public art, working with businesses and property owners to host murals on outdoor seating barriers. This is just one of the many positive outcomes of the pandemic,” she continued. “I believe there will be a lot of positive outcomes from a negative situation that will continue to have a long-lasting effect on our community.”
Supporting artists where they are
The Division Avenue Arts Collective (DAAC) strives to support creatives of all ages in a safe, substance-free environment. Alison Christensen, one of the core committee members at the DAAC, is passionate about imparting her knowledge to budding artists and cultivating a space where they can explore their craft.
“I want other artists that are just starting out to have a space (where) they feel that they can express themselves freely,” Christensen said. “We’re there to support them and help them with selling their work and promoting their work. We’re there to make sure that their experience of exhibiting their work is positive and successful, and I really want to be able to take all the skills from just life experiences and my degrees and apply them back to that through my volunteerism.”
The community art space had to step back from hosting artists and musicians when the pandemic hit West Michigan. But now, Christensen is eager to get people thinking about supporting artists and engaging in the arts community again.
“My goal moving forward with the art exhibits at DAAC, and why we’re having these emerging artists, is having people from the community get used to buying works of art again. Because it’ll be an affordable space for people to be able to do that and just get people back in the mindset of living with real art, meeting the artists, learning about their story and learning about why they created the work,” she said. “There’s so many great discussions that happen during an art opening, and a lot of it ends up just turning into a chance for networking for other local artists or patrons. Moving forward, I really hope that we can get back to that part of being together in a space for the arts.”
Equity and social change
Until recently, Lions & Rabbits Center for the Arts was a nonprofit organization using event revenue to sustain its mission of creating equitable opportunities for artists. Hannah Berry, the executive director of Lions & Rabbits Center for the Arts, is thrilled to see art initiatives grow and thrive under this new organizational structure.
“We’ve been doing everything out of the event staff and it’s going to be helpful that we’re a supported organization instead of just funded through what our events bring in,” she said. “That is probably the most exciting thing — people can now donate to Lions & Rabbits Center for the Arts. I am thankful for an incredibly intense, young team of entrepreneurs and artists. Some are contractors, some are employees, and I’m just super excited to see us all banding together as artists, as women, as people within Grand Rapids, and really starting to intentionally figure out the way that we see ourselves as leaders and how we can all be on the same playing field.”
Part of the mission at Lions & Rabbits Center for the Arts is to elevate artists, but it also supports economic and social change at a community level. Berry is passionate about the work and wants to see people get compensated fairly.
“As an organization, we believe in supporting artists as individuals and being able to make sure that they are properly funded and have the right resources to get their ideas out,” she said. “I think it’s really important to hone in on what artists and people organizing artists from all levels in the community are receiving for wages. I think starting to look at art as an economic driver is what’s going to be able to bring our city forward.”
As for the future, Lions & Rabbits Center for the Arts, among other arts organizations in Grand Rapids, is collaborating with the Arts Working Group (a collective of arts and culture organizations in Grand Rapids) to see what concrete diversity, equity and inclusion efforts could look like.
“I’m hoping to see the arts community come together a little bit deeper,” Berry said. “I think there’s still a lot of foundational needs. The Arts Working Group is working together to figure out what diversity, equity and inclusion looks like for us as organizations. That doesn’t stop at us as organizations, it means how are we affecting the people within our organizations, and how is that transpiring into the community?” Berry continued. “I think that in and of itself is a process which a lot of people might not understand how big of a commitment the organizations are making at this point.”
Considering an arts council
The Grand Rapids arts community is served by many different organizations that have their own strategies for funding art projects and supporting the artists who create them. But now, arts organizations and leaders in the community are entertaining the idea of putting together an arts council — a centralized entity designed to streamline and organize the distribution of resources for the arts. An arts council could transform the community, and local artist Holly Bechiri is hoping artists would be at the heart of the council’s mission.
“The institutions are there to highlight individuals, but if the individuals aren’t getting the support to create their best work, then you’re not really supporting the arts fully,” Bechiri said. “You’re supporting institutions, which is great, but not complete. Art institutions have connections to grants and other financial support, but not individual artists. If you really want to support the arts in the community, you have to support the individuals, not just the institutions.”
Artists can communicate emotions and ideas in new and interesting ways through their art. If the arts council becomes a reality, Bechiri hopes that creative expression won’t suffer as
“Artists often do things, because someone needs to, that may not be approved of by a municipality,” she said. “There may be some messaging that they’re asked to tone down. Art forms that the art world itself understands the value and purpose of may not be understood by municipal staff, and I would hate to see the innovation and the voice of artists be managed more than it needs to be because it is under a municipality direction instead of an independent organization. Now, I don’t know that that would happen in Grand Rapids, but knowing Grand Rapids, I think it’s a valid question to ask.”
Renewal and rebirth
After closing its doors for most of 2020 and part of 2021 as a result of the pandemic, the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts (UICA) is emerging from quarantine anew. The UICA now lives in the Woodbridge N. Ferris building at 17 Pearl. What’s more, the art institution is now offering free admission into its galleries. Miranda Krajniak, UICA’s executive director, is excited to put forward the new, more approachable membership structure.
“We believe the future is accessibility,” she said. “We are very excited to start to strip away the barriers of financial accessibility from the UICA. The move, the smaller space and the reduced overhead have allowed us to have that free entry. We are moving forward with a bold model that we think is the way forward — and that is free membership,” she continued. “If you want to be a member, you sign up on our website, you become a member, and then all of the attributes, all the benefits of membership are there for you.”
With the free model in place, Krajniak is eager to see more visitors from larger swaths of the community but recognizes there is still work to be done to make the space feel more inclusive.
“Just because we’ve made these moves doesn’t mean that everyone in the community will automatically feel welcome, so there’s still a lot more steps for us to be the most accessible museum we can be,” she said. “This covers financial accessibility, but there’s many more versions of accessibility that we need to tackle as well. Now we’re really going to focus on how we connect with communities to really take the story to them.”
Just a stone’s throw away from the UICA’s former location, the historic Woodbridge N. Ferris building has much to offer, including ample outdoor and green space that the UICA has plans for.
“This building has been the art museum for many, many years and then was the Fed Gallery, but in both iterations, the outdoor spaces were really not considered, I believe, a gallery,” Krajniak said. “The art museum had a few sculptures, and The Fed did a good job during ArtPrize of having large-scale things, but we would like to activate the outdoors year-round to give a little life to the space and to give a little joy — it’s a very whimsical, bright, eye-catching installation and I’m really excited about that.”
Whether it’s on Pearl or Fulton, the UICA will do what it’s always done — showcase the work of contemporary artists from different disciplines and walks of life — but Krajniak hopes the new location will afford the community more opportunities than the old one did.
“Herman Miller has been especially generous to us and has supplied us with some wonderful furniture,” she said. “We’ll have plants, there’ll be life, there’ll be a little living room set up. When you come into our space, you can come and you can work here, you can read a book here, you can meet people and you can lounge in the space, you can do homework. We really want to see it as an extension of a living room space for Grand Rapids.”
A time for healing
For local artist Jasmine Bruce, 2020 was a year of difficult conversations and moments of deep introspection. In addition to facing the hardships of COVID-19, Bruce helped organize #WindowsGR — a community art project that elevated Black voices and stories through the activation of boarded windows downtown. Since then, Bruce has only continued to advocate for artists of color as one of the executive directors of Element 7, an arts collective designed to champion social equity in the arts community.
“Speaking for myself as an artist of color, I’m not sure if this is true for everyone, but I don’t want to have to morph and conform myself to a system that doesn’t work with or wasn’t built for me, to lift me up,” Bruce said. “With the work I’ve been doing lately, it’s just creating new platforms for artists of color where we can create our own seat at the table on our own stage and really just look at ourselves in that way. I think that if people could just take the time and honor us giving ourselves that space, that would be great.”
Between supporting the #WindowsGR project and getting Element 7 off the ground, Bruce used the long months of isolation as an opportunity to turn inward and channel her thoughts and feelings into her work.
“For me, quarantine was a lot of time with reflection and slowing down and going internal and just processing whatever I was feeling through that and being able to put that into my artwork and using that as a sort of therapy,” she said. “I think coming back out into the world as things begin to open up again, I would like to share those things I’ve learned throughout the whole process.”
There’s still a way to go before the community has healed from this devastating shared experience, but Bruce senses a feeling of restoration as people flock to their communities for the social engagement they’ve been missing.
“I think there’s this tone of healing and a call for healing within the community and also just celebration for being able to have community and have those get-togethers and be able to dance together and sing together,” she said. “Those are things that are all super healing and that were just taken away from us for the past year and a half. I think there’s a lot of things that people have learned during that time of solitude to now open up and kind of be vulnerable again.”
This story can be found in the September/October 2021 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox, subscribe here.