Catalyzing Creativity

A talk with Grand Rapids Art Museum’s Director
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Cindy Meyers Foley. GRAM courtesy photo.

Grand Rapids Magazine spoke with Cindy Meyers Foley about her position at the Grand Rapids Art Museum. Foley took over as the museum’s director in June after a 17-year career at the Columbus Museum of Art. Meyers. Foley holds a Bachelor of Arts in individual arts studies from the University of Kentucky and a Master of Arts in art education from The Ohio State University.

GR Mag: What drew you to Grand Rapids?
CMF:
GRAM has an experimental mindset, enticing for me as someone who likes to try new things. I could tell they were evolving and paying attention. What I was most drawn to was the museum’s Creative Learning Center*, an experimental gallery. We need museums and not only as spaces that can amaze us and get us to think, but as social spaces, places to get us to connect. The museum of the 20th Century is the art itself.

What a powerful statement. Tell me more. I think what we’re doing is adapting to the changing needs of our community, an interesting place we find ourselves in. One of our objectives is how to get people to slow down and take something in at a time when our phones make life so rapid pace. 

Tell me about the early years. After college I started working at the gallery associate level and was passionate about what museums can represent. I thought I’d become an artist. While I like making art, I love talking about art. I enjoyed the art, but it was the experience of seeing art and juxtaposing permanent collections. 

What propelled you to choose a career in museums? I’m from southern Ohio. I did not grow up near a lot of museums. My dad was a prosecuting attorney and we traveled. I fell in love with museums through travel. I was passionate about art and the art experience. I went to the University of Kentucky orientation, while we were at the (campus) museum, I remember my mom went up to the desk and asked if they had work study. I secured a position on the work study path and haven’t left the museum since.

What are your goals at GRAM? Using art as a way to engage different individuals, get them to think and be more playful, and it brings joy! A good museum can bring you not only beauty but make you curious enough to make you wonder and then ask questions. As an art museum, we don’t have the answers, but we can help people by making them curious. 

Any fun new exhibits? In one of our more traditional galleries, there’s a voting booth. There are about seven different animals hidden in different works of art and people vote on which animal (they identify with). We wanted social engagement. All of a sudden, you have people from different groups participating. Another activity you’ll find is in front of a body of modernist paintings. We invite folks to [play] around with shapes and share those on social media. 

Who’s your audience at GRAM? If you take the big museums across the US, the MOMA, on average, 76 percent of MOMA is international tourism. That’s a very different museum than Grand Rapids. Probably 95 percent of the visitors are from Michigan. Our primary [target] are people looking to have a unique experience with their family. Education is another main reason many visit – to try new things and learn more about one another and the world around us.* We see ourselves as part of the learning ecosystem in the community and working with educators not only to see extraordinary exhibits but to get their kids to think. 

What challenges do you encounter in your field? One of the interesting research studies years ago, some folks felt anxiety and didn’t know how to “do” a museum. We want you to feel connected to the people you came with or maybe others who are there at the same time. So much joy can happen when you experience art with other people. It’s an antidote to stress and anxiety; wonder, laughter, curiosity, it can have an immediate impact on our serotonin levels.

Anything else you want to share? We have an upcoming exhibition that digs at the border between the U.S. and Mexico – a photographer and a sculptor that documents the human experience without the human being seen. It begins to unravel the complexity. It begins to unravel the complexity of the border, a topic that is often polarized, and focus on the humanity on view.**  There aren’t easy answers, but there are humans at the center. I’m excited. It’s going to be a beautiful exhibition and poignant.

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Discovery Dat at the GRAM.

*Creative Learning Center
The GRAM Creative Learning Center is a 4,500 square foot expanded educational space designed for hands-on creative exploration, and new learning and creativity programming for all ages. It features a 1,036 square-foot interactive Discovery Gallery, new GRAM Studio workshop classrooms, and an expanded orientation area and meeting space for school groups, tours, and meetings.

Editor’s Notes:
*The Museum provided this further clarification about the museum’s intended audience after publication of the interview in Grand Rapids Magazine (print version).
**The Museum provided this further clarification about the intention behind the Sonic Border exhibit after publication of the interview in Grand Rapids Magazine (print version).

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