Muse GR aligns purpose and passion with creativity on the westside

The city has seen its fair share of art galleries over the years, but this year a new space opened up with their version of a modern urban gallery as Muse GR, and the rest is history. Publisher Tommy Allen sits down with Muse GR's Stephen Smith, M.Ed. and Taylor Smith.
The city has seen its fair share of art galleries over the years but on the city’s westside earlier this year, a husband and wife opened up their version of a modern urban gallery as Muse GR (727 Leonard Street NW) and the rest is history. 

And historical moments is what Stephen Smith, M.Ed. and Taylor Smith have been creating, not just for themselves but for those who walk through their doors, whether they are there to exhibit their creative works or simply participate in any one of the many events that have been taking place here since they opened last summer. 

This month, Rapid Growth’s Publisher Tommy Allen sits down to learn a bit more about Muse GR and its journey of helping folks understand their purpose and passion a bit better. 

Stephen, a graduate of Fisk University, earned a masters of education degree from Grand Valley State University and works locally as a multi-tiered system of support specialist at Grand Rapids Public Schools. Taylor is a journalism major from the University of Illinois and has been working as a writer with local organizations. Muse GR can be found online and on Instagram @mymusegr.


Tommy Allen: I have been here a few times over the last year and am always amazed by what I see. How do you describe this space in the West Grand neighborhood?

Stephen Smith, M.Ed.: We describe it as an interactive art gallery. It's a place where people can come to discover their purpose and passion. It is a home for creatives.

Taylor Smith: … a place to collaborate.

TA: Speaking of collaborations, is this a joint venture for you two?

SS: We are 100 percent our own with a 50/50 split between us … although she gives me credit for the name, Muse GR.

TS: Originally, we thought it would be a space for photographers. Stephen does photography.

SS: … But it didn’t matter since under Muse [as the name] it was going to be a place for the modern photographer and more. 

TA: What was the spark to really get this idea off the ground?

TS: We really wanted a place that people could feel inspired — a place where it was inclusive and everyone would feel comfortable. And then it grew from there.

SS: The inspiration was the inspiration. We wanted a place that inspires you to see something as though it wasn’t. We wanted the space to be ever-changing and to be designed from the start by artists. 

TA: Realizing most folks never get to a first step with an idea, what were your first steps like? Can you share what was going on in your head?

SS: We had to know going in this was going to be something that we were really passionate about. Because the process of seeing something through to the end can sometimes be a long and daunting task. We had to make sure it was something that we were willing to knowingly embark upon relentlessly, despite knowing we would face doors being closed left and right. 

TA: What were some of those doors you had to face?

SS: Ours came from code and policy. Because we are on a main street of a business district, the area plan did not allow for a photography business. The code also called for increasing foot traffic. 

TA: And I understand you live upstairs?

SS: We were not seeking a traditional approach to living like most folks. Because we were newly married and didn’t want to pursue a traditional house, we were seeking a commercial property with living space. 

TA: Well the space is beautiful here. I understand this was the second building you considered.

SS: After we didn’t get the other space in the Westside, we had someone say we would find something bigger … and they also said nicer. But I don’t think what we found was nicer. 

(Editor’s Note: The building where Muse GR is now located is the site of a former adult bookstore that had operated in the community since the 1970s. For the sake of our readers, we are not printing what was left behind.)

TA: How did you find the space?

TS: We found it listed online and had no idea it had been an adult bookstore for that long. 

SS: Our architect said we should contact Rachel Lee who went to the Grand Rapids Public Library and found some really cool, old photos of the space. (Lee used to run the East Hills Council of Neighbors and Citizen — which is undergoing a rebranding right now.) 

TA: So when you pitched to Start Garden’s inaugural 100 Ideas, you were already under construction here on your space. What was your pitch to them?

SS: My pitch was Muse. We wanted to bring Muse to Grand Rapids. We had every intention of doing that and got in the first round winning $1,000 that we used to invest in our grand opening. And when we had to pitch again [for the possibility of winning one of the ten $20,000 cash prizes], we wanted to showcase the creative things we wanted to do here and how we wanted to collaborate with people.

TA: You seem to have no trouble attracting people here to Muse GR. I have passed by here quite often and have seen a lot of people in the space for a variety of purposes. After your first grand opening event, how did you feel and what did you learn?

TS: When we did the second pitch [for the chance to win $20,000] we had just held our first event where we sold some art and had a live graffiti artist working outside. The event had folks eating ice cream and looking at art. It was a really fun social event. And from that we asked how can we expand on this and keep these live experiences happening.

We wanted to pitch how we would keep the community engaged and keep them coming together in this kind of way.

TA: How did you illustrate that for the judges at 100 Ideas?

TS: We took the numbers from the event as well stats from our social engagement to show how we had grown from our ribbon cutting to that moment. We crunched all the numbers we could to get to our pitch because it was a really busy time for us. I was pregnant …

SS: She had the baby two days after we won at 100 Ideas. 

TS: So we won 100 Ideas on Tuesday, had our wedding anniversary on Wednesday, had our baby on Thursday, celebrated my mom's birthday on Friday, and on Saturday we had to rush me out of the hospital because Stephen had a wedding to shoot that day. And that Saturday was also the first night our family would stay in our new home [above Muse].

TA: (Picks jaw off the floor) Wow! I am speechless at how intense that week must have been for you two. I think when they say “Detroit Hustles Harder,” they’ve never met you two. 

SS: I don’t feel good about it. I would have rather been home during those key moments. 

TA: I understand.

SS: (Laughs) but it is okay, we got a baby. Muse is about bringing experiences here, to make something really cool. We can't say that it hasn't been done before. But we just try to create space for something that hasn't been done before to happen here. The thing is Taylor always says, no matter how crazy your idea is, you can always find someone who did it on Pinterest (all laugh).

TA: When I am here, I am reminded by the event hosted here about how accessible it seems to be for folks. 

SS: We do have an open-door policy. But it's tricky because we want to give them the full experience of being in the gallery and we wanted to have the same esteem. We visited galleries, met with gallery owners from here to San Francisco (Stephen’s hometown). We want to give different communities that same experience.

TS: It has been a lot of learning.

SS: We wanted it to be different. But we don't want it to be, “It’s a black-owned gallery. It's not as good as another gallery.”

TA: That is a great point in that we do not call them white galleries. In the pursuit of artists, what are you seeking to walk through the doors here?

SS: We want to create experiences, so whoever can create an experience that touches or influences or inspires somebody, we want to hear from you.

TA: And it is more than just a space for art. What are some of the other events welcomed here?

SS: We had an event here where fashion meets art meets music. That was quite an experience. One of my favorites was when we were hosting students for ArtPrize. We had about 30 students at a time visiting for a school field trip. While they were here, they were participating in a curriculum that we had put together about purpose and passion and where they converge. The lesson included writing and photography meshed together. 

TS: Once they got to the place where their passion and purpose interested them, they would render that in a doodle. They expressed that place of convergence. 

TA: What a fascinating use of the space since most people use art to bring people in to patronize their business (i.e., profit), but you used your new business to instill what many might call a north star moment for these students via purpose and passion. How did you land on this point for your curriculum?

TS: So it kind of started with us trying to find a way that our passions could be connected. I do more with writing and he does a lot with photography, so we wanted to incorporate both of those areas in what we did. 

And then we thought, let's talk about identity and helping people to feel comfortable with who they are. That's something that we're passionate about. We don't want folks to feel they have to be cookie-cutter people and that it's okay to be unique, it's okay to be different. That’s who you are. And so, we wanted to be able to share the experience with the kids. (Muse has hosted many students including groups of children with autism as well as kids from a juvenile detention center.) 

TA: What is amazing listening to all these stories today is this has mostly happened over the last five months ... the period most of us have experienced what Muse GR has to offer … and while you are starting a family and working full-time jobs. (Taylor just accepted a contract position to spend more time working from home.) What’s next? 

SS: We want that to happen every day. We want it during the week. Monday through Friday during the daytime when our space is not so active we want Muse to be a place of learning. 

TA: So how did how do you do that when you both have careers, too?

SS: It does not have to be us. We are looking to hire someone who has a passion for teaching. 

TS: We know we cannot do it alone but we want to look forward to 2019 to expand further.

TA: Moving forward into the future, what can we expect from Muse GR in 2019?

SS: Well, first we like being a place where artists can be artists and get paid to be an artist. Together we help others pursue their purpose and passion.

In addition, we've just filed our paperwork to create a nonprofit arm of Muse devoted to expanding upon our education piece for the community.


Stay connected to Muse GR by following their Facebook or Instagram. Images courtesy of Tommy Allen and Muse GR.