La Grande Vitesse is an expansive, eye-catching steel sculpture, painted in the artist's signature Calder Red, that measures 54 feet long, by 43 feet high, by 30 feet wide.
It was created by Alexander Calder in 1969, and is often simply referred to by locals as "The Calder.'' Its formal name translates roughly into "the great swiftness," a reference to the river flowing through the city's heart.
Located on the Calder Plaza in front of the Grand Rapids City Hall, the sculpture serves as a distinctive landmark and symbol of the city. Its likeness can be found on most things related to the city, from its letterhead, to its street signs, to its city vehicles.
Technically speaking, the sculpture is known in the art world as a "stabile'' - a stationary sculpture that uses multiple flat planes to give the appearance ofvolume and movement.
Before Calder began work on the sculpture, he studied the architectural plans, scale, and materials of the buildings adjacent to the site. He designed a sculpture that responded well to the plaza and the surrounding architecture. The sculpture was also designed to provide a dramatically different view from each corner of the square.
The project was first conceived in 1967, when the city of Grand Rapids was planning a new city hall to help bring the blighted area back to life. A request for funding from the fledging federal National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) resulted in the agency's first project in its public arts initiative - a grant of $45,000 to the city of Grand Rapids.
Nancy Mulnix, who co-chaired the sculpture project with Peter Wege, retired vice chairman of Steelcase, and her committee then raised the additional $83,000 needed to complete the project. Alexander Calder, considered one of our country's preeminent artists and sculptors, was then selected to create the first civic sculpture financed by both the federal government and private funds.
The nearly complete sculpture arrived in May of 1969 - 42 tons of art in a series of enormous crates. The 27 separate sections of the sculpture still needed to be bolted and welded together, and cranes lifted the towering pieces into place. The entire assembly process took five days, after which the vivid Calder Red paint was applied, proclaiming the project complete.
While the sculpture tends to evoke a range of reactions and comments from onlookers - from "distinctive,'' to "monstrosity,'' to "way out'' - it served its intended purpose. It not only helped revitalize the area, but it also sparked the city's interest in art and led to a new art museum, symphony hall and a civic theater soon after.
It's also been said by those involved with the project that it gave the community a positive attitude that "anything is possible.'' According to City Historian Gordon Olson, "It led to a change in attitude so that the assumption now is that every good community project should include a piece of public art.''
In honor of the Calder sculpture's birthday, the City of Grand Rapids celebrates the event with an annual arts festival, which encompasses ten city blocks and is attended by a half a million people.