Day 14: Calder Plaza

I planned a national conference in Grand Rapids before I up and quit my job. When I was collaborating with the Marketing Specialist about a conference logo, we both thought of the monumental bright red Calder scupture that stands in the middle of the city. When I sent the logo to my conference-planning counterpart at the corporate office, she said it was great, “only what is that red squiggly thing?”



Our city logo, courtesy of City of Grand Rapids

As a Grand Rapidian, I see that “red squiggly thing” constantly. It’s in our city logo. It’s on customized t-shirts. Since I have been here, it’s been the symbol for the city, and I never thought to question it.

But now I’m starting to wonder why a red squiggly thing IS the symbol for our city. What does it mean? Why is that statue even there?

And what I’ve discovered is a history of controversy and scandal.

Grand Rapids likes to claim a lot of titles. We are Beer City. We are Furniture City. We were the first city to put fluoride in our water.

We also pat ourselves on the back for being an art-centered city, as we obnoxiously and flamboyantly display with our annual ArtPrize competition in the fall. But apparently we’ve been Art City for longer than I knew. Now I’ve learned that we were also the first city to use the federal funds of the National Endowment for the Arts to install a sculpture as part of an urban renewal project in 1969.


We had the funds before we had the artist. And some people were upset that Alexander Calder was chosen as the artist for this project. In fact, the woman largely responsible for getting Calder involved received hate mail and had a gun shot at her house on the day of the dedication. Many people threw eggs and painted graffiti on the sculpture after its completion.

Here is a rather entertaining quote from a disgruntled citizen: “I think the whole concept of modern art is a big spoof…And after Calder gets his (money) and goes back to France, some evening he’ll be sitting in some pub and saying, ‘Boy, did I hoodwink those guys over in Grand Rapids.’” The same citizen also called the statue “a horrible example of nothing.”


It’s understandable that not all people understand abstract art. I’ll be the first to admit that the Calder sculpture, in my opinion, is first and foremost a red squiggly thing. For one reason or another, people quieted down about it eventually. I suppose they realized it was already done and over and there wasn’t anything they could do about it anymore. I can imagine their frustration, though, when a sculpture is dedicated to represent the city that they love and they feel it doesn’t represent the city at all or, worse, doesn’t represent them at all.

I’m happy that the city has mostly adopted the sculpture now as a representation of who we are. Its title La Grande Vitesse, means “the great swiftness” or, in other words, “Grand Rapids.” It literally represents the name of the city, the lifeblood of the city. But it also, in my opinion, represents the people of Grand Rapids, people who I’ve always considered to be swift in many ways. We are fast-moving, we adapt to change, we are smart and deliberate about the moves we make. Perhaps Calder and his large red squiggly thing is what inspired us to adopt these characteristics in the first place. Or at least I can rest assured that it serves as a reminder to uphold these characteristics.


All photos courtesy of MLive.