GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — I’ve had the recent good fortune to visit a number of art exhibitions in botanical gardens — either installed directly within the conservatories or in adjacent galleries. Much of the wealth of art institutions is directed toward conservation; it creates an interesting parallel to see art objects displayed in places that are typically devoted to the conservancy and maintenance of living creatures. Like many museums, botanical gardens are largely research facilities, while dealing heavily, in their public-facing aspects, with aesthetics and questions of interpretation and audience engagement.
The Fredrick Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park occupies a site originally slated for a Meijer store — Meijer being a major catchall retail chain (like Target) ubiquitous in most Great Lakes states (and Kentucky). But due to community opposition, it instead became the location of a sculpture garden, a pet project of the chain’s founder, Fredrick Meijer. In addition to a permanent collection of art on the grounds, the institution houses traditional botanical environments — desert/arid and tropical — as well as an art gallery. All of these are currently hosting different aspects of an exclusive exhibition of works by Ai Weiwei, titled Natural State.