Meijer Gardens secures place in global arts scene during 20th year
Japanese garden and one-of-a-kind installations lead to record attendance.
The 20th anniversary season of Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park has seen it all — and so have more than 720,000 visitors.
The fiscal year for Meijer Gardens finishes up at the end of the month, but CEO David Hooker said even if it had ended in August, an all-time attendance record would have been set.
Previously, 2010 held the record with 686,222 people through the gates.
Hooker said an attendance surge was expected, but the turnout to see the new features of the property was greater than anticipated. From new, one-of-a-kind art installations to a new exhibit, 2015 has been one of the best years in the attraction’s two decades.
The record numbers are an indication Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park is fulfilling its mission to share art and culture with the general population, Hooker said.
“It all goes back to a love story with Fred and Lena and their love of sculptures and landscapes,” Hooker said. “They loved it when people connected with their mission.”
A three-part exclusive exhibit called “Splendors of Shiga: Treasures of Japan” began in January. The exhibit saw more than 60 artifacts dating back to the 10th century through a partnership with Shiga — Michigan’s sister state in Japan. Many of the artifacts had never been seen outside of Japan prior to the exhibit, which ran through August.
April saw Meijer Gardens unveil a large sculpture by renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Built from 99 iron pieces, “Iron Tree” stands 22 feet tall and 22 feet wide, appearing as a living tree from a distance.
In June, Meijer Gardens opened the Richard & Helen DeVos Japanese Garden. The $22 million project was one of Fred Meijer’s last wishes before he died in 2011.
Hoichi Kurisu designed the eight-acre garden that will continue to change for years to come, offering guests a new version every time they step through the gate. Guests will always be treated to traditional Japanese garden elements such as waterfalls, elevation changes, boulders and a Zen-style garden.
“Gardens are never really finished — it’s a living thing that will continue to take shape and grow for generations to come,” said Steve LaWarre, Meijer Gardens’ director of horticulture.
June saw record attendance numbers as more than 85,000 visitors came through the doors. That number was 25 percent higher than any other June, including the 2010 Dale Chihuly exhibit and the 2004 opening of the Lena Meijer Children’s Garden.
“Since the Japanese Garden is a permanent addition to Meijer Gardens, we’re very much looking forward to seeing more visitors throughout all the seasons,” LaWarre said. “This garden’s appearance will really change with the fall colors, when blanketed in snow and with fresh new growth in the spring.”
The growing numbers of guests were there again in July, when more than 101,000 people walked through the gates. The increase in attendance was felt on a day-to-day basis, Hooker said. It was the best month in the organization’s history, again largely credited to the Japanese Garden.
Hooker said he hopes visitors continue to experience the rest of what the gardens have to offer.
“When planning a project of this magnitude to fit within our unique mission, you always hope it’s well received, but to see the amount of support from guests all over the world is overwhelmingly remarkable,” Hooker said. “We sincerely hope that people continue to experience all our gardens, art and all the other offerings.”
August saw a dip, down to “only” 93,000 guests. The number took Meijer Gardens over 250,000 visitors in a three-month span, however, and broke summer attendance records.
The summer also was bolstered by the annual concert series of nationally known performers held in the outdoor amphitheater. The Fifth Third Bank Summer Concert Series sold 53,200 tickets, or 93 percent of possible tickets, including 23 sellouts in 30 shows. The eight Tuesday Evening Music Club shows, which host local musicians, saw 17,095 guests, an increase from 11,600 people in nine shows last year.
The venue’s first comedy show, the Aug. 26 Brian Regan performance, was a success, selling out all 1,900 tickets.
“We’ve had an extraordinary summer with so many amazing things to celebrate our 20th anniversary,” Hooker said. “What’s even more amazing is not only the number of the guests we’ve welcomed, but that they’ve traveled from all over the world to experience what Meijer Gardens has to offer.”
The international theme to the 20th anniversary will continue into ArtPrize with Tradition and Innovation: Japanese Ceramics Now.
The exhibit features 25 pieces by master ceramic artists from Japan. It’s the first one-nation venue for ArtPrize. The exhibit is co-curated by the Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park in Shiga and debuts in Grand Rapids before traveling to venues in Japan in 2016.
To curate the exhibit, a call for submissions went out across Japan, and nearly 300 submissions were received. Eight art experts and two Meijer Gardens representatives narrowed the field to the final 25.
Also beginning last week was the fall exhibit Chrysanthemums and More! which runs through Nov. 1. The exhibit focuses on the historical significance of chrysanthemums to cultures, including the Japanese. This season’s featured color will be yellow, in honor of the Japanese Garden and the Japanese culture that uses images of golden yellow blooms on the imperial seal of the emperor.
Large flower beds of chrysanthemums will be arranged in various colors across the garden grounds.
This fall will also include activities such as the Fall Bonsai Show, Giant Pumpkins and Hallowee-Ones.
With so many significant additions this year, the international stature of Meijer Gardens is increasing, said Joseph Becherer, chief curator of sculpture and vice president.
“In this, our 20th year, it is extraordinary to see the development of Meijer Gardens from a regional institution to a cultural organization on the global stage,” Becherer said.
Despite two straight years of solid attendance — 2014 saw more than 625,000 visitors — Hooker doesn’t expect the record-setting stream of guests to continue. But he doesn’t think attendance will fall of a ledge, either.
“We won’t maintain this pace,” he said. “We still think it will be a very robust year.”