A.K. Field Notes – Frederik Meijer Gardens
May 7, 2017
A.K. Field Notes has had the pleasure of experiencing many phenomenal destinations all over the world and today we invite you to expand your cultural perspective with Grand Rapids very own botanic garden, Frederik Meijer Gardens. Located in Grand Rapids, when visiting Meijer Gardens you will find the extraordinary combination of two art forms – horticulture and sculptures. We had the opportunity to sit down with Meijer Gardens President, David Hooker, for a behind the scenes look at what it is like to be a part of destination that attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.
How did your first chapter at Frederik Meijer Gardens begin?
When my partners and I sold our company, I was on a Board of Trustees that was dedicated to supporting Meijer Gardens and one of the Meijer Gardens Board members asked me if I would be interested in being the Interim Executive Director. Initially Interim role was for only a year while they transitioned, but I was having an absolute blast and after about three and a half months the board asked if I would be interested in a permanent position… I enthusiastically said yes!
I took the title of President and haven’t stopped having fun and loving my career over the last ten years.
Frederik Meijer Gardens has so many aspects… where is the synergy?
Well… Fred Meijer had a huge impact on our culture and often remarked, “Well, we didn’t know what we were doing when we started the Gardens but it turned out okay.” We continue to use the mastery of the understatement… Meijer Gardens turned out okay because we’ve been willing to try things. Something’s haven’t worked out. Other things have worked out great. A great example is our summer concert series. We present music in a sculpture garden setting which is so unique and our concert lineup is mostly rock and roll – it’s our thing. When the amphitheater was first built it was intended for classical music but that didn’t work out so well. But that is okay, because it comes back to Fred’s saying, “We didn’t know what we were doing but it turned out okay.”
We will continue to try, because the core of our mission is the art forms of sculpture and horticulture. Which manifests itself into a thousand different aspects and we will keep exploring those.
What do you consider to be the most significant accomplishment so far of your career at Frederik Meijer Gardens?
Personally, it has been understanding the dream that Fred and Lena Meijer had alongside the early leaders of the organization. The realization of that dream now is a destination that welcomes 750,000 people a year which is pretty extraordinary. It reflects the generosity and mission of Fred and Lena, but in many ways it reflects the generosity of this incredible place called Michigan. The way the whole community has embraced this dream of a botanical garden in a sort of giant bear hug way is just fantastic.
Frederik Meijer Gardens does a wonderful job sharing the story behind the artists. How important is that to the success?
It is very important for our unique mission of combining two art forms together for an amazing experience. When you’re able to understand what an artist is trying to communicate… the artwork really comes alive.
A great example of that is the sculpture in Richard & Helen DeVos Japanese Garden called Sabre Larch Hill by the artist David Nash. It is a sculpture made out of living trees that will take roughly thirty years to fully realize, which is a very rewarding thing for people to see because every year it gets a little bigger and it changes. It is a wonderful example of how Fredrick Meijer Gardens uses one art form, horticulture, to realize the combination of the two art forms horticulture and sculpture.
Another aspect of the Gardens is featuring artists that are cutting edge. Right now we are housing many exhibits by the Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei. This is the first time his work has been shown in a botanical garden and we are very blessed to showcase his conceptual art throughout the Gardens. It is very important that when people come to visit they take the time to read the gallery guide and the didactics on the wall so they truly understand the story behind the artwork.
What has been the most impactful exhibition you have personally visited outside of Meijer Gardens?
I mentioned the artist David Nash and how he did our Sabre Larch Hill sculpture in the Japanese garden. Well, I had the good fortune of visiting The Yorkshire Sculpture Park in England with a team from The Gardens and of the beautiful galleries there, one of the galleries was full of David Nash’s work. I was very, very impressed and I turned to our curator said, “we need to have an exhibition of his work”.
Three years later, we hosted a major exhibition of David Nash’s work and that coincided with the acquisition of the piece now in the Richard & Helen DeVos Japanese Garden.
There has been a lot of buzz about Frederik Meijer Gardens recent announcement of a $115 million dollar expansion… How excited are you personally for this?
Excited is a huge understatement! Everyday I get to come to a botanic garden and sculpture park and advance our mission while connecting with people. Our mission encompasses a lot of elements but in the center of the statement is the word enjoyment. We always strive to promote enjoyment and with this expansion we will continue to bring joy to people.
That concludes this A.K. Field Notes interview. Make sure you visit Frederik Meijer Gardens and experience each exhibit! Click here to read our other A.K. Field Notes features.