Pottery in display in a long display case

Collectors support gallery's vision of making art accessible to all

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When Nathan Kemler, director of GVSU Galleries and Collections, first saw the artwork in the home of avid West Michigan art collectors Ward Paul and Chuck Schoenknecht, Kemler’s interest was apparent. Schoenknecht recalled seeing Kemler’s eyes light up as he looked around.

Ward and Chuck stand side by side

Ward Paul (left) and Chuck Schoenknecht

Later, as Kemler took over his leadership position with the Art Gallery, he approached Paul and Schoenknecht about adding their pieces to Grand Valley’s collection. Kemler said he saw a chance to enhance GVSU’s predominantly contemporary collection with more historical artwork.

That overture deepened the ties that Paul and Schoenknecht already had to Grand Valley and set in motion a profound donor connection to the Grand Valley Art Gallery that, to date, has resulted in nearly 4,000 gifts and promised gifts, as well as other avenues of support.

Paul and Schoenknecht have worked with a wide range of institutions in West Michigan and beyond, with pieces in collections locally and outside Michigan. Having their collection capture the interest of a university such as GVSU was an honor, Paul said.

“I think the excitement is going back and forth,” Paul said.

The connection, which has only gotten stronger, has led to artwork donations from Paul and Schoenknecht accounting for more than 10 percent of Grand Valley’s collection of more than 27,500 pieces that ranks as the second largest art collection in the state. They were also the first to contribute to the GVSU Art Collection Endowment Fund and have planned for GVSU in their estates.

Kemler said the support from Paul and Schoenknecht not only comes through donations but also through their commitment to promoting within their vast network of friends and associates the fact that Grand Valley’s vision for art centers on sharing it widely.

“Having donors like Chuck and Ward is so critical for our success because not only do they support the needs that we have — be that financial needs or artwork gifts that fill a void in our collection — but they are out in the community being enthusiastic supporters,” Kemler said.

Indeed, Paul said, they are continuously working to find other donors for GVSU, both those who can contribute financially as well as with artwork. 

Schoenknecht added: “What I like about the university is the collection is for everyone. It isn’t geared to the intellectual, it is for all people. And then you can insert yourself, learn from it and leave. You don’t have to love everything, but you get a chance to look at things.”

One of the reasons Paul and Schoenknecht have chosen to work with Grand Valley is because they like that their pieces are staying in the Grand Rapids area, where they have deep roots. 

Both were teachers in Grand Rapids Public Schools and have been involved with a number of organizations through the years. They currently serve on the collections committee for the Grand Rapids Public Museum.

Their roots in the West Michigan art world are deep, but their art-related ties also extend throughout the state and beyond. They have also worked with the Grand Rapids Art Museum, Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, the Muskegon Museum of Art, the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, the Grand Rapids Public Library and Michigan State University. They also have made significant donations to the Mobile Museum of Art in Alabama.

Schoenknecht is an artist and appraiser. Paul said he is not an artist, though Schoenknecht is quick to point out Paul can create art and has studied art history. Their passion for art is reflected in their extensive and all-encompassing collection. Schoenknecht is particularly drawn to two-dimensional pieces, from prints to paper ephemera, while Paul has an affinity for pottery and silver. Both are passionate about glass. And they have a fair number of textile and furniture pieces as well.

The pieces from their eclectic collection have helped fill the gap in GVSU’s collection and can be seen throughout the grounds of Grand Valley, including a recent exhibition of pottery in the lobby of Zumberge Hall, Kemler said. 

“So much of what Grand Valley has collected has been contemporary works, because we can go out and find that more easily, but we don’t have anything that speaks to what came before in a substantial way,” Kemler said. “We wanted to be able to tell the broader story of art in our lives, and they had this wonderful, deep, broad collection that connected to our story.”

Their passion for art is also apparent when they talk about why they want to surround themselves with it. On a Zoom call from their part-time home in Hemet, California, about 75 miles southeast of Los Angeles, art fills the background.

Paul and Schoenknecht said a key reason they enjoy their experience with Grand Valley is because the Art Gallery staff shares that same passion for art.

“We were eager to jump on board because of the staff,” Paul said. “They are excited about art, excited about their jobs, excited about the university and excited about making the entire community a better place.”