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High Brow/Low Bräu: Grand Rapids, Mich.

High Brow/Low Bräu, Grand Rapids, Mich.

High Brow/Low Bräu, Grand Rapids, Mich.

Fine art and craft beer pair well and make for a splendid trip to Michigan's second largest city.

Part I. Grand Rapids, Mich.

In 1969, Alexander Calder’s sculpture, La Grande Vitesse (above), arrived at its permanent home in downtown Grand Rapids, Mich. The 43-foot tall, abstract, bright red sculpture had taken up residence there thanks to a mix of private funding and a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts, its first ever for a public artwork. Construction of the stabile (the technical term for the type of work) took five days and brought with it much fanfare, not all of it positive. In fact, one exceptionally opposed resident called it “a horrible example of nothing.”

However, much has changed since 1969 in regards to the city's attitude toward modern art since. In fact, the shift has been so drastic that La Grande Vitesse now adorns the city’s seal and Grand Rapids has become home to numerous world-class artistic endeavors.

The Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park continues the city’s embrace of outdoor art with its impressive collection of works by artists like Richard Serra, Keith Haring, Claes Oldenburg, and Anish Kapoor (his work, Untitled, pictured above) spread out over its 158 acres of gorgeously landscaped grounds.

The Grand Rapid Arts Museum, helmed by Director Dana Friis-Hansen, is the world’s first LEED® Gold Certified museum of its kind and houses a permanent collection with notable works of world-famous and celebrated local artists. And, Maya Lin (otherwise notable for her design of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.) has created an experiential space that explores the three states of water in Rosa Parks Circle, adjacent to the museum.

Architecture enthusiasts will revel in the extraordinary opportunity to experience the Meyer May Housea Prairie-style home meticulously restored to its original design by furniture maker Steelcase, exactly as Frank Lloyd Wright envisioned it. Tours are conducted Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m. and Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

If you happen to be in Grand Rapids between September 23 and October 11, be sure to check out a few of the 1,500 works of art spread out over three square miles of the city, all competing for the coveted ArtPrize, the largest competition of its kind in the world with over half a million dollars given away in prizes. Anyone over 18 can enter and any space within the ArtPrize boundaries can be a venue in which to show them. These pairings can make for some pretty interesting marriages of art and environment such as artist Sarah Grant’s eight place finisher from 2009, The Furniture City (photo below).

If you’d like to see the winning work from that same year, Ran Ortner’s triptych, Open Water No. 24, make a reservation at Reserve Wine & Food where it hangs on one wall. As the restaurant's name would imply, Reserve has an extensive selection of wines by the glass (or bottle) and offers a variety of flights if you hanker to sample a couple different varietals. The farm-to-table menu has elevated comfort food like the summer hash with pork belly or a meatloaf wrapped in caul fat.

Of course, not everything in town is highfalutin. Grand Rapids has twice been crowned “Beer City USA” for its rapidly brewing craft beer scene. Founders Brewing Co. (photo above), one of the largest craft breweries in the world and maker of All Day IPA and Dirty Bastard, has a taproom offering up beer flights and tasty pub fare while allowing guests to see where their libations are actually made. If that alone doesn’t frost your mug, there’s also HopCat or Grand Rapids Brewing Company to explore.

If you prefer the more traditional trappings of a gay bar for imbibing, The Apartment Lounge, exudes the comfortable, relaxed vibe of a locals bar and has been in business for more than forty years. Or, for something a bit more up tempo, Rumors nightclub keeps things shaking with live DJs and other nightly entertainment.

Not entirely sure why, but a beer (or, to a lesser extent, a martini) buzz often leads to a hot dog craving. And, when one hits, beeline to Yesterdog. This Grand Rapids institution gets quickly packed with an after-last call rush but no need to worry about waiting in a long line because there is no line. Push your way up to the counter and yell your order out to a gang of surly college kids who somehow manage to correctly sling out orders of Yesterdogs, Ultradogs, Killerdogs, and more, in rapid succession.

Having merely maimed your waistline up to this point, go ahead and finish it off at Cakabakery, whose charmingly delectable desserts (champagne cupcakes anyone?) recently competed on the Food Network’s “Cupcake Wars."

Where to Stay:

J.W. Marriott Grand Rapids
This gleaming tower, located squarely downtown, offers 23 floors of smartly-appointed luxury rooms and suites perfect for business or leisure travel. The lobby really comes alive on Friday and Saturday nights when the downstairs bar, mixology (with which it shares its space) draws quite a crowd for its live bands. (If you want a cheap thrill, travel up to one of the higher floors and peer down over the railing for an unobstructed and vertiginous view to the ground level.)

For more information on Grand Rapids, or any other destination in Michigan, visit

Tomorrow High Brow/Low Bräu, part ii: Saugatuck/Douglas, Mich.

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Bryan Van Gorder