Jhis year, Fred Meijer would have been 100 years old. Next year, Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park will be 25 years old. They are in the midst of a huge expansion project, continuing to grow from the idea of having a small garden behind a new Meijer Thrifty Acres on the Beltline. The new exhibition at Meijer Gardens – which opened this weekend – tells the story of a legacy built over time.
I like to imagine all of this starting, however, at the kitchen table. Fred and Lena talk about their growing grocery empire, from what began with Fred opening a single grocery store with his father, in the midst of the all-time Great Depression. They’re sitting there over a second cup of coffee, figuring out how they can give back to their community by sharing some of the things they love. Lena was passionate about horticulture and wanted a garden for the community. Fred had started collecting sculptures and loved meeting artists. He remained stuck on the traditional formal work of the time, figurative figures and animals in particular.
But over time, Lena’s garden grew into a stellar horticultural marvel, and Fred’s openness to modern and contemporary art and his love of talking to artists, along with his recognition of needing professionals to help him grow – all of which has allowed him to amass a sculpture collection that is one of the best in the country, no hyperbole. The newly opened indoor gallery exhibit, “A National Treasure: Fred Meijer, His Collection and His Legacy,” celebrates how far Meijer Gardens has come.
The gallery itself is full of the biggest names in sculpture today and yesterday. It’s shocking, really: Auguste Rodin to Ai Weiwei, Alexander Calder to Anish Kapoor, Marshall Fredericks to Deborah Butterfield. I often call the outdoor sculpture park “a walk through my art history books”, and this new exhibit creates the same feeling inside, a walk through an art history book. art and a chance to see new works by artists you’ve seen while strolling the gardens during the warmer months.
Perhaps 70-75% of the artwork in the exhibition is part of the permanent collection, and the rest is often loaned by artists and their galleries. These works give us a chance to see the current work of those we might have seen in the gardens, giving us a chance to see how an artist develops their work over time.
Anish Kapoor is a prime example. You may know it more widely for “the bean” in Chicago, actually titled “Cloud Gate.” Or maybe you noticed his piece “Untitled” in the Japanese garden at Meijer Gardens. But hanging, somewhat impossible it seems, on the gallery wall is this immaculate and serene sculpture. This gargantuan floating silver bowl is lined inside with a soft, matte glow of deep purple, almost eggplant. It may not be Instagramable like the bean, but it certainly makes us stop, slow down, and inspect more closely. If we pay attention to our bodily reaction, we will see that our breathing has slowed down, proof of the power of contemplation created by this minimalist piece.
The galleries guide the viewer through Fred’s own progression in art appreciation, with animal and figurative works in the early rooms, to more modern pieces as you move to the back room, where you pass a wooden sculpture by Ai Weiwei to encounter one of the most recent acquisitions, presented for the first time in this exhibition, “New World Map” by El Anatsui, an artist much sought after by all the greats collectors today.
After visiting the exhibition myself, I had the chance to browse and learn more from Laurene Grunwald, the Sculpture Exhibitions Manager, who herself has been at Meijer Gardens for much of the growth. As we discuss the artwork in front of us and Fred Meijer’s progression in art appreciation, she apologizes for the poles in front of some artwork (you know, those little metal ropes to keep you from getting close too close? The bane of my existence, yet I understand their need.).
“The butterflies are coming,” she explains. The Tropical Conservatory, just beyond the inner gallery, is about to be filled with thousands and thousands of butterflies from around the world, my annual hope for the winter. And with those butterflies come thousands upon thousands of curious, not-so-cautious little ones.
I laugh and tell him that chandeliers are important to people like me too, with my background in galleries and museums and art education. I admit that I’m usually the one who stumbles upon a pole unknowingly, not realizing I was getting too close with my own curiosity. And for me, the need for protective measures speaks to the ability to create welcoming and accessible artistic spaces.
That’s the beauty of Fred and Lena marrying their love for plants and art to give back to the community: they’ve created a welcoming space, an honest and high purpose for the whole ‘gathering place’ trend that’s so widespread. But they started where everything authentic, before it became fashionable.
People can come for these butterflies or the Christmas tree display or the concerts. But along the way they encounter beautifully curated works of art, including modern and contemporary art they are unfamiliar with. The lush variety of natural settings outside and the stunning colors on the walls inside, along with so many other curatorial decisions, make us stop and stare, slow down and appreciate something new. Everytime.
I continue my walk with Grunwald, as we venture into the Victorian Conservatory and the Tropical Conservatory, where the exhibition continues beyond the gallery space, and we talk about this incredible legacy.
“No one, I think, imagined how quickly and how extensively the Meijer Gardens would grow,” she says. “Things grew and evolved, and it was definitely driven by where we could take it and what might happen next – we call it ‘The Fred Factor’.”
But Grunwald is also quick to acknowledge that while this The Fred Factor excitement may have kickstarted things, it took an entire community to make it happen.
“They were definitely the driving force and the namesake, and we would never be here without them,” she explains. “But we have so many people in our community supporting and giving to us. It was something incredible.
So go ahead, enjoy the Meijer legacy, read the signs for more history, but remember this is a community legacy. And even though Fred Meijer may be gone, it is our duty to maintain community assets in the arts, for all of us to benefit.
Photos: Courtesy of Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park