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Review: Michigan Land of Riches

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Asian Carp exhibit at Michigan: Land of Riches

Asian Carp exhibit at Michigan: Land of Riches /rachel f. t. foss

Back in February, at a panel organized by the GRAM, Fred Sebulske, the founder of the Actors’ Theatre in Grand Rapids, bemoaned the poor coverage of local culture by the press in the city. He pointed out that the John Mayer concert at the Van Andel garnered multiple stories — not like Mayer needs any more — while local theatre openings struggled for features, for attention. When Sebulske argued with the newspaper’s editor about the imbalance, the editor told him, “But John Mayer is what our readers care about.” Sebulske’s answer: your readers care about what you tell them to care about.

I moved to Grand Rapids in the fall of 2008, and I’m as disappointed as Sebulske in the city paper, but for different reasons. Every paper thrives on features and previews of cultural events, but they’ll always be puff pieces. What I miss most are genuine critical voices: funny, arch, specific voices. Just this morning, when I read another four-star Grand Rapids Symphony review (you know the concert’s a dog when it's given 3 ½ stars) or a kindly, three-star review of the Actors’ Theatre latest "The Drawer Boy" (which I saw the same night), I decided to do something about it.

The reviews I’ve wanted to read acknowledge the idea that a truly excellent city culture can only develop when strong, thoughtful critical voices develop with it. Performers, artists, writers need a feedback loop.

Michigan: Land of Riches, installed at the Old Public Museum space, is curated by Paul Amenta and the best civic-art experiment I’ve seen in years.

I met with Amenta, a professor at Kendall, during the development process of this exhibit, when the museum looked like a refuge during a war: empty dioramas, heaps of glass-eyed animals in wooden crates, piles of gilded cherubs... I couldn’t imagine what this show would become.

But his achievement here, along with nearly two hundred local faculty and students, is astounding. Every room, every vitrine in the old museum place has been converted in a creative opportunity: a room on weaponry turned the “arms race” into literal doll and mannequin arms, accompanied by guns converted into delicate pillows. Another purported to be the recovered evidence of a UFO crash, including shrapnel. Another resurrected the museum’s dusty, talking translucent human figure to make a meditation on the evisceration of the human body in the name of science. The show had a welcome sense of humor, with careful, subtle reworkings of museum signage into cheeky surprises (like the placard on tooth farming in Michigan). The Whitney Biennial, in New York, wishes it had this much fun. Even the program was a thing of beauty.

I missed seeing more live performance incorporated into the show, and I heard there was beer on the crowded opening night, which would have taken Land of Riches over the top. The partnership with the public museum and local universities must have required serious diplomacy and planning but the outcome was extraordinarily polished and coherent. Amenta has been behind some of the ACTIVESITE events in town but is now on his own, and I’m looking forward to what he transforms next.

The only bad news about Michigan: Land of Riches is that it closed Saturday afternoon.

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I appreciate what you've got to say about Grand Rapids needing a stronger critical dialogue around the arts. It's something I've been thinking about for a while. I thought you might appreciate this quote from John Bentley Mays, a critic based in Toronto:

"Art criticism is a form of city-building, quite as much as urban design, architecture or community activism. It is a contribution to urban intelligence, a strengthening of the public space in which citizens meet and recognize each other as parts of the civic whole."

Kevin: awesome.

I'm printing that quote and putting it on the fridge.

Thanks for reading -- and let's do it: let's make the Rapidian the place for it. We could blow up the Opinion section with actual opinion.



We should have coffee sometime and chat about blowing up the opinion section. Shoot me an e-mail ([email protected]).

Well done . . . the impact,however, is that now I'm frustrated that I missed it! Well, in a "land of riches" I guess there will be new opportunities . . . I look forward to reading more and thanks for the commentary, Austin.

I have had several conversations with the press and mlive staff and it comes down to money. They do not believe that there is enough interest in visual art and design reviews to generate the readership/traffic to pay for the position.

My thought, and this is coming from a Village Voice alum: the city needs a decent alternative weekly. The Chicago Reader, Time Out NYC, The Stranger...I mean, THAT'S what I want to read.

The city used to have a weekly newspaper, "The Interpreter,"  years ago -- maybe 1960s-1970s - which was really critical of many City Hall decisions and other community happenings.  I think George Welsh, now long gone, was instrumental in the publication of an alternative newspaper as well. As for the exhibit at the Museum, let's hope the ideas generated by visitors to The Land of Riches provide some great suggestions.  It's such a great place with great "stuff" to be wasted as a storage facility.  I personally think it'd be a great meeting place for community engagement-type meetings, such as the Festival and parade planning meetings, monthly meetings for GR Historical Society and the GR Historical Commission, guest speakers, etc. and any event that celebrates the vibrancy of our great city - past, present and future.