Don Lubbers Interview
Transcript of July 7, 2015 President Emeritus Arend D. Lubbers Interview
By Mary Isca Pirkola
Art at Grand Valley
When you became president of Grand Valley in 1969, what first impression did you have about art on the campus in Allendale?
Art came crashing in on me when I first became president of Grand Valley because it was the time that the Calder La Grande Vitesse was being dedicated [in downtown Grand Rapids], and Bill Seidman, chairman of our board, was a leading force in bringing the Calder to Grand Rapids, along with other artistic and civic interested persons. There was Calder, first it was going up, and there we were entertaining Calder. At my first commencement, we conferred an honorary degree on Calder. It was important for Grand Valley because he contributed a substantial number of prints of La Grande Vitesse to the college. We were to sell them and use the proceeds for the promotion of art at Grand Valley, or the Art Department, not necessarily the purchase of art. So we did that. I’m wondering now whether there are any of those left. [Yes.] They didn’t sell like hotcakes, but every once in a while someone wanted one and they were good gifts for the university to give when it was appropriate to do so.
My impression of the Art Department was that it was pretty good at that time. There was a lady who was a professor that was very good, but she didn’t stay too long – her name escapes me. But Chester Alkema had already become a noted art educator. I talked to Chester not long ago and he had something like 68 publications. It’s amazing what he accomplished. So I had a good impression, but of course we were not buying a lot of art at that time.
[Per GVSU Art Gallery Website: Chester Alkema …a Professor at Grand Valley State University for 32 years before he retired in 1999. He taught art education at GVSU and has written fourteen books on teaching children about art. Alkema was the first to receive Grand Valley's Contribution to a Discipline Award in 1982 and he received the Michigan Art Education Association's Teacher of the Year award in higher education in 1979.]
It has been noted in Grand Valley’s 50th Anniversary book that, in 1987, you decided to include art in every new building built on Grand Valley’s campuses. How did you reach that conclusion?
I always liked art and always solicited art and we would put it up in our buildings. We did purchase some once in a while, but it was really an epiphany. Au Sable Hall is the most added to building that we had at Grand Valley. I think it must have been its third addition, for the Psychology Department, and I was walking through the corridors of that department and I thought, how bleak. Here’s a new building with all these white walls, how bleak. This needs art. About the same time we, Nancy and I, had become acquainted with the Nicholsons, Bill and Sandi. Bill was an art collector of sorts. Whenever he traveled he would buy indigenous art. He also had, I think the most valuable part of his collection, some Early American art. So, I had that 2 moment of horror at those white walls and I had been talking to Bill about his art, and I think they were going to move away – he was working at Amway and kind of put Amway back on its feet after some difficulties, and so I suggested to him, wondering what he was going to do with his art, suggested he give it to Grand Valley. Well he didn’t give it to Grand Valley, but he did loan it to Grand Valley, and I believe it’s still on loan to Grand Valley. I hope it slips his mind before he decides anything else. So, that art was, I think, almost exclusively except for some sculpture, put on the walls of the Psychology Department in Au Sable Hall. So that was the beginning.
What do you believe art contributes to the broad educational goals of Grand Valley?
Now art does not speak in words, and therefore it is difficult to describe in words what art does for me. But I would not like to be without it in my life because it enriches my life. Art has its own language, it’s all these paintings here in this gallery. They’re saying something, they’re not just pretty pictures to look at. We’re not just looking at landscapes. The way they’re done and what subject matter is selected, expressions, they’re all part of the language of art. If you begin to learn the language of art, you have another language. I’m not good at any language except English, but I think I have a rudimentary understanding of the language of art.
So art is a human dimension. If one is engaged in the educational process, or the research process, then any human dimension is welcome. Not only welcome, but enriching. Most colleges and universities do not concentrate in art quite the way we do. Some do, and another inspiration for me was: one evening I was staying at the Princeton Inn because I had business in Trenton. I was walking around the Princeton campus and saw the sculpture and thought how nice it would be to do that. Now we can’t afford the Henry Moores and the Barbara Hepworths, but we can do Michigan artists and we can commission our faculty, not just helter-skelter, but juried. So that was another inspiring moment for me that I remember. That, and looking at those barren white walls.
We don’t always educate people to understand art as we educate them to understand other subjects, yet we teach art appreciation and courses in painting. But it seems to me, and I’m so unskilled in doing it that I don’t understand the process very well, I think it must be a somewhat similar process. Although, education is always comprised of moments of enlightenment and moments of inspiration and moments of surprise, so we try to create those moments. I remember very well when this building in which we are sitting now [Richard M. DeVos Center] opened. It had, I think, about a $700,000-$750,000 budget, so it had art. We didn’t spend it all in one place but had local artists, Michigan artists, student artists, faculty artists all represented in this building with a pretty good budget. I remember students coming in for their classes and many of them having a sense of awe. The building, architecturally, particularly on the first floor, is pretty impressive for its style, and so that is attractive. But all the art on the walls, and in classrooms too, is awesome. Then I learned a very practical thing, too. If you put art in a building, it’s much easier to maintain – it’s not trashed, it’s respected. So what does art do? I think it creates a sense of respect and appreciation that is not always conscious to the average student. It is to some. But to some, it’s like they don’t know what hit them – but that’s what hit them. This building was a great revelation. I’d learned that before, but this building, I think, was for me the epitome of that understanding, of that policy of why have art in buildings.
Did this enormous task influence your decision to appoint Henry Matthews as Grand Valley’s first director of Galleries and Collections in 1998?
The policy was in place before Henry came, but it was sort of informal and hit and miss. When we decided to do this, Jean Enright and I would go around and we would buy art from our graduates who were trying to make a living doing art. We had Professor Jim Clover, who was a sculptor, and so we thought to commission him to do that piece in the center of [Allendale] campus, that one with the white star on top [Heaven and Earth]. That star was originally painted red and one of our Latvian employees came apart at the seams when he saw it, because he grew up under Communist rule and wanted nothing to do with red stars, which was kind of interesting, but we did accommodate that and it was painted white instead.
And then we wanted another sculpture and added what one of our librarians called “the truck carwash,” [Transformational Link by Gary Kulak]. So we were looking around for something to connect the two [sides of] campuses. And we wanted to preserve an arboretum to the east of that sculpture and because it was high visually it connected the two campuses and the bridge and all that. So we went to Detroit, we’d heard about this guy, and we had a committee and all this work was juried, but that’s when the decision was made.
Jean and I kept control of the process for a while. Why would we do that, because it was offensive to the professional artists on campus? But when you’re building campus art, you want professional art, but also people art. I’m a people and I like stuff that professional artists don’t like, but a lot of people like. So, we wanted to have enough art around that was comfortable for students and people who were not into art, so it was comfortable for them. That was one, and number two, as I said, we wanted to assist our art students who were graduating and we bought some of our faculty art and student art. But I knew that couldn’t last; that was not the right policy – to have the president and his executive assistant select the art for campus. But we had this Nicholson collection and we wanted it to be something that people wouldn’t say, “Oh my God, what’s that?” The truck wash was enough, and it has worked out pretty well.
I knew that had to stop and we had to have more juried art and an expert to be in charge of it. So that’s why Henry was hired. I’d become acquainted with Henry at the Muskegon Museum of Art, and you know how engaging Henry is. Of course, the Muskegon collection, which he might want to claim credit for, but he can’t because it goes back too far. [Laughs] He was the kind of person from the kind of place we wanted – relatively unknown, but of high quality. We were an institution relatively unknown and we wanted good quality. So that’s why Henry was appointed.
But again, I’ve noticed that when you do something that is all-campus, or university-wide, or beyond the traditional department’s responsibilities, it’s best, for a while at least, to keep the reporting responsibilities separate from the traditional reporting lines and those traditional structures of reporting. I mean historians teach great history, and the artists do wonderfully in their curriculum, but some things must not be subsumed by the curriculum. Why would anybody who’s doing very well in the curriculum want to add money to something that is not? Because that is interpreted as money taken away from what I need. So, I think, a president is doing things in the best interest of the university, which, if it is the right decision, many people come to 4 accept. So we wanted someone in the position that Henry fills to work with the Art Department and be a quasi-part of it, but not be responsible through the traditional lines of authority. That’s why, when Mark Murray became president he asked, “To whom does Henry report?” [Chuckles] Probably Henry still has a pretty good time with those lines not too carefully drawn, I don’t know. We’ll have to ask him.
Barbara and George Gordon
Can you share a brief history of the growth of Grand Valley’s Robert C. Pew Grand Rapids Campus, and in particular the addition of the Richard M. DeVos Center, which opened in 2000?
The campus came to be because we were teaching courses all over Grand Rapids, in high schools, and middle schools and elementary schools. And so it was obvious that we should coordinate and build a facility. That was not universally understood by the West Michigan population, nor even the power structure. On the other hand, I remember having a meeting with Jim Sebastian and Richard DeVos, who I think was on our board at the time, and Bill Seidman and they talked about the planning and that we really needed to come downtown, not only because it made academic sense as far as our program was concerned, but being in the public eye, people understanding here is Grand Valley State University, and you don’t have to drive through snow drifts in the winter to get to it. So it was both a concrete and symbolic move.
We were beginning to assemble the land and we needed something like a million dollars to do it. Rich DeVos was chairman of our foundation at the time and had a luncheon in his hotel in the Lumber Barons Bar. He and our development people created the Land Barons. The Land Barons were about twenty-five people invited to the luncheon and asked to give money to the downtown campus, and I think DeVos gave a half-million himself at that time, but we raised the money to buy that land. Then we had to buy the land. We made a wonderful deal with Clipper Belt here. We’d bought another property farther up the river here and traded, so that worked out pretty well. People were pretty cooperative, except for one gentleman who I think owned a dry cleaning establishment. We had his building appraised by an appraiser and it came out as $67,000. He wanted $950,000, now there’s a gap wouldn’t you say? Well we offered him $135,000. He wouldn’t hear of it. Fortunately, as a state university, we have eminent domain, so we went to court. The judge, we could tell, was kind of like, “What’s this guy doing here? A $67,000 appraisal and he wants $950,000?” So finally, as the case progressed, the guy came back to me and asked, “Would you give me the $135,000?” So we did. The ruling would have given him less, but we were paying legal fees and such, so agreed. That’s how we got the final parcel.
That was for building the Eberhard Center. Now we wanted to expand and build the DeVos Center. That was a complicated deal. I remember I asked Bob Pew, who was president of Steelcase at the time. Steelcase had purchased the Stow Davis Furniture Company that was on the property we needed. I called him and said, “Well, we’d like to buy it.” But he said they’d like to keep the property so we had to start thinking about different plans. Within a couple of months he called and said “We’d like to give you the property.” So that simplified matters.
However, there was one little piece of property in the middle of it, owned by a trucking company, Mr. Schouten. He and I had some great discussions and debates. Well, he wanted $1,200,000 for the property, and I didn’t think it was worth more than $700,000. I was thinking about going to court. He got the sharpest lawyer in Lansing, who knew what to do. We all knew we could get the parcel from him and for approximately what we had it appraised at, but, the lawyer could drag it on for two to three years and we wanted to build this building in which we are sitting now, so we agreed to pay him a million one, or something like a hundred thousand less, paid the money and got the building built. So those are some of the interesting stories.
Mathias Alten Collection
When did you first meet George and Barbara Gordon, and how did the Gordon Gallery in DeVos Center come to be?
This building was going up. We had for several years a lobbyist in Lansing, which saved us in some very difficult Lansing times. He and I became golfing buddies and played often during the year, sometimes with legislators, and sometimes with friends. One time one of his friends, who was living in Florida and had lived in Rockford, Michigan, and he were talking. He must have mentioned Grand Valley’s art policy and this building. I did not know Mr. Young at the time. He was an art collector of [Armand] Merizon paintings, which he’s given several to Grand Rapids subsequently. This lobbyist and Mr. Young thought I should meet George Gordon, because he has an Alten collection and wants to display it, not just keep it in his office – and it keeps going.
So they set up a golf game and George and I were on the same golf cart and by the fifth hole he’d given us the paintings. He really wanted to have a place where they could be displayed and the Grand Rapids Art Museum was not treating him very well at that time. They treat people well now, but not back then, which was fortunate for us. As a matter of fact, one of the board members at the art museum said that we shouldn’t have accepted this. I said, “What? You mean when George Gordon gave us a collection of Alten paintings?” Well he thought they should be at the Grand Rapids Art Museum. I don’t disagree that the Grand Rapids Art Museum was an appropriate place to get the collection, but they didn’t and there was a reason, wasn’t there? And that reason did not exist at Grand Valley.
We were building this building, and the art gallery he has on the first floor was a large conference room, in which we had planned to display good art. I said, “George, we have the room for you right now. This building was going up and within three months we could have his paintings on display. He liked that. And so did Barbara Gordon. So that's how that happened. The deal was made on the golf course in Florida.
This building and the Gordon Gallery opened in 2000 and here we are in 2015. How has the relationship between George and Barbara Gordon and Grand Valley grown over time?
Well obviously very well, hasn’t it? He keeps giving paintings, keeps giving Altens through three Grand Valley administrations. That’s pretty good. I have noticed with the Gordons, and other art collectors, that it really becomes an addiction, and is much better than alcohol or drugs. 6 He can’t help buying something that he sees and thinks is very good, and though my judgement in art should be questioned, my impression is he knows the better Altens from the lesser Altens. He really wants to have a collection of the best Alten paintings. When one comes on the market, he’ll buy it and I don’t see him stopping that.
The Gordon’s original donation in 1999 was of 36 Mathias Alten paintings from their private collection. Do you have any favorites among them or those added since to the collection?
Well I don’t know. It’s hard to pick favorites among so many paintings that one likes. But, a couple stuck me immediately – when he first gave the collection. I liked the Picnic at Macatawa, maybe it was the red dress that his [Alten’s] granddaughter Gloria [Alten] Gregory was wearing, I don’t know. But, I come from Holland and picnicked at Macatawa when it looked quite different from what it does in that painting. It’s because I think of personally relating to that painting that it caught my eye.
Another one, the Chrysanthemums, whoa, when I first saw that. I’ve always enjoyed still lifes and being Dutch I liked 17th-century Dutch paintings, and a little before and after, like 18th-century too. Who could not like Van Gogh? But, I just was blown away by that and just the perfect wall were it now is exhibited.
There was one more that immediately caught my eye. He’s done a few of oxen pulling boats out of the sea in Spain. I think I’ve seen three or something. Well, one of those came on the market and I went to see it at Kim Smith’s gallery [Perceptions]. The light, that particular one, it really did impress me and I couldn’t stop looking at it. So, are those three my favorites? I don’t know, they are certainly worthy favorites, but I’ve had experiences with those three paintings that I’ve not had with others.
After 32 years of insightful leadership and tremendous growth at Grand Valley, you passed the reigns when you retired in 2001. Did you have concerns or future goals about art at Grand Valley that you expressed to your successor, President Mark A. Murray, and later to President Thomas J. Haas?
I don’t think I had to and probably best that I didn’t. I’m sure that because I’m so interested in art, I must have had discussions with them. I remember that when I retired, Nancy and I stayed away for a year. We didn’t attend things and traveled a lot. And then Mark Murray said, “Okay, you’ve done that, now come on back.” He’s a man of such common sense and not threatened, and you know many presidents failed after succeeding a president of long service. Not Mark, and Tom Haas is the same way. They have been very nice to me and I don’t feel too inhibited from saying things, probably I should be more inhibited, but I’m not. When you leave a job, you want the university to continue well, and one of my great satisfactions in life is that Grand Valley has not been screwed up since I left. It has improved.
Do you think part of their desire to continue this came from walking in here and seeing this beautiful gallery and art?
Very much, they want it to continue. Nancy and I have continued our relationship and become very good friends with Barbara and George Gordon. I’ve noticed that most of the large and important contributions that had come to Grand Valley from private sources during my administration, the people who gave money, became friends. I had never been very good, except for a few foundations, of getting generous contributions from people I didn’t know very well. We’ve kept on and I talk a lot with George about his collection and what he’s going to do and how he’s going to do it.
The Gordon’s initial and ongoing donations to the Mathias Alten collection greatly influenced other donors, including Alten family members, to contribute, resulting in an expansion of the Gordon Gallery to double the space in 2008 and again in 2012. Did you ever imagine that what you established so many years ago would result in such growth?
Well, I would hope. I am in some respects an inductive operator, not a deductive operator. I am – I have a vision for things, which is quite general, and I set objectives, but then you try to achieve the objectives. What the ramifications of achieving the objectives are, I’m not always certain of what it’s going to be, or how it’s going to be. But if you set something in motion, like making your campus an art gallery, and it starts happening, and people start contributing to it, and you assign some budget to it, something is going to happen, and it’s not going to be bad, but the extent I don’t know.
What do you see as the future benefits of this collection and other art at Grand Valley? How does it contribute to the university’s long term planning?
Well, as I mentioned to you before, art has a language of its own and it’s hard to predict. But some of the things are happening and will expand I believe. For example, Altens, because of what the Gordons have done, are doing, and are going to do, is going to have a different place among American Impressionists than he had before. It can’t help but happen. So anyone who studies American Impression should see Alten’s work, and where should they come but to Grand Valley State University to see Alten art. Cyril Lixenberg, my goodness. If anyone in Europe wants to know about his work, they’re going to have to come to Grand Valley. There will be more artists like that. Joseph Kinnebrew, I don’t know what’s happened to the major part of his collection, but he’s represented on campus. Though he’s not a famous sculptor, for people who are interested in West Michigan art, you’ve got to come here and see some of the things he’s done. That is inevitable I think. We will be a host institution for some artists, who are important artists, for that you must come to Grand Valley. Now that is carving out quite a niche for a relatively new regional state university. So that is going to be important and I hope that continues.
I hope that the university will continue to provide a budget for art. If you’re going to collect art, you need an endowment so that can happen easily, so we have a really good source to manage our collection, expanding our collection, doing it through our own budget. I’m hoping – I still have dreams even though I’m not responsible for the place anymore, you don’t stop dreaming, you can’t help it, even when you go to sleep – so I think Grand Valley has an opportunity to do for its art collection and program, what it has done for its libraries. When I was president, we outgrew the library midway through my time, so I always knew we had to build a new library.
But these [other] opportunities came. We were growing and needed to put money into classrooms and laboratories, we wanted to move downtown, we had to put money…whenever I thought, is now the time for a new library? We always needed something else. That was fortuitous because we, like some of our fellow and competing institutions, we might have built the most magnificent and outdated library in the country. And I won’t name the institutions. We waited long enough, not because we were prescient, but because it just happened that way. So now, Grand Valley has the newest of new libraries and people are coming from all over the world to look at it and students are using it. Just look at the numbers. So we did it right. Steelcase is selling product because of what was designed for that. So isn’t that great.
So there’s another opportunity on the horizon. Grand Valley’s doing it right by building their health sciences programs, and that’s priority one. But there’s another opportunity lurking, and that is displaying the collection, expanding art experience in the community. Maybe there is a new kind of art facility to be built. I don’t know what it is, but I’d like, if I still have my acuity in the next few years to investigate that, with Henry’s help. What is that? What could you do? Just look at ArtPrize. What could a university contribute to making art even more important in the community and particularly for its students who are interested in it? Is it to build some facility, that I don’t know how it should be included or interactive, and I’m sure some people somewhere are doing it and it’s happening. So that’s what’s on the horizon.
Grand Valley is one of the few universities I know that isn’t what it will be yet. University of Michigan is absolutely what it will be. It isn’t going to be any different, though it may be better or worse and it will advance in all of what it is, because life changes and advances are need to keep up with it, but Grand Valley isn’t there yet. It still can be something different. It still has a lot of add-ons left. Well I don’t know how many, but one is could be in the field of art. So that’s kind of a dream I have, without any of the responsibility to do anything about it. At least I can and want to express it. There’s a lot of hay on the fork right now, but I’d go into the field and harvest that soon, if I could.
Your experience and opinion are valued, so I’m sure there are those who are listening.
It’s really nice being older and being retired because you can dream and you can hope and propose, but you don’t have to fulfill. [Laughs]
Alison Christensen asked if President Lubbers would like to comment on the Gordon Gallery Book Project.
The book is going to be magnificent. I think most of us knew at the last meeting that George and Barbara are going to pick the best alternative always when it comes to the book and Alten. And they did, so it’s going to be quite an attractive publication. I think it’s good and Henry is right in doing 500 copies. If you have to do more, and spend more, George will spend more, you know. And I think it’s right that he’ll want to. Coming along, you don’t want to have a lot, like the Calder prints – I don’t know how many we have, but there are stacks of them pretty much forgotten. That’s what happens to books like that if you print too many of them. So now we’ll have plenty for people to buy, plenty to use to promote the Friends of Alten organization, and plenty for the university to give as significant gifts. So I think it’s being done right. And I think 9 it’s right for Tim to look it all over, someone who isn’t involved in putting it all together, a person with his experience being able to say, “We want a great book, we don’t want a good book.” He can look at every aspect of it and will be very helpful. And I think the work being done so far is impressive. I really like what has been done. It’s always good to be forthright on a project like that. Don’t try to spare people’s feelings. Nobody. Don’t spare people’s feelings; make sure it’s good.