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Calder’s Gift: Culture and Creativity for the Heart of GR

By Curt Wozniak/Photography by Michael Buck

“ Way out.”

“ Distinctive.”

A “metal monstrosity.”

The “spirit of a modern American city.”

Differing opinions on the monumental sculpture bolted to the plaza east of Grand Rapids’ city/county complex rattled like swords on local editorial pages in 1968.

In the spring of the previous year, the then two-year-old National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) named Grand Rapids the recipient of its first matching grant to fund a work of public art. On June 14, 1969, the city dedicated Alexander Calder’s “La Grand Vitesse” on Vandenberg Center.

Some called the artist’s abstract vision “American in derivation and feeling.” Others called the artist himself, who split time between residences in France and Connecticut, “as foreign to Grand Rapids as is Charles de Gaulle.” But 35 years later, most Grand Rapidians proudly accept the Calder as the symbol of their city. According to Nancy Mulnix, who co-chaired the sculpture project with Peter Wege, retired vice chairman of Steelcase, it was just a matter of time before the city warmed to the whimsy of Calder’s design.

“ It didn’t take any public relations campaign to place it in the heart of the people who live in this city,” Mulnix, 64, told Grand Rapids Magazine in a recent interview. “It just did that by itself because of the strength of its integrity, how it embraces, how user-friendly it is.” If Calder’s famous mobiles dance in the air, “La Grand Vitesse” dances on its toes — “and it never steps on your feet,” Mulnix joked.

Like so many works of art, Grand Rapids’ Calder was born in a “eureka” moment. That sudden inspiration belonged to Mulnix, however, not Calder.

In the spring of 1967 Henry Geldzahler, a Grand Rapids Art Museum lecturer visiting from New York, mentioned the NEA to Mulnix, a GRAM volunteer. Urban renewal had razed the blocks between Monroe and Ottawa avenues from Lyon to Michigan streets. New bank headquarters were going up, as well as a new city/county government complex and a large public square. During his visit, Geldzahler toured the site with Mulnix and suggested that a large piece of sculpture might complete the project.

“ I never doubted for a minute that we would do it and that it would just be a magnificent success,” Mulnix recalled. “I was 27 years old. I had three little kids. I had absolutely no business having a ‘eureka’ moment. It was just one of those things — it just made perfect sense to me.”

A bit of political serendipity pushed the idea forward. Geldzahler, who served as the NEA’s first visual arts advisor to the NEA, suggested that Mulnix write to then-U.S. Rep. Gerald R. Ford to ask about the availability of federal dollars to commission a sculpture. Ford was the House minority leader, and since the House controls the federal budget, NEA chairman Roger Stevens was quick to respond to Ford’s inquiry.

“ When you wrote to Jerry, he answered; he was very well brought up, you know,” Mulnix said. “He just went right to the source and had Roger Stevens call me right away — through the White House switchboard!”

Within weeks, the project was in motion. A $45,000 NEA grant was earmarked for Grand Rapids before the city officially applied for it. By the end of the year, Alexander Calder had accepted the commission.

Calder’s fee for design and fabrication was $100,000, which Mulnix considered a gift. Indeed, it was less than one-third of his commission for “Gwenfritz,” a large stabile Calder designed for the Smithsonian Museum of History and Technology, which was dedicated two weeks before La Grand Vitesse. Mulnix believes Calder felt a special bond with the people of Grand Rapids, and she may be right. Calder returned to Grand Rapids several times between 1969 and his death in 1976.

“ Maybe it was because he knew we really respected and valued him,” she mused. “I have no idea, but something clicked (between him and the city) and it never unclicked.”

That something is still clicking. More than the physical center of the city, the Calder and the campaign to bring it here have come to symbolize the philosophical heart of Grand Rapids. Thirty-five years ago, Grand Rapids chose to place a vibrant, red centerpiece amid the growing hum of business and politics in our new sanctuary of government and finance. Today, that centerpiece still reminds this community to cherish culture and creativity. GR

Curt Wozniak is the Grand Rapids Magazine staff writer.

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