GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- Set among trees, streams, waterfalls, hills and meadows, two dozen works by some of the greatest sculptors of the past century have a new, natural home in the outdoors of western Michigan.
The 30-acre Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park expands on a botanical garden that philanthropist and retailer Fred Meijer visualized as a way to showcase the sculptures that he collected over the years. Since the original Frederik Meijer Gardens opening in April 1995, more than 1 million visitors have explored its 125-acres.
Throughout the grounds are more than 100 sculptures, including perhaps the most popular attraction: a 24-foot-high prancing stallion by artist Nina Akamu based on a design sketched out by Leonardo da Vinci.
The statue, said to be the largest bronze equine sculpture in the Western Hemisphere, was dedicated in October 1999.
The sometimes thrilling, sometimes frustrating process of acquiring the magnificent piece stimulated Meijer's interest in fine art and led to his decision to expand the outdoor collection by creating the separate but adjacent sculpture park.
Meijer, whose Walker-based company Meijer Inc. operates 153 supercenters that sell groceries and general merchandise in five Midwestern states, says he set out to ''create the finest sculpture park in the world that we can afford.''
The new park can accommodate about 80 pieces but initially will feature 24 significant works by Auguste Rodin, Henry Moore, Magdalena Abakanowicz and other modern sculptors.
''These are not backyard, Sunday artists. These are world-class international artists and they're household names to anybody that knows anything about sculpture,'' says Benbow Bullock, a sculptor from Vallejo, Calif., who runs a Web site about the world's sculpture parks.
Visitors should notice a difference between many of the statues found in the garden and the works of art installed in the new park. Expect to spend a couple of hours strolling the paths that extend from the botanical garden and wind through the meticulously landscaped sculpture area.
''What's in the sculpture park is intended to be much more intellectually, emotionally, visually challenging,'' says Joe Becherer, curator of sculpture. ''I really see it more as an outdoor museum, an open-air museum.''
In keeping with the natural beauty of the botanical garden, strict attention has been paid to landscaping to ensure that pieces are viewable from several different vantage points. Each piece is on a spot in the park specifically designed to showcase it.
One of the featured artists, Richard Hunt, a Chicagoan with a satellite studio in Benton Harbor, says he has never before been involved in a project where so much planning has gone into a site for one of his works.
''It's the first time that I've ever been accommodated that way, with the sculpture and the site designed collaboratively,'' says Hunt.
His 25-foot-high ''Column of the Free Spirit'' was the first large-scale work commissioned for the park. There's a different story behind the acquisition of each piece, which were variously obtained from museums, private collectors, foundries or other sources.
In the case of Rodin's ''Eve,'' Frederik Meijer Gardens in late 2000 acquired one of 12 statues cast from a plaster model that the artist sculpted in 1881. It had been part of a French family's private collection and never publicly displayed.
Meijer and his staff won't disclose the cost of constructing the sculpture park or acquiring any of its works. However, one casting of ''Eve'' sold for $1 million in November 1998 and another sold for $4.4 million a year later, according to Sotheby's, the international auction house.
''I think it's natural that people want to know, 'Well, how much did that thing cost?' But I would be very concerned that that would be the wrong reason for looking at them,'' says Henry Matthews, director of galleries and collections at Grand Valley State University. He just completed six years as a member of the garden's board of directors and served as co-chairman of its sculpture committee.
Grand Rapids is no stranger to public modern art. The city made national headlines on June 14, 1969, when it dedicated a four-story-tall abstract stabile by Alexander Calder. It was the first sculpture funded by a new public arts program of the National Endowment of the Arts.
The bright red, 42-ton sculpture, which consists of several interconnecting arched panes, is called ''La Grande Vitesse,'' French for ''great swiftness,'' a reference to the Grand River that courses through the heart of Grand Rapids on its way to Lake Michigan.
Initially disliked by many residents of the conservative city, it has long since become a point of community pride and a must-see sight for many out-of-towners.
Peter Secchia, chairman of Universal Forest Products Inc., a leading wood-products company with headquarters in Grand Rapids, predicts the Meijer sculpture park will become a similarly popular attraction.
''It's spectacular, it's wonderful, it's a cultural highlight of the Midwest -- and it's just the beginning,'' he says.
On the Net:
Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park: http://www.meijergardens.org
Meijer Inc.: http://www.meijer.com
Benbow Bullock's sculpture parks: http://www.artnut.com
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