Popular Woodland Mall sculpture finds new home in downtown Grand Rapids

"Split Ring" at its new home, 300 Ottawa Ave. in downtown Grand Rapids.
“Split Ring” at its new home, 300 Ottawa Ave. in downtown Grand Rapids.

The 46-year-old building at 300 Ottawa Avenue, NW, received a facelift inside and out, just in time to welcome back a familiar sculpture that held court on its front plaza more than 40 years ago.

 

Split Ring, by noted contemporary sculptor Clement Meadmore, was installed at the 300 Ottawa Building, then known as the Frey Building, as part of a landmark exhibition called Sculpture Off the Pedestal that opened September 8, 1973. The event was the inspiration of Fred A. Myers, then director of the Grand Rapids Art Museum, and it was sponsored by the Women’s Committee of the museum.

 

Sculpture Off the Pedestal & the Women’s Committee of the Grand Rapids Art Museum

 

The Women’s Committee was formed in 1957 to support the museum and to raise money and promote the arts in Grand Rapids.

 

“It was a challenging outlet for talented women of various backgrounds,” says Peggy Bransdorfer, who served a term as its president and co-chaired Sculpture Off the Pedestal with Connie Oosting and Jerry Hazzard. “They could make use of their considerable skills at a time when it was frowned upon for women with children to work outside the home.”

 

Clement Meadmore chose "Split Ring" to be part of the 1973 "Sculpture off the Pedestal" exhibition in downtown Grand Rapids.
Clement Meadmore chose “Split Ring” to be part of the 1973 “Sculpture off the Pedestal” exhibition in downtown Grand Rapids.

Though the 1969 installation of Alexander Calder’s La Grande Vitesse, on the plaza surrounding Grand Rapids City Hall and the Kent County Building, received widely mixed reactions, Fred Myers proposed to members of the Women’s Committee that they organize and sponsor an unprecedented downtown exhibition of large contemporary outdoor sculpture in public spaces. Undaunted by the huge effort it would require, members of the committee voted to take it on. They researched and recommended the artists who would be invited to participate, located sites for the artwork, and set themselves up as liaisons between the artists and local government, business and industry in order to overcome obstacles of money, space, transportation, permits and acceptance of the artists’ work. All fifty committee women were involved from the beginning, and they had a budget of $17,800, which included a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts that the committee had matched.

 

The selected artists were asked to loan one of their sculptures or to create a new piece for the exhibition. Clement Meadmore chose Split Ring, which he had created three years earlier. Robert Murray’s contribution titled Windhover, a steel structure 16 feet long, 14 feet high, and 9 feet wide, had been fabricated in 1970. When it arrived, it was clear that it needed painting. The artist relayed his color selection and Peggy says she and Connie, “…got our ladders and rollers and painted it!”

 

Each artist was assigned a team of two or three members from the Women’s Committee. With their far-reaching contacts, the women recruited local businesses to provide fabrication for seven sculptures, using processes supervised by the artists, and to provide transportation for both the artists and five sculptures already created, all of which greatly reduced costs.

 

“We knew the local businesses were very receptive,” remembers Peggy, “and we got nearly everything donated, including flights on corporate planes to bring the artists to town.”

 

“These women were so courageous,” says Joseph Becherer, vice president and chief curator of sculpture at Frederik Meijer Gardens. “A project of this scope is absolutely monumental, and it was an extraordinary undertaking!”

 

In addition to all of their liaison work, members of the committee generated tremendous enthusiasm for the exhibition, produced a fine catalog, and housed the artists in their homes. In late summer of 1973, some 35 years before ArtPrize would come on the scene, the public watched the remarkable process of installing twelve contemporary public works of art clustered on and around the block bordered by Lyon, Monroe, Michigan and Ottawa. Some were temporary sculptures made of wood and designed to be taken down at the end of the exhibition. Grand Rapids Project “X”, the first permanent large-scale outdoor work by artist Robert Morris, was completed in Lookout Park in 1974.

 

There was a bit of discord about the art, and that was to be expected. It was more avant-garde than many of the city’s residents were used to. Peggy remembers that some thought it didn’t complement the Calder. Still, the exhibition was tremendously popular, and the Women’s Committee was asked to extend it. The initial three-month commitment stretched into eleven months.

 

After the "Sculpture Off the Pedestal" exhibition, "Split Ring" was sold to the Taubman Group, which owned Woodland Mall, and was installed inside the mall in a pond in front of what was then Hudson’s. Some years later, the sculpture was moved to another location in the mall.
After the “Sculpture Off the Pedestal” exhibition, “Split Ring” was sold to the Taubman Group, which owned Woodland Mall, and was installed inside the mall in a pond in front of what was then Hudson’s. Some years later, the sculpture was moved to another location in the mall.

All the works that were not temporary were for sale. Committee members encouraged the purchase of what Connie Oosting described as the “innovative and daring art” so the sculptures could remain in Grand Rapids. In Connie’s message in the 1973 catalog for Sculpture Off the Pedestal, she wrote, “These sculptures offer the man on the street an epiphany, the surprise of the uplift of the spirit in the midst of an otherwise pragmatic environment…an alternative to the usual visual pollution encountered in most American cities.”

 

Three of the sculptures stayed in Grand Rapids. Untitled by Dale Eldred, is located on the main campus of Grand Valley State University. Project “X” is a permanent installation in Lookout Park that prevents the hillside from eroding and provides a path connecting the hilltop with recreational facilities below. Split Ring was sold to the Taubman Group, which owned Woodland Mall, and was installed inside the mall in a pond in front of what was then Hudson’s. Later, when new mall owners talked of removing Split Ring, there was public outcry from many who had come to enjoy it and think of it as “ours.” Split Ring was, instead, moved to another location in the mall.

 

“I am thrilled that Split Ring is coming back downtown,” says Mary Ann Keeler, who joined the Women’s Committee in the early 1970s upon learning that its members were organizing Sculpture Off the Pedestal. “It is important that people see contemporary sculpture around them, that they see the art of today, as they go about their life and their everyday tasks.”

 

Mary Ann remembers being inspired by the image of Alexander Calder’s large red sculpture against the backdrop of the tall black buildings downtown. “The Calder was the start of bringing contemporary sculpture into downtown Grand Rapids, and Sculpture Off the Pedestal got the momentum going,” she says, and adds with enthusiasm, “It’s amazing how one thing leads to another!”

 

The 300 Ottawa Building

 

The office building at 300 Ottawa was built by Edward Frey three years before the launch of Sculpture Off the Pedestal. It was designed to be the “back of the house” to support operations at the Union Bank Building at 200 Ottawa Avenue, now the Chase Building.

 

DP Fox Ventures, the holding company of Dan and Pamella DeVos, purchased the side-by-side 200 and 300 Ottawa Buildings in 1998. Because 300 Ottawa lacked a clear identity and purpose in recent years, DP Fox launched a stunning renovation that pays tribute to the building’s mid-century roots and includes the addition of a dramatic two-story lobby; updates to the entrances and exterior facades, common areas, restrooms and elevator cabs; and integration of technology.

 

Partway through renovations, a discussion arose about the possibility of Dan and Pamella acquiring Split Ring from the Woodland Mall owners and returning it to the plaza at 300 Ottawa where it made its Grand Rapids debut. Both Dan and Pamella are recognized locally and nationally for their support of the arts, so the connection was logical. Pamella has served in many capacities with the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM), including co-chairing major exhibitions of artists ranging from Picasso to Perugino to the Dutch masters. She and Dan served as co-chairs of the GRAM’s Inaugural Ball and Centennial Gala in 2010, where Pamella was honored as one of the ten most influential women of GRAM’s first 100 years. Moreover, in recognition of her many years of service to GRAM, Pamella was named an Honorary Life Trustee in 2010. Pamella also serves as Vice President on the Board of Trustees at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, playing a key role in the planning and development of the new Whitney Museum in Manhattan.

 

With their strong background in the arts, both Dan and Pamella were excited about the prospect of acquiring Split Ring, and so were the mall’s owners. An architect and structural engineer confirmed that the plaza site would support the 4,000 pound structure. Agreement was reached, and plans were put in place to move Split Ring from Woodland Mall to the 300 Ottawa plaza in June.

 

“Pam and I are delighted to be able to bring Meadmore’s wonderful sculpture back downtown, to a prime location right across from the Calder, and to honor the pioneering work of the Women’s Committee,” said Dan DeVos. “The timing coincides with significant renovations to 300 Ottawa, and it all came together perfectly.”

 

“As a city, we embrace the value and importance of public art,” said Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss. “The return of this beautiful sculpture to its original location further enhances our downtown and continues our strong tradition of providing access to art for everyone.”

 

David Frey, whose father built 300 Ottawa, agrees. “There is growing recognition of the role of public art in the urban experience, and this is another way in which this great Midwestern city is distinguishing itself!” he says. “Public art brings intellectual and visual stimulation to an area. It is provocative, and it adds variety and energy. Public art is an investment, in a very real way, in the economic development of a city.”

 

Split Ring has been a distinct part of Woodland Mall’s indoor landscape for more than four decades. Those who were introduced to Split Ring while shopping there as teenagers grew up to share its striking presence with their children.

“We are thrilled that the Split Ring sculpture will remain in the local Grand Rapids community,” said Tony DeLuccia, general manager of Woodland Mall. “We hope that area residents will enjoy and appreciate its beauty as Woodland Mall shoppers have over the years.”

 

Clement Meadmore and Split Ring

 

Clement Meadmore was born February 9, 1929 in Melbourne, Australia and spent most of his life in the United States. He began his career as a furniture designer and evolved into a sculptor who was recognized most for his massive outdoor steel sculptures. He was also an amateur drummer and he loved jazz, which is evident in the names of many of his sculptures. The artist’s work is characteristic of the minimalist school of sculpture that thrived in the 1960s and 1970s in the U.S., when artists were striving to pare back art to clean lines and basic shapes.

 

“Minimalism followed the commercialism of Pop Art and the visual chaos of Abstract Expressionism,” says Joseph Becherer. “It was seen as a way of cleansing the art world and bringing it back to its most straightforward forms. Artists worked with geometry and with a very limited color basis. Black became a signature for Clement Meadmore.”

 

Split Ring was fabricated of Corten steel, which is a weathering steel that will not corrode. While Clement Meadmore’s works were usually designed to sit flat on the ground, Split Ring will be installed on a new base on the 300 Ottawa plaza to ensure it can be seen from the street.

 

Clement Meadmore died in Manhattan in 2005.

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