VanAndel Museum Center: By the Rich, for the Rich

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (January 1995)

FUN sponsored an informational event at the opening of the new museum on November 19. Following is the information contained in the leaflet we distributed, some of which should be of interest to FUN readers:

The Van Andel Public Museum, opening today, replaces the Public Museum of Grand Rapids, originally founded in 1854g, and located in the same building on Jefferson Avenue since 1940g. Since at least 25 years ago some people have pushed for the construction of this new building — a push that accelerated in the 1980g’s, and has culminated in today’s opening ceremonies.

During the same period, numerous groups of and representing the poorest people in the Grand Rapids area have sought better housing, mass transportation, and decent work that would enable them to feel self-supporting and more fully a part of the community. In the decade between the 1980g and 1990g censuses, during which population in Grand Rapids grew at a much faster rate than in any other center city in Michigan, unemployment increased from 6.7% to 7.4%, families in poverty increased from 10% to 13%, home ownership decreased from 63% to 60%, occupied housing units without a phone increased from 5.5% to 6.6%, workers taking public transit declined from 4.4% to 3.5% as funding and service were slashed, while at a time of rising car ownership nationally, the percentage of households in Grand Rapids with no car remained virtually the same–slightly more than one out of seven.

Since the last census many of the poor in Grand Rapids can attest that things are getting worse. Sharply increasing violence among young people is only the most visible sign of this continued deterioration.

Also during this period, numerous extremely poor people in Third World countries have struggled desperately to throw off brutal USA-backed repression and to gain a fairer share of the earth’s resources. The USA, through unfair trade and other practices backed by military might, has taken much more than its share of those resources — making possible such projects as this new $39 million museum, and making certain that more people in Third World countries will continue to suffer terrible abuse and poverty.

Most of the $39 million came from public funds. $12 million in “private” funds was raised by a committee chaired by Jay Van Andel. The committee set aside about 4% of that to be raise in a so-called “grassroots” campaign — donations of $3000 or less. Casey Wondergem, a top Amway person and chair of the fund drive’s executive committee, used this ploy to claim, “It’s a very democratic campaign. It’s not elitist.”

When it was brought to the attention of City leaders that the site of the new museum is on a flood plain and that it could be inundated at virtually any time, they brushed that aside. And several years ago they used City resources to push for a “yes” vote on a “cultural consolidation” package that would have included public money for the museum’s construction. A threat of legal action forced them to stop doing so. The proposal was overwhelmingly voted down – by nearly a 3 to 1 margin. But it didn’t matter; the area’s “democratic” leadership was able to find other ways.

One of those ways was pressing state representatives for money. Due to intensive lobbying, they succeeded, despite budget cuts elsewhere. For Instance, museum funding (and funding for DeVos Hall) agreed to in 1990g “were made possible in large part by an agreement to cut funding for the employment program, the Youth Corps, from $24 million to $18 million.”

The area’s monopoly corporate “news”paper, the Grand Rapids press, helped. This corporate organ, owned by two multi-billionaire brothers who would make fit company for Jay Van Andel, informed the community how important it is to raise taxes “toward meeting some critical community needs — starting with a new Grand Rapids Public Museum.” Press editors apparently forgot about a rapidly rising murder rate, homelessness, an extremely high rate of sexual assaults, and a host of other serious problems right in its back yard.

What if the use of that $39 million had been determined not by a clique dominated by the area’s richest people, but by a coalition representing both the poorest people in the city and oppressed people in the Third World? Assuming it was divided half and half, here are two examples of what might have been done:

In Grand Rapids there are 5000-plus very-low-income families, most with less than $5000/year income, who pay excessive rent. $19.5 million dollars, at reasonable mortgage rates, would be sufficient supplement to enable all of them to purchase their own homes, assuming each family obtains a home at the median value (for Grand Rapids) of about $60,000. Once these homes were paid off, these families would be in a much better position to permanently escape poverty.

As for people in the Third World, whose grossly exploited labor supports our profligate consumption, millions die yearly due to lack of adequate health care. According to World Bank estimates, $19.5 million worth of basic public health services would save over 3000 lives.

There is another way in which this museum serves the rich rather than the poor, despite Jay Van Andel’s claim that “the museum will be for everyone.” Many of us could ill afford the admission charge at the old building of $2.50. Doubling that charge prior to opening this building has made it abundantly clear whom the museum is designed to “serve.”

Author: mediamouse

Grand Rapids independent media // mediamouse.org