Beginner’s guide to West Michigan museums

One of the many ironies and conceptual quirks of ArtPrize is that the “radically open” contest that has proved disruptive in the art world’s traditional hierarchy of galleries and museums also draws enormous crowds to… museums. Maybe art is ideally appreciated in a setting curated by people who have spent years of study and professional work in their field? But who’s to say.

Either way, as Grand Rapids girds itself for the coming ArtPrize frenzy, we humbly suggest making first stops at some of the city’s fine cultural institutions, all prominent venues and (it turns out) all actually open the rest of the year too. Here’s a handy beginners’ field guide to museums, some art-centric and some not, all over the West.


Grand Rapids Art Museum

101 Monroe Center NW;

This jewel of downtown Grand Rapids next year will celebrate a decade in its current location adjacent to Rosa Parks Circle, where it opened as the first LEED-certified art museum in the United States. The GRAM beat ArtPrize to the “is this art?” debate when it installed its signature work, a 26-foot-tall two-tone parallelogram titled “Blue White” by late painter Ellsworth Kelly (short answer: definitely art). The GRAM excels at public engagement through programs such as its seasonal GRAM on the Green outdoor concert series and regular Saturday drop-in events. Its ArtPrize 8 exhibition, “Past/Present/Future,” is open Sept. 1-Oct. 30.

Grand Rapids Public Museum

272 Pearl St. NW;

Unmissable with its iconic carousel along the west bank of the Grand River, the Public Museum achieves the “something for everyone” ideal of any museum. In its more than 160 years as part of Grand Rapids’ cultural landscape, the museum has claimed various homes — including its longtime site on Jefferson Ave. SE, where several creepy-as-hell dioramas remain — but since 1994 has occupied its current spacious abode, loaded with exhibits exploring history, science and regional culture. The Robot Zoo, which depicts wildlife as supersized interactive robots, is open through Sept. 18; the exhibition of three-dimensional ArtPrize entries opens Sept. 21.

Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum

303 Pearl St. NW;

Both a required stop for Grand Rapids visitors and an institution longtime locals know they ought to dutifully visit (but just haven’t gotten around to yet), the Ford Museum honors the life and legacy of our 38th POTUS, buried nearby. The recently remodeled facility includes exhibits highlighting Ford’s early years in Grand Rapids, his career in the Navy and Congress and a recreation of Ford’s Oval Office. Take a break from reading your friends’ campaign-related Facebook rants and visit sometime between now and Election Day.

Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts

2 West Fulton St.;

Grand Rapids’ destination for cutting-edge interdisciplinary art has amplified its presence in (and direct engagement with) the community since moving into its spacious new location five years ago. Approaching its 40th anniversary, the UICA continues to fill its galleries with boundary-pushing contemporary art, show an impressive lineup of new-release indie and art films, and exhibit some of the most reliably thought-provoking ArtPrize entries. UICA’s 2016 ArtPrize exhibition, “FUTURE TALK,” presents digital and new media works from 17 artists; meanwhile, the “superusted” exhibition of new work by Midwestern artists will run through late October.

Grand Rapids Children’s Museum

11 Sheldon Ave. NE;

It’s hard to imagine an institution with a more agreeable mission statement than the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum, which is that play is healthy, play is transformative, play is a right and play benefits families and people of all ages. It’s emphatically pro-play, something we can all get behind. GRCM offers a dizzying variety of ways to scratch that itch and there’s no better place in West Michigan to spend a rainy afternoon with your kids.

Kalamazoo Institute of Arts

314 S. Park St., Kalamazoo;

Closing in on a century of nurturing art appreciation and education in Kalamazoo, the KIA houses a rich permanent collection of American paintings and sculptures, ceramics, photography, African-American art, pre-Columbian gold and globe-spanning 3-D work. It curates a diverse roster of visiting exhibitions which now include Chul Hyun Ahn, Renee Stout, Fred Wessel and Barbara Takenaga. “Scaled Up: Sculpture By Marcia Wood” opens Oct. 1 and runs through the end of the year.

Kalamazoo Valley Museum

230 N. Rose St., Kalamazoo;

This hands-on, kids-of-all-ages museum focuses heavily on science, history and technology and offers a variety of classes and workshops, a planetarium and a theater for films and live music. The museum celebrates the 50th anniversary of Kalamazoo Valley Community College with a free month-long commemorative exhibit all September.

Air Zoo

6151 Portage Road, Portage;

If it’s man-made and it flies, you’ll learn about it at the Air Zoo, which displays rides, simulators and more than 50 historic aircraft, honoring the history of aviation. “POPnology,” an exhibit exploring the relationship between technology and pop culture, runs through the beginning of October.

Holland Museum

31 W. 10th St., Holland;

There are still a few days left (until Sept. 4) to catch the downtown museum’s “Say Yes to Michigan” interactive exhibit, which pays tribute to classic Michigan road trips.

Muskegon Museum of Art

296 W. Webster Ave., Muskegon;

Along with its widely respected permanent collection, Muskegon’s must-visit art museum now hosts an exhibition of works inspired by the colors of beer, so, yeah, count us in!

Gilmore Car Museum

6865 Hickory Road, Hickory Corners;

Located just northeast of Kalamazoo, the Gilmore Car Museum, the largest of its kind, honors the American auto industry with a collection of about 400 vehicles that span more than a century of automotive history.