A crew installs the a colorful abstract art work

Art Matters

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Before embarking on a mission to fill a new five-story health center with works of art at every turn, the Grand Valley Art Gallery team considered terms such as empathy and innovation.

Also, compassion. Diversity. Teamwork. Mindfulness. Community. Outreach.

Guided by a group of advisors from units using the Daniel and Pamella DeVos Center for Interprofessional Health (DCIH) and from throughout the university, along with a community committee that included fashion designer and lead building donor Pamella DeVos, those words and others helped build the foundation for the team’s three-year art collection project, said Nathan Kemler, director of GVSU Galleries and Collections. 

Layered over those building blocks were the values from the university’s Reach Higher 2025 strategic plan: Inquiry, Inclusive and Equitable Community, Innovation, Integrity and International Perspectives.

And with that, a collection grounded in Grand Valley values was defined, Kemler said.

The result: More than 400 pieces intentionally placed through 166,000 square feet that prompt people to think, invite them to escape for a moment and encourage them to ponder the human connection.

“We believe the art matters because our collective stories matter,” Kemler said. “The intention, always, is to enhance and support the interprofessional teams and interdisciplinary connections so students have a full learning experience at Grand Valley.”

The highlight of these works is a piece by world-renowned artist Dale Chihuly, which has been installed overhead in the student study space on the first floor. The piece, called Laker Blue and Opaline Persian Chandelier, was generously donated to Grand Valley by Dan and Pamella DeVos, lead donors for the facility, and is approximately 114 x 342 x 84 inches. It is representative of Chihuly’s Persian series.

Blue and white glass Chihuly sculpture

Laker Blue and Opaline Persian Chandelier by Dale Chihuly

Laker Blue and Opaline Persian Chandelier, by Dale Chihuly is representative of the artist’s Persian series. The blown glass installation is approximately 114 x 342 x 84". © 2021 Chihuly Studio. All rights reserved. (Kendra Stanley-Mills) 

“The ‘Laker Blue’ chandelier from Chihuly seemed like a natural for this space given the energy and constant motion of the health professions studying here,” said Pamella DeVos. “The entire collection displayed across the building brings great energy and thoughtful interpretations to depicted topics. It was a pleasure to work together with the GVSU team and community committee as many of the pieces were selected.”

As a way to connect with the Chihuly piece, Kemler said his team set out to place contemporary glass art on every floor. The DeVos family gave additional glass artwork to the university’s art collection, including another piece by Chihuly.

“We are very thankful to Pamella and Dan for their support of this sizable art exhibit,” Kemler said. “Their commitment of time, insights and donations of several pieces, in addition to those from Chihuly, further elevated the collection and will serve as inspiration to students and visitors for years to come.”

Those pieces join a collection that reflects the core themes developed for the project as well as the stories artists were inspired to tell at this point in time — a zeitgeist heavily influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic, Kemler said.

Pieces that are directly related to the pandemic include posters from a collection of New York artists to pay tribute to frontline health care workers.

Art gallery staff poses outside the DCIH

Standing outside the DCIH are Art Gallery staff members, from left, Georgine Bello, Katie Pershon, Amanda Rainey, Joel Zwart, Alison Christensen, Nathan Kemler, Dru King and Nicole Webb. (Amanda Pitts)

Artwork leaning against a wall in the DCIH during the Art Gallery instillation of artwork

The installed artwork prompts people to think, invites them to escape for a moment and encourages them to ponder the human connection. (Valerie Hendrickson)

Kemler said many artists addressed mental health along with social justice themes, including equal representation of race, class and the gender spectrum, as critical elements of a well-rounded health education. An example is work from an artist who graduated from Grand Valley who asks through a photo essay: What does a healthy community look like?

The collection also includes art that is abstract, colorful, emphasizing light or centered in nature to provide contrasting experiences for those who engage with the pieces, Kemler said.

“The challenging pieces are in carefully curated spaces so people are not hit with a trigger in a public building,” Kemler said. “We want people to make connections from hallway to hallway, providing a rhythm and a pace, and we are aware of viewer fatigue, reading fatigue, life fatigue. We paced it to give movement and rest on every floor.”

Establishing the right feel for the building is an intricate process involving such elements as curation, color theory, scale, spatial recognition and ensuring the artwork both relates to the programs on each floor of the building and relates to each other, said Alison Christensen, Art Gallery project manager.

For this project, Christensen said, it was important to reflect a holistic health approach of mind, body and community.

“Health care doesn’t always happen in a specific hospital room; it can be anywhere,” Christensen said. “We wanted to include artwork that is inclusive of lots of different ways health care, health sciences and computer sciences can look.”

Obtaining those pieces meant tapping the Art Gallery’s wide network of resources as well as searching through the robust Art Gallery permanent collection, which is the second largest art collection in the state. Christensen said she delighted in finding pieces in the Grand Valley collection that found the right home in the health building.

And ultimately this carefully curated collection also reflects the values Grand Valley holds for interacting with its art collection, Kemler said.

“Art at GVSU is not a passive practice,” he said. “Art at GVSU is active and our borderless museum is alive, engaging with our learners everywhere.”

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