Text: Brenna Buckwald // Photography: GFIA Marketing
“For us, and for many people, the airport is the front door to the community,” said Stephen Clark, director of commercial development at Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
When traveling through the skies to the Grand Rapids area, whether it is for work, a golf trip, or experiencing ArtPrize in the fall, often the first location people arrive at is the Gerald R. Ford International Airport. Although the airport’s primary function is to connect passengers to destinations worldwide, the space represents the community of West Michigan, and in doing so, is pushing ahead with innovative ways to become a community space as much as it is a welcoming hub for visitors and travel.
In 2017, the Gerald R. Ford International Airport partnered with Frey Foundation—a nonprofit organization that focuses its efforts toward building community, supporting children and families, encouraging community arts, and fostering a healthy environment—to launch the GFIA Art Program.
A committee made up of four representatives appointed by the airport president and chief executive officer, as well as two representatives appointed by the Frey Foundation, oversees the art program, which instills both permanent and rotating exhibits at the airport. Not only does the art program assist in developing spaces at the airport to add visual appeal, warmth, and better represent West Michigan, but also it supports local artists, art program students, and institutions in the community.
“The idea was to put together a committee and go out and find art that made sense and represented West Michigan, its values and ideals, and really support those artists,” Clark said.
“It creates a sense of place. Through the art program we bring in that critical element of a community, of artistry and creativity, and resiliency as well,” Clark added.
Many notable art installations at the airport have been a product of the art program, such as a sculpture unveiled in April of 2021 called “Aankobiisinging Eshki-kakamigak,” or “Connection to Creation,” made by Jason Quigno, an Anishinaabe sculptor. This art piece was carved from black granite and Indiana limestone, honoring Native American heritage with symbolism representing Anishinaabe teachings. In September of 2020, the airport also revealed a whimsical 80-foot mural called “Chickens Don’t Fly Too Much,” by folk artist Reb Roberts.
The art program adds joy for those visiting the airport during their travels, and Gerald R. Ford International Airport has also taken strides to become a community space outside of strictly travel-needs. With the aircraft viewing park, first opened to the public at its current location at 4820 Kraft Avenue SE in 1995 and renovated to include all the amenities that it has today in 2017, families can sit near the runway and watch airplanes take off and land.
“The viewing park is an airplane watcher’s dream. It is a community park, so it is open to the public, there is no cost of admission,” Clark said. “It is actually the closest you can get to a commercial runway in the United States.”
The $1.12 million renovation that took place in 2017 was in partnership with Cascade Community Foundation and included the installation of much of the park’s current features that make it so popular amongst families and large groups. Some of these highlights include a pavilion, permanent restrooms, a filtered drinking fountain, benches and picnic tables, and a parking lot expansion from 56 spots to 104, with an additional four bus parking spots, allowing for school and tour groups to visit the park as well.
The 3,000-square-foot Airport Viewing Park was designed by Mathison | Mathison Architects of Grand Rapids, with contractor Owen Ames Kimball serving as the construction team.
Clark noted that they have begun to bring food trucks to the park for special events, with hopes of making the park more of a community destination for both people who live locally, and visitors of the area to enjoy.
“We are trying to get folks to come to the airport not just to fly out, or to bring a loved one home, but to also just be a part of this community and this anchor of the community,” Clark said.