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Inside Track: Matthews’ message is clear: ‘Live with art’
Grand Valley State University director of galleries and collections approaches 20 years acquiring art for public good.
Henry Matthews believes art is not something that should be confined to a gallery; it should inhabit and transform public spaces.
In 1998, former Grand Valley State University President Arend Donselaar “Don” Lubbers asked Matthews to work for the university in a capacity that did not yet exist.
As director of the Muskegon Museum of Art since 1985, Matthews hadn’t considered changing jobs. But one day, after Matthews attended an advisory committee meeting at GVSU, Lubbers caught him off guard with the offer.
“He asked, ‘What would it take to bring you to Grand Valley?’ It was a complete surprise,” Matthews said. “I had no reason to leave. But it was intriguing.”
Matthews, Lubbers and Jean Enright, now-retired special assistant to the president, tossed around ideas for three months regarding what a position for Matthews could look like.
“We decided to take this idea of what the president wanted and not consider budget, just play with the idea,” Matthews said. “If money was no object, what would it be? The vision was to bring art to the university, place it throughout all the buildings, make it become an important resource for students, faculty, visitors — create an ongoing exhibition program, reach out to the art-collecting community, engage them in the university.
“We had all these ideas, and then I couldn’t think of any more. (Lubbers) said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
Matthews drew on his curation experience in Muskegon — and his work at the Detroit Institute of Arts during and after earning an M.A. in art history at Wayne State University — to set the direction for his new role at GVSU.
“The university in 1998 had 12,000 students. Our main campus was in Allendale, we had one building downtown, The Eberhard Center, and after I started and did an inventory of existing artworks, we found we had about 700 works of art,” he said.
Nineteen years later, the university has more than 25,000 students, six campuses, 130 buildings and 15,000 works of art. Matthews has acquired paintings, sculptures, installations and a range of other artifacts from six continents — all except Antarctica because “no penguins are making art that I know of,” he joked.
Matthews attributes the vast growth in the university’s art collection during his tenure to his interpersonal skills — perhaps learned from moving all over Europe during childhood as the son of an American serviceman and an Austrian mother.
“I have a talent to separate people from their treasures,” Matthews said. “I can convince people to donate these works to the university for the greater good, for this larger vision of sharing art with everyone.”
Matthews has served under three GVSU presidents so far — Lubbers, Mark Murray and Thomas Haas — and they have all affirmed the university’s continued support of galleries and collections.
Matthews’ office, the Art Gallery Support Building on the Allendale Campus, is just that — an office. The art the school owns is spread across the campuses and used as the focal point for interdisciplinary activity.
“The music department sends its students to create original music inspired by a work of art. The dance department does original dances. The poetry and writing division faculty send their students out to write about and interpret a work of art. The history department … uses those images in their curriculum,” he said. “I’m proud of that, as well as that we put art in science and engineering buildings. And it’s thematic to the curriculum in those buildings.”
The galleries and collections department, which first consisted of Matthews and a part-time assistant, now has a dozen staff members, as well as six to 10 students at any given time who are learning how to prepare, install and display art.
“Many of our students over the years have moved on to graduate school and museum careers as a direct result of their experience with us, which has been exciting,” Matthews said.
He said the works the team places on display are acquired from or donated by Grand Valley professors, West Michigan artists, students, art collectors and artists all over the world.
“The importance is art represents diversity of the world, interdisciplinary thinking and a wide range of subjects and materials,” he said.
Known for his skill in collections, Matthews has been asked to work his magic inside downtown Grand Rapids buildings.
“At one point, I was asked by then-President Murray to help with placing art throughout the Meijer Heart Center downtown. My team placed 400 works of art in that building. We worked with the hospital, with their budget and needs, but they asked us to do it,” he said.
“We have also placed art in all (GVSU) downtown buildings that are free and accessible and part of the public domain.”
In addition to his responsibilities expanding GVSU’s collections and decorating the city, Matthews also curates the ArtPrize entries that are displayed at GVSU during the city’s 19-day international open art competition each fall.
He said ArtPrize “has completely changed the conversation about art and the community,” and some of the works added to GVSU’s collection over the years have been acquired from ArtPrize artists.
Helping viewers navigate the collections was a challenge the university knew it needed to address. Under the leadership of Nathan Kemler, assistant director of galleries and collections, the department developed a website providing access to the university’s entire collection online and then a free mobile app called Art at GVSU that allows users to find art by campus, by building or by collection.
“In that sense, we are connected to everyone who wants to use the app,” Matthews said.
Just like ArtPrize, it’s impossible to see all of the art on display at GVSU in person. But for those who live or work on one of the campuses, the art nearby serves as a guidepost, Matthews said.
“(People say), ‘Turn left at the Van Gogh.’ It’s a familiar landmark,” he said.
Growing up a world traveler, Matthews soaked up the centuries-old beauty and knowledge that was everywhere in Europe, which is partly what led to his passion for art.
“I remember from my youngest days that whenever we lived in Europe, I would spend summers with my grandparents in Vienna,” he said. “Vienna was, and is today, a city filled with museums — architecture, art museums, history museums, libraries. I went to them, and there was a connection when I went. Imperial palaces, historic gardens, museums. I wanted to know the stories. Who made this art? Who is this person being depicted? What is this scene? It took me a while, but it evolved into, ‘This is what I want to do.’”
Matthews’ — and Lubbers’ — goal in creating a living art gallery at GVSU was to make art familiar, accessible and essential to life after college, just like it became to Matthews in his formative years.
“Hopefully, the student who leaves to go on with their life will always have art in their life,” Matthews said. “It isn’t about spending a lot of money. You don’t have to have a lot of money.
“The bigger message is, ‘Live with art.’”