GVSU History

The Arts At Grand Valley

Visitors to Grand Valley State University are often impressed with the architecture, the landscaping, the laboratories, the business incubators, the friendly atmosphere, or some other academic, physical, or cultural aspect of GVSU's several campus communities. But almost without exception they end their tour exclaiming about the same thing: the University art collection. The most recent site visit team for the NCA accreditation process wrote that "…works of art appear on the walls, in common spaces, even in the restrooms … artwork is an integral part of every building and public place. Nearly every interview with campus constituents reveals a deep appreciation for the artwork on display … benefits cited include quality of life and recruitment value. The rationale for featuring art so prominently is that art makes students think, whether they like a particular work or not."

Dedication to the enrichment (and debate) that arts, both visual and performing, can add to academic life can be traced to Grand Valley's earliest history, even before a site was selected for the college authorized by the Michigan legislature in 1960. In July 1961, a Grand Rapids Press article titled "Modern GVS Office Decorations Hint at New Approach" reported that "Officials are guiding the fledgling institution toward a goal of trying new methods so as to obtain a quality education at lower cost. In keeping with this, the office is filled with modern art and has been modernized with imaginative, unconventional methods that combine to give it a 'forward look.'

The office designer had been asked to locate artwork by younger artists, said Philip Buchen, the college's first administrator, "to show we're serving younger persons and are receptive to new ideas and methods." Modern art represents a break with tradition, he continued, "which we're hoping to achieve in our college planning. By being confronted this way with a new experience, you lose your old points of reference and are challenged to see and do things in a new way."

Of course, this premise was not to go unargued. Subsequent editions of the newspaper carried lively letters about the merits and evils of modern and abstract art, some consigning it to the garbage can, equating it with communism, and even sympathizing with students "cheated out of competent art training by fad-following, brain-washed teachers of the dribble and squoosh craze."

When the Grand Valley State College campus opened in Allendale in the fall of 1963, Professor Art Hills was charged by President James Zumberge to create an arts curriculum for the new college and organize arts activities for all students. In the spring of 1964 he produced the first Arts on Campus series, open to both students and the surrounding community. "We worked around contractors during most of those first years," he remembered in a 2009 Video History interview. Hills, who had been band director at Holland High School, retired from Grand Valley in 1988. The Arthur C. Hills music scholarship and the Art Hills Spirit award are named for him (he composed the GVSU alma mater, "Hail to Thee Grand Valley"), as is the Hills Living Center constructed in 2001. He chaired the committee that awarded the college's first Fine Arts scholarships in 1975.

That first Arts on Campus series featured the newly formed Grand Valley Singers, and also offered performances by the University of Michigan Stanley String Quartet and the Hope College Faculty Woodwind Quintet, an avant-garde one-act play, films, an exhibition, and a talk by Michigan's first lady, Mrs. George Romney. The multi-disciplinary mix of traditional and contemporary work would set the stage for more than four decades, as Grand Valley became a rich source of artistic experience for students and for residents throughout West Michigan.

Arts on Campus flyer

The influence of American pop artist Andy Warhol can be seen in the promotional flyer for Arts on Campus 1968.

Early Grand Valley students enjoyed performances and visiting artists, authors, poets and lecturers in the Seidman House lounge, the Grand Traverse Room in Lake Michigan Hall, and the large lecture hall in Lake Huron. An art gallery was established in 1968 in Manitou Hall and a Friends of the Arts group was formed among community supporters. In 1969, a small collection of prints by artists such as Miro, Chagall and Giacometti was purchased for the college by Professor William Baum from funds raised by a benefit concert by pianist William Doppmann, who would become a regular favorite performer on campus.

In June 1969, renowned artist Alexander Calder, who was in Grand Rapids for the dedication of his sculpture in the heart of the city, was awarded an honorary Doctor of Literature degree at Grand Valley's commencement ceremonies. Three years later the new Fine Arts Center on campus would be named in his honor, and in 1998 that designation would move to a new building housing Grand Valley's burgeoning Art & Design department, as well as a residence hall for those students.

Grand Valley's early experiments in education, known as the cluster college concept, brought an outstanding diversity to campus art productions. (For more information about GV's early academic structures, link to the main narrative of this history site, Section Three, Part I, "The Cluster Concept.") Roots of many Grand Valley traditions were established, including a commitment to bringing renowned poets and other writers to the campus. Dan Gerber, a poet and instructor at Thomas Jefferson College, arranged readings in 1969 by James Tate and Clayton Eshleman, who would become influential figures in American poetry, and in 1970 hosted Michigan author Jim Harrison as a guest reader for his creative writing seminar. Harrison would become a regular visitor to the Grand Valley campus, as his career soared and films based on his books brought him national fame. In 1973, British novelist Anthony Burgess, author of "A Clockwork Orange," was a campus guest.

Alexander Calder

Alexander Calder, center, received an honorary degree from Grand Valley during his visit for the dedication of La Grande Vitesse, his stabile sculpture in downtown Grand Rapids.

Jim Harrison

In 2005 Jim Harrison, above with Grand Valley archivist Nancy Richard, donated his papers to the GVSU Library's Special Collections archive.

In the summer of 1971, Thomas Jefferson College (TJC) hosted its first Poetry Festival, which would bring a stellar array of the country's finest poets to the Allendale campus over the next several years. The idea was conceived by Professor Robert Vas Dias, who called it "a place and circumstance in which, for nine days, the human, esthetic, and practical resources are available for a sustained experience of the art of poetry and engagement with the artistic personality." The list of participants from the festivals, in 1971, 1973, and 1975, is a who's who of American poets of a certain era, including Donald Hall, Gregory Corso, Robert Creeley, Diane Wakoski, Philip Whalen, Jackson Mac Low, Diane DiPrima, Ed Dorn, Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Bly, Galway Kinnell, James Wright, Nikki Giovanni, Ishmael Reed, Charles Simic and many more.

Although the summer Poetry Festivals did not continue, poetry remained an important part of Grand Valley literary life. In 1974, Joseph Brodsky, considered at the time to be the greatest living Russian poet, read in Lake Huron Hall. Poet, novelist, and feminist icon Tillie Olsen was the featured speaker at a conference sponsored by another of the cluster colleges, William James College, in 1980.

In 1998, Grand Valley appointed Professor Patricia Clark, a member of the English faculty since 1989, as its first Poet-in-Residence during a celebration to inaugurate new art and music facilities. She began to organize regular poetry programs which have included readings by U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins and former Laureate Robert Hass in 2002 along with Naomi Shihab Nye; Galway Kinnell with Jim Harrison and Dan Gerber in 2003; Rita Dove and Charles Wright in 2004; and many more. Gary Snyder read in 2007 to a packed house in the Eberhard Center; in 2009 Patricia Smith, four-time individual champion of the National Poetry Slam and a featured poet on HBO's Def Poetry Jam was a guest in the Fall Arts Celebration.

Robert Bly

National Book Award winning poet Robert Bly at Grand Valley's 1975 National Poetry Festival.

It was also in the early 1970s that Grand Valley's art collection began to accumulate. In 1973, two works by major American artists were donated to the college. "Six Lines Hanging," a mobile sculpture by George Rickey, was a gift of Mrs. Irving J. Bissell, and a work by Dale Eldred from the renowned Sculpture Off the Pedestal show organized by the Women's Committee of the Grand Rapids Art Museum in 1973 was donated to the college, anonymously at first, but now acknowledged as the gift of Paula Johnson.

The collection grew steadily through the next few decades, spurred by the interest of President Arend Lubbers, who recounts his "aha moment" following the construction of a new building on the Allendale campus in the early 1990s. "One day I was walking through and I said, 'This place needs art,'" he remembered in a 2009 interview. "...We'd always bought art and we had purchased art from faculty, but it was in seeing that building that we really set the policy of every building should be an art gallery." Jean Enright, Executive Assistant to the President for 18 years, describes the breezy beginnings of the college art collection in a video clip in the main narrative of this history, Section Four, Part VI, "25 Years and Still Growing."

At the end of the interview clip, Enright notes the arrival of Henry Matthews, who became Director of Galleries and Collections in 1999. "It was a very different campus then," he remembered in a 2010 interview. "There were about 700 pieces in the collection." There are now more than 9,000 works in Grand Valley's permanent collection, and multiple exhibition galleries on multiple campuses, as well as installations of artwork on every available surface of every building. Of particular note is the Gordon Gallery in DeVos Center on Grand Valley's Pew Campus in downtown Grand Rapids. It showcases a selection from the more than 60 works by 19th-century American impressionist painter Mathias Alten in the GV collection, the largest held by any institution of the notable Grand Rapids native's artwork.

Dale Eldred's moving sphere

George Rickey - Six Lines

The first major works donated to the Grand Valley art collection can be seen on the Allendale campus, the George Rickey mobile in the West Atrium of Loutit Hall, above, and Dale Eldred's work, a 500-pound moving sphere that inscribes geometric patterns in a large sandbox, outside Padnos Hall, top.

Matthews, who had been Director of the Muskegon Museum of Art, is especially excited about a Print and Drawing Cabinet project he began in 2001 with an acquisition from the collection of Dutch artist Cyril Lixenberg. The Cabinet now numbers over 3,000 works and has begun to be used in conjunction with Art and Design department curriculum. Matthews is also a well-known travel maven, leading group tours around the world through the University and bringing back to Grand Valley campuses a diverse array of international art and artists. Many of the works in Grand Valley's collection can be viewed in an online gallery.

The academic side of Grand Valley has been a major contributor to the artistic mix enriching both students and community. In 1971 an experimental theater workshop in downtown Grand Rapids was launched by students and faculty in an old shoe store near the Pantlind Hotel. The program became known as Stage 3 and merged with Grand Valley's Thomas Jefferson College in 1973. In 1976, the successful enterprise, directed by Michael Birtwistle, moved into a structure that formerly housed the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church on the corner of Ransom and Fountain, where they presented many innovative programs until a fire in 1980 put an end to the endeavor.

At the same time, another theatre group was developing from a program to put student actors into classrooms in cooperation with the Grand Rapids Board of Education. The program would evolve into United Stage, which over the next ten years provided theatrical experiences to thousands of schoolchildren, as well as performances in parks and community centers throughout the area. In 2009, alumni of the United Stage project gathered at Grand Valley to re-create their theatre experiences under the direction of its founder, Robert Moyer, and plan a second reunion as part of Grand Valley's 50th anniversary celebration. 

Theatre has remained an arts magnet at Grand Valley, taking a decidedly classical turn in 1993 with the debut of the annual Shakespeare Festival, founded by Professors Rosalind Mayberry, Roger Ellis and Laura Gardner Salazar. It has grown to include a Renaissance Faire, a stage production, a scholar-in-residence program, a public lecture and educational outreach efforts, and by the 21st century was the largest Shakespeare Festival in Michigan. In 2001, Theatre Professor Karen Libman helped to found the Bard-to-Go Program, bringing touring productions to Michigan middle and high school students. The group has traveled to Jamaica and China, and in 2009 Grand Valley students won the Best Performance award at the Sapperlot International Festival of Youth Theatre in Italy for "Bard to Go: Kissing and Courting." Check the Shakespeare Festival web page for more information.

The GVSU Theatre Department scored a coup in 2009 when Grand Valley, working with Grand Rapids Heritage Theatre Group, not only secured rights for the first West Michigan production of the hit Broadway show "Rent," but engaged Manley Pope, who was a featured performer in the Broadway production and on its first national tour, as guest director.

The production of "Rent," the story of a group of bohemian artists in New York during the height of the 1980s AIDS crisis, was consistent with an ongoing commitment at Grand Valley to address contemporary issues through theatre. In 2002, the Women's Center began an annual production of Eve Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues," performed on Valentine's Day on campuses around the country to address issues about women's bodies, childbirth, sex, rape and love. GVSU faculty, staff, and students have been joined by community members in the annual productions, which have raised over $100,000 for organizations and programs that work to end violence against women.


Grand Valley's production of "Rent" was a hit, selling out 99.1% of total capacity for its seven-show run in Louis Armstrong Theatre.

GVSU Opera Theatre was established in the Music Department in 1998, bringing opera to the campus for the first time. One main stage production is presented each year, rotating classic opera with musical theatre. The productions have featured guest artist stage directors from the professional world, providing, said Artistic Director Dale Schriemer, "a bridge for our undergrads from the academic world to the professional world."

All the performing arts at Grand Valley got a boost in 1971 with the opening of a new Fine Arts Center, named for Alexander Calder in 1972, with a 500-seat theatre named for jazz great Louis Armstrong. New music and music education programs were introduced by a new Music Chair, Wayne Dunlap. A long-running cooperation with the Grand Rapids Symphony brought musicians to the campus to teach and perform. There were also music activities in the individual cluster colleges, notably the William James College Gospel Choir and a variety of interdisciplinary activities organized at Thomas Jefferson College (link to a photograph of "Chris and Bob's Auto Show," a performance for tuned car horns and dancers, in Section Three of the main narrative of this history, Part VI " A Community Resource is Beginning to Bloom").

By the 1980s a new form of music was bringing students to Grand Valley. Electronic music was first introduced as part of a 1980 TJC course, but by the late 1990s, a significant renovation of the Fine Arts Center would include a music technology center that was described in a Grand Rapids Press article as "the best composition lab in the state, possibly in the Midwest, for undergraduates."

Interest in new music and music technology flowered at Grand Valley with the founding of the New Music Ensemble in 2006 by Professor Bill Ryan. The group gained national attention in 2007 with a critically praised performance of Steve Reich's landmark composition "Music for 18 Musicians" at the 15th Bang on a Can Marathon at the World Financial Center in New York. Their recording of the piece was named not only to year-end best lists by critics in The New York Times, L.A. Weekly and others, but called one of the top five classical recordings of the decade by WNYC's John Schaefer and the #1 classical release of the decade in the radio station's Soundcheck listener poll. It spent 11 weeks atop the Billboard classical crossover charts.

Grand Valley's New Music Ensemble

Grand Valley's New Music Ensemble has attracted national attention.

In 2009, members of the New Music Ensemble were invited to be part of an all-star group assembled by Kronos Quartet to perform in a concert in Carnegie Hall celebrating the 45th anniversary of Terry Riley's groundbreaking composition "In C." Their recording of that work, titled "In C Remixed" and featuring collaboration with contemporary music luminaries and rising stars, was praised by the composer himself as "not only one of the best 'In C' performances ever, but also some 'alternate universe' In C's that got me smiling, beaming and sometimes amazed."

It was a dramatic upgrade in facilities that pushed Grand Valley's Art and Design department to a new level in 1998. An expanded and renovated building in the southeast corner of the Allendale campus offered a home for the entire visual arts program and faculty for the first time, while also freeing space in the Performing Arts Center for the expansion of programs in dance, music and theatre. The new building was designated the Alexander Calder Fine Arts Center, and a year later an adjacent residence hall was constructed to house the department's students.

In 2001, the Art and Design department, in conjunction with the University Art Gallery, launched the DeVos Art Lecture Series, featuring alumni, faculty, and guest artists.

In 2003, a tradition was begun to mark the beginning of the academic year with the Fall Arts Celebration, emphasizing the complex role arts and humanities play in an academic setting. Events include distinguished lecturers, guest artist performances, student and faculty performances, poets and authors, and art exhibitions. The series is open to the community with free admission, and has included such notables as author Jamaica Kincaid, Shakespeare expert Stephen Greenblatt, and African-American scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr.; exhibitions of art from India, Korea, Egypt, and Russia; performances of works such as Stravinsky's challenging "L'histoire du soldat"; guest dancers from the New York City Ballet, and much more.

Grand Valley continues to bring the community to the campus for arts events, and to weave students and faculty into the community in a variety of ways. For a decade beginning in 1997, medalists from the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, considered one of the most important music competitions in the world, were brought to West Michigan to perform at Grand Valley in concerts open to the public. Arts at Noon offers opportunities to enjoy world-class musicians including GVSU faculty and student ensembles and other artists; performances from Carillon concerts to the GV Marching Band bring entertainment to thousands.

It is the interaction between artists and community, however, that makes the University an indispensable resource, just as other academic departments serve as resources for education, business, science, and every discipline.

In 1999, an innovative series of projects was developed by Paul Wittenbraker of the Grand Valley Art and Design department to bring students into Grand Rapids neighborhoods to participate in the understanding of culture. Civic Studio is a course for upper level art and design majors, who experience and research an area of the city, and create work in various media to engage topics found in memory, music, and movement through the neighborhood.

The 2009 Civic Studio, "On the River," was on the Interurban bridge over the Grand River, near Grand Valley's Pew campus. It was set up during ArtPrize, the citywide celebration of visual arts which featured work by many Grand Valley faculty and students in a number of University venues.

"It's crazy how something as simple as a small tub of water on a projector screen can intrigue people from half a mile away," wrote one student in the "On the River" project blog. "On several occasions, pedestrians who had stopped to chat mentioned that they had seen the curious light and forms from an opposite bridge and had walked specifically to find out what they were seeing. That set us up for some immediate conversations."

Those are conversations that have been going on for 50 years.

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