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La Grande Vitesse at Calder Plaza

What’s bright red, weighs 42 tons and has been a popular Grand Rapids photo spot for five decades?

It’s called La Grande Vitesse – a French phrase that translates to “the great swiftness” or “the grand rapids.” But locals tend to refer to it as “The Calder” in deference to the man who created it: Alexander Calder, widely considered one of the most important American sculptors of the 20th century.

In 1967, the city commissioned Calder to create a piece as part of its urban renewal initiative. It was the first public art work to be funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts. As is the Grand Rapids way, private funds were raised to cover the balance.

The Calder energized the community and made anything seem possible.
- Nancy Mulnx, arts advocate

Artistic Inspiration

The finished piece was installed in 1969, in a public plaza surrounded by new city and county buildings. The space quickly became known as Calder Plaza – and the sculpture itself became a symbol of the city’s artistic spirit.

  • La Grande Vitesse sparked interest in other art activities and spurred the development of new art, theater and symphony facilities.
  • It’s the centerpiece of the city’s annual Festival of the Arts celebration, held every year since 1970.
  • Its likeness shows up throughout the city, from official stationery to street signs to garbage trucks.
  • It’s a popular backdrop for artists exhibiting at ArtPrize, the world’s most attended public art event.
  • Calder Plaza regularly hosts cultural events such as the city’s Hispanic Festival and Pride Festival, as well as summertime food truck food courts.
Calder Plaza during Festival of the Arts

Calder Plaza during Festival of the Arts


50th Anniversary Celebration

La Grande Vitesse turns 50 in 2019 – and Grand Rapids is celebrating the golden anniversary by reimagining Calder Plaza. In 2017, the city launched a collaborative community process aimed at making the space around La Grande Vitesse even more inviting and comfortable for people to use every day.

Phase 1 of this project, to include the construction of a new café and stage/pavilion, is set to occur in 2019. Future phases will add a splash pad water feature, new landscaping, access ramps, staircases and a pedestrian bridge – all designed to renew Calder Plaza’s prominence as the city’s town square.

Festival of the Arts

La Grande Vitesse inspired a vibrant public art movement – starting with the very first Festival of the Arts in June of 1969. It’s Grand Rapids’ biggest street party of the year … and it’s all about bringing people together to celebrate artistic expression. Want to learn more about how it all started? Check out the video below!

It changed the role of the arts and public sculpture in the life of this community.
- Gordon Olson, former city historian

Fast Facts

  • La Grande Vitesse is 43 feet tall, 54 feet long and 30 feet wide.
  • It’s a stabile – a stationary sculpture that uses multiple flat planes to give the appearance of volume and movement.
  • It’s painted in the artist’s signature “Calder Red” color.
  • The modern design was controversial at first, but was eventually embraced by city residents.
  • A scale model at the base of the sculpture allows blind visitors to “see” the Calder in its entirety.
  • A designated “selfie spot” provides the perfect photo shot.
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