Baby Steps Towards the Right Direction, A Decade at the Center: Recent Gifts and Acquisitions at the Grand Rapids Art Museum

Daffodils and Cereal

Janet Fish, Daffodils and Cereal, 1994, courtesy of the Grand Rapids Art Museum

by Liz McMahon

A Decade at the Center: Recent Gifts and Acquisitions is a featured exhibition open through April 28 at the Grand Rapids Art Museum. The exhibit, which celebrates the ten year anniversary at the venue on Monroe Center, allows the public to see some of the gifts and acquisitions acquired over the past five years. These featured pieces will hopefully be added to the circulation of the permanent collection, which occupies the third floor. While A Decade at the Center is primarily an informative display providing visitors with insight into the inner workings that build the collection, it also reveals that there is some room for improvement regarding diversity.

The exhibit occupies two large galleries on the second floor, with partitions used to separate some groupings, or to add wall space. There are two additional works situated near the walkway to the staircase. Wall text throughout the show indicates why certain pieces are paired together. A Decade at the Center includes primarily paintings and prints, but sculpture, furniture, drawing, photographs, and even some housewares are included. There is an emphasis on furnishings and domestic items regarded as historically significant examples of design, like Luigi Colani’s Three Elephant Money Banks. Most of the works were created in the 19th and 20th centuries, but the exhibit does include earlier pieces like a 17th century etching by Rembrandt van Rijn, as well as contemporary examples like a 1980 drawing by Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, who had a show at the GRAM in 2018. The works tend to be grouped by a variety of different criteria, including time-period, medium, subject matter, or artist, which allows for comparison and contemplation, aided by didactics that explain the curators decisions.

The exhibit includes a range of different cultures and ethnicities, as well as a significant number of female artists. Whereas the majority of the permanent collection housed on the third floor is comprised of European art by white male artists, A Decade at the Center features women artists, like Janet Fish and Dorothy Hafner, and non-European artists like Kyohei Fujita and Diego Rivera[2]. Comparing the artwork in A Decade, with the permanent collection or even recent past exhibitions, this show presents art that challenges the conventions and practices of collecting American art institutions.

Decisions regarding placement are among the notable issues. The entrance features a selection of conventional works including regional landscapes, paintings of wildlife, Adonna Kahre’s Elephant Whirlpool (2014), and a sketch by Pablo Picasso. Art that might be regarded as confrontational such as those by black female artists Kara Walker, Carrie Mae Weems, and Lorna Simpson, are situated in the back corner of the exhibit. Promotional materials for the exhibit feature Walker, Weems and Simpson, as well as Oswaldo Vigas and Dawoud Bey, however the decision to group these artists together in the back of the exhibit seems to marginalize them. The degree to which these artists are highlighted in the exhibit description, museum signage, and on the website, makes it seem as if these artists are selected as “tokens” rather than celebrated for their artistic merit.

untitled 1980.pmg

Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, Untitled, 1980, courtesy Grand Rapids Art Museum

For other artworks, their placement, and lack of information is problematic. For example, Edward S. Curtis’s photograph Canyon de Chelly (1904) and Frederic Remington’s drawing Indian Boys Running a Foot Race (1890), are located in the first room just left of the entrance. Curtis’ photograph is hung above Remington’s, and the two are placed between two large paintings of birds, by Mark Catesby and John James Audubon, and Lilla Cabot Perry‘s In the Studio (1895), depicting a white woman at her desk, which seems confusing and out of place, as other pieces seemed to be grouped by subject matter, time period/art movement, or medium. Curtis is known for taking it upon himself to document of the Native American race, before they “died out.” Signage corresponding to these works, indicate nothing of the fact that Curtis’ subjects were often staged, thus reflecting how he believed they should be presented to the public, without regard for the reality of Native Americans culture or how they perceived themselves. The inclusion of this information would have provided a catalyst for discussion regarding falsehood of representation of Native Americans by a non-native, and challenge the veracity of documentary photography as a medium. I believe this description could have been (and should have been) included, particularly since other artworks, like those in the side-by-side comparisons, had basic content descriptions.

While hosting a number of problematic concerns regarding diversity, the inclusion of female artists and works by a number of different cultures into the permanent collection, the GRAM is making small step forward. By showcasing artists less familiar to the public, the museum is making conscientious efforts to engage a more diverse audience. The side-by-side comparisons also offer an opportunity for the viewer to engage in discussion about artwork. The baby steps are appreciated and demonstrate that the GRAM can feature artists and artworks in which everyone can find themselves on the walls and feel accepted within the building.

The Grand Rapids Art Museum is located at 101 Monroe Center St NW, Grand Rapids, MI 49503

Hours of Operation:
10AM-5PM Tues., Wed., Fri., Sat.
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12-5PM Sun.

Members and children under 5 – Free
Youth age 6-17 – $6
Adults – $10
Seniors/Students (with ID) – $8

Meijer Free Tuesdays: 10am – 5pm
Meijer Free Thursday Nights: 5pm – 9pm

For more information contact Visitor Services at 616.831.1000 or




[2] I do have an issue with the lack of description and the placement of Rivera’s work. Again, to the uninformed viewer, this sketch, which is not labeled as a sketch, tells them nothing of Rivera’s typical work and places his sketch next to a drawing called Clam Diggers, which is only similar in the pose of the main subjects.

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