Fifteen years ago, Grand Rapids was a surprise and an overlooked destination. Even then, the potential was there. Grand Rapids’ adjacency to both Steelcase and Herman Miller had extended the furniture-making tradition into designed workspaces to the extent that when the mass-market factory producers decamped to the East Coast where shipping to global markets was easier, the respect for arts, design and architecture never left. Nor did the culture that embraced diversity and recognized the economic sense of inclusion. One trip to the Grand Rapids Gerald Ford museum---walking distance from the massive, stately Amway Grand Hotel, with its scenic towers and elegant dining rooms---is enough to convince most visitors that this not what they expected. Certainly having a revered and long-time Congressman who would eventually become President was helpful to civic improvement and attention to his hometown, but what really made Grand Rapids into what it has become has been the consistent commitment by the descendants of some of the original Dutch settlers most prominently the Meijers, the DeVoses and the Van Andels.
The superstore founders nurtured and coaxed a large (132-acre) property that didn’t work out as a store, into Frederick Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park, home to a beautiful display of foliage but a world-class art collection and during the summer, an entertainment venue as well. (Santana starts the season with a concert June 1st.) One of the highlights of the Gardens is one of the two DaVinci horses: The American Horse by Nina Akamu --- the other is in Milan where it originated --- which was undertaken by Frederick Meijer himself and completed in the early 2000s. The original DaVinci horse was never completed by the artist himself, stopped on account of a war that required the metal to be used for cannons and armaments. It would take hundreds of years for someone with the means and imagination of the recently deceased patriarch of the family to finally get it done. Now there are 170 sculptures by world-renowned artists including Jean Arp, Alexander Calder, Henry Moore, Claes Oldenburg, Marshall Fredericks, Arnaldo Pomodoro, Dale Chihuly, Laura Ford and Kenneth Snelson on display with more sculptures added each year.
The DeVoses and the Amway Company have been a constant force behind downtown development in Grand Rapids, in addition to the original Amway hotel and shopping pavilions, the DeVoses were behind the skyscraper J.W. Marriott, which debuted in 2008. After that more hotels came along to accommodate the DeVos Place Convention Center and Van Andel Arena as the city has continued to expand its population---Grand Rapids is the second largest city in Michigan now with 200,000 in the city and about a million people within its Grand River Valley circumference. A momument to green building and contemporary art the Grand Rapids Art Museum at the center of the city also opened in 2008 and the Grand Rapids Museum, an edifice of mainstream scientific accomplishment funded by the Van Andels, sits just across the river And the families continue to come up with new ideas to make Grand Rapids better and stronger. Notably in 2009 the Amway founder’s grandson, Rick DeVos, still in his 20s then, devised a unique art contest called ArtPrize, which quickly evolved into the largest event of its kind in the world. For two weeks during the fall almost 2000 artists display their works throughout the city and visitors---now in the hundreds of thousands--- cast their votes. Grand Rapids has also become a destination for food and craft brews, but there are numerous high-end restaurants---the Ruth Chris’ Steakhouse at Amway is a new and vibrant example---an innovative concept eateries like the DeVos family’s Reserve, a bank building turned into a small marble-encrusted cathedral where you can feast on small plates, fine wine by the glass and great conversations with the important folks in this energetic town.