When One Good Surprise Leads to Another

The program dedication for the festive gala reopening of the St. Cecilia Music Center reads, Chuck Royce and Peter Wege: two incredible men and lifelong friends who made the MUSIC LIVES HERE campaign possible with a lead gift and the gift of leadership.

Before he died in July 2014, Peter told his good friend Chuck he had a surprise for him. Wege knew Chuck and Stella Royce’s favorite cause was the St. Cecilia Music Center. And as he did so often, Peter supported what his friends cared about. Nevertheless, when Mary Nelson called St. Cecilia’s after her father’s death, Executive Director Catherine Holbrook cried into the phone when Mary said the “surprise” was $1 million!

It was the single biggest donation ever given to St. Cecilia. And the unexpected gift triggered a year-long $2.4 million renovation of the 1893 building. The night of the reopening, St. Cecilia returned its own surprise honoring Peter and the Wege family by announcing the newly done recital room was named the Wege Recital Hall.

St. Cecilia is known as the “Mother of the Arts in Grand Rapids” because the Grand Rapids Symphony, Civic Theatre, and Opera Grand Rapids all started in that building. In addition to its renowned musical events, the Italian Renaissance structure has hosted many famous speakers over the years, including suffragette Susan B. Anthony.

The Music Lives Here campaign has resulted in new seating, remodeled lobby and box office, fixtures and furnishing, a new roof, and the remodeled lower level space that now includes the Wege Recital Hall.

Pictured above:
Celebrating the $2.4 million renovation of St. Cecilia in November are Jim and Mary Nelson and Judy and Jim De Lapa. They are holding the sign designating the newly remodeled room named to honor Peter Wege and The Wege Foundation.

Click here for eightWest news story


The Grand Rapids Art Museum is holding its 6th annual children’s art contest sponsored by The Wege Foundation and inspired by the late environmental artist Mark Heckman. Partnering with his writer friend Mark Newman, Heckman created colorful drawings to illustrate their book for children titled Sooper Yooper. Peter M. Wege, who died in 2014, and Heckman collaborated on several projects, including the art work Heckman did for Wege’s book ECONOMICOLOGY.

The picture here is from Sooper Yooper and the man reading the newspaper is none other than Peter Wege himself.

GRAM encourages teachers and parents to submit their students’ and children’s art work any time the museum is open through April 30.

Winners in each age class will be honored in an awards ceremony Saturday, May 14, 2016, from noon to 1 p.m. in GRAM’s Cook auditorium. For more details, please click on the link below.


Grand Rapids Joins Architecture 2030 In Record Time

April 27, 2015, architect Ed Mazria gave the 19th annual Wege Lecture urging Grand Rapids to join Architecture 2030, the program he founded in 2006 to cut carbon emissions from buildings in half by 2030. Noting that 50% of the energy in the U.S. is consumed by buildings and 75% of all greenhouse gases come from urban centers, Mazria’s environmental mission targets cities.

The day after Mazria’s Wege Lecture, the city of Grand Rapids began the process that would qualify it to be named a 2030 city by the end of the year. Mayor George Heartwell and his fellow city leaders were not daunted by the fact that the first 11 cities took a lot longer than eight months to sign up the necessary private and public building owners. He credited The Wege Foundation for its generous grant to the West Michigan chapter of the United States Green Building Council that helped grease the skids to make the city’s December goal happen.

In a press conference announcing that Grand Rapids had qualified as the 12th 2030 city in the country, Mayor Heartwell made it clear the “spirit of Peter Wege” was happily present. The collaborative action by local private and public building owners committing 10 million square feet of buildings to 2030 exemplified the way Peter liked to see things get done.

The significance of holding the press conference at the Grand Rapids Art Museum reinforced Mayor Heartwell’s comments. Peter Wege was the moving force behind this first U.S.G.B.A. museum in the world. And while the GRAM board offered to rename it for Wege, the response was vintage Peter. “This museum belongs to the people of Grand Rapids and that is how the name will stay.”

Now GRAM sits in the heart of the 12th city in the United States to fight global climate change by signing on to 2030.

Click for Mlive article

Click here for 2030Districts.com

In the Grand Rapids Art Museum in mid-December, 2015, Mayor George Heartwell announced Grand Rapids has just been named the 12th 2030 city in the nation qualifying in record time.

Friendship, Varneau, and LED Lighting

In July 2015, Wealthy Theatre again made history by converting all its lighting to LED making it the first restored theatre in the world to achieve this 90 percent energy-saving status. This LED gift from The Wege Foundation includes a new roof with additional solar panels above the Peter Wege Auditorium and a new solar/LED lamp in the Sigsbee Street parking lot behind the Theatre. That lamp is especially important to the neighborhood as it’s the main source of light for that section of Sigsbee Street.

The shining new additional solar panels on the Theatre’s roof can be seen by the Theatre’s Baxter neighbors as the sun hits them providing enough free power to run all the stage lights. Theatre Director Erin Wilson called the LED/solar lighting of the Peter Wege Auditorium “a fitting tribute to the great man after whom it is named.”

It was Peter Wege who helped make the first “history” happen at Wealthy in 1998 when he helped save it from the wrecking ball after 25 years of vacancy and vandalism. Wealthy Theatre had once been that business district’s main attraction with its own streetcar stop; but by the 1990s, it was the center of a crime district.

Built in 1911, the ornate theater was originally named the Pastime Vaudette with live entertainment and silent movies. But it opened just as vaudeville died out. During World War I, the elegant Theatre’s large spaces were filled with equipment for the Michigan Aircraft Company.

In 1920, it reopened as Wealthy Theatre owned by Oscar and Lillian Varneau, parents of Peter Wege’s best friend Gordy, Peter’s second family.

Peter Wege has great memories growing up watching Westerns with Gordy at Wealthy Theatre where the boys ushered moviegoers to their seats earning 25 cents an hour. Gordy’s parents Oscar and Lillian spent many Saturday nights playing cards with Peter’s parents.

After World War II, the flight to the suburbs and the onset of television forced the Theatre to close its doors in 1973. Over the next 15 years, the boarded-up eyesore became a public hazard where, as one city commissioner told the Press, “druglords and gangs ruled the area.” In 1989, the city of Grand Rapids voted to demolish Wealthy Theatre.

That’s when the area’s concerned residents and business owners stepped in forming the non-profit South East Economic Development to protect their neighborhood. Knowing that razing the theatre would further damage their once vibrant business district, the SEED folks convinced the city to declare Wealthy Theatre a designated historic landmark and sell it to them for $1.

SEED realized it would take millions to repair the damage from decades of neglect. They turned to their best hope knowing Peter Wege to be an ardent environmentalist who believed in restoring, not destroying. What SEED didn’t yet know was Wege’s strong personal history with the Theatre. For Wege, Wealthy Theatre meant Gordy Varneau and his family.

Peter Wege led the charge to raise the $2.2 million needed for restoration. And in 1997, the Wealthy Theatre reopened as a performing arts center. For Wege, the highlight of the occasion was having his friend Gordon Varneau fly in from Las Vegas to join the dedication.

The accompanying video of the transformation from decay to renewal includes a picture of the entrance floor mosaic that Peter insisted must be saved. The white stone letters spell VARNEAU.

Ellen Satterlee, CEO of The Wege Foundation, Katy Furtado, Administrative Assistant, and CFO Jody Price honoring the name above them and celebrating The Foundation’s gift of LED lighting to Wealthy Theatre.
Ellen Satterlee, CEO of The Wege Foundation, Katy Furtado, Administrative Assistant, and CFO Jody Price honoring the name above them and celebrating The Foundation’s gift of LED lighting to Wealthy Theatre.
This bright mural decorates the Community Media Center building, another gift from Peter Wege and The Wege Foundation, next door to Wealthy Theatre.

The Wonder of Water…”Until it’s gone.” At the GRAM

Edward Burtynsky is an environmental warrior whose artistic weapon is a camera. For over 30 years, the Canadian artist has turned aerial photography—via planes, helicopters, and drones—into a graphic history of what we Homo sapiens are doing to our Earth home. His airborne cameras have photographed quarries, oil drillers, and mines, among other things, documenting man’s physical destruction of our most vital natural resource.

From now until April 26, two floors of the Grand Rapids Art Museum are filled with sixty of Burtynsky’s large-scale photographs in a powerfully designed exhibit. As one viewer put it, “I went through the entire exhibit and was fascinated, stunned, and impressed with the solemn message his artwork showed us.

The title of Burtynsky’s show at the GRAM is Water, and his message is gripping. “Water,” he writes, “is the reason we can say its name.” The late Peter M. Wege, founder of The Wege Foundation, the Presenting Sponsor of the exhibit, said the same thing in his book ECONOMICOLOGY. “We can live without a lot of things,” Wege wrote. “Water isn’t one of them.”

Some of Burtynsky’s aerial photographs, such as a Geothermal Power Station in Mexico and Dryland Farming in Spain, have an abstract beauty despite the artist’s deadly serious message. The epiphany that led to this GRAM exhibit happened seven eight years ago when a photojournalist friend told Burtynsky about an incident that happened in an Australian bar. After his friend had paid for his beer and was leaving, the bartender ran after him and said he had to finish his glass of water before he could go.

“Suddenly, Burtynsky writes, “water took on a new meaning for me. I realized water, unlike oil, is not optional. Without it we perish.”

That revelation led to Burtynsky’s spending five years circling the globe in the sky focusing his mission and his lens on recording mankind’s misuse of water. West Michigan viewers surrounded by the five Great Lakes holding 21% of the world’s fresh water might shudder at the photographs of the Colorado River Delta ironically named as it’s been a sand lot since the River was diverted over 40 years ago. And then there’s Owens Lake, a desert since its water was siphoned off for Los Angeles in 1913.

Because of man’s technical ability to control the world’s water, Edward Burtynsky writes, “We are reshaping the Earth in ways …capable of engineering our own demise.” The artist hopes this GRAM exhibit will make viewers “think more long-term about the consequences of what we are doing.” And if we don’t pay attention, we will continue to take the water that sustains us for granted. “Until it’s gone,” Burtynsky somberly concludes.

Click here for Exhibit details

Celebrating the successful opening of artist-photographer Edward Burtynsky’s “Water” exhibit at the GRAM February 1 are the artist Burtynsky in back next to GRAM’s Director and CEO Dana Fris-Hansen.  In front are major sponsors of “Water,” from the left Mitch and Karen Padnos and Carol Sarosik and Shelley Padnos.
Celebrating the successful opening of artist-photographer Edward Burtynsky’s “Water” exhibit at the GRAM February 1 are the artist Burtynsky in back next to GRAM’s Director and CEO Dana Fris-Hansen. In front are major sponsors of “Water,” from the left Mitch and Karen Padnos and Carol Sarosik and Shelley Padnos.
Wege Foundation Board member Mary Wege Nelson and her husband Jim are shown with Judy Adams, Mary’s former roommate at Northwestern, who came in from Chicago for the Grand Rapids Art Museum's opening of the “Water” exhibit by Edward Burtynsky. The Wege Foundation was the Presenting Sponsor of the artist’s sixty large aerial photographs of water depletions around the globe.
Wege Foundation Board member Mary Wege Nelson and her husband Jim are shown with Judy Adams, Mary’s former roommate at Northwestern, who came in from Chicago for the Grand Rapids Art Museum’s opening of the “Water” exhibit by Edward Burtynsky. The Wege Foundation was the Presenting Sponsor of the artist’s sixty large aerial photographs of water depletions around the globe.

Wege Talk at Meijer Gardens Will Entertain and Educate

The personal friendship between Peter Wege and Fred Meijer resulted in many good works for West Michigan, including Meijer Gardens as Peter was one of the earliest benefactors. The picture here shows the two friends standing in a field that is now the home of Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park.

One of Peter’s and The Wege Foundation’s gifts to the Gardens was an endowment fund to bring in nationally recognized environmentalists to deliver the Wege Lecture. This year on Tuesday, March 24, at 7 p.m. videographer Louie Schwartzberg will share footage from his prize-winning film—narrated by Meryl Streep—Wings of Life. Schwartzberg’s high-definition, time-lapse films of Mother Nature at work, including Fred and Lena Meijer’s beloved and popular butterflies, are not only breathtaking, but also inspirational.

Louie Schwartzberg shares what’s behind these films he’s been producing for thirty years. “Beauty is nature’s tool for survival—you protect what you love. I hope my films inspire and open hearts. If I can move enough people on an emotional level, I hope we can achieve the shift in consciousness we need to sustain and celebrate life.”

He sounds a lot like Fred Meijer and Peter Wege talking about their shared vision for educating people about the need to care for and protect the natural world we live in—and the only one we have. David Hooker, President of Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, said since the Gardens opened twenty years ago this coming April, the Wege Lectures have been a great attraction for members and visitors. “In addition to the sculpture Fred loved and the horticulture Lena loved, our mission is also to support the environment and the arts. The Wege Lectures have been about all of those things.”

Peter Wege’s estate gives $1 million gift for Grand Rapids Symphony’s endowment

footer-logo-mlive-incJeffrey Kaczmarczyk | jkaczmarczyk@mlive.comBy Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk | jkaczmarczyk@mlive.com 

GRAND RAPIDS, MI – Philanthropist Peter Wege has bestowed $1 million on the Grand Rapids Symphony.

Wege, who underwrote the orchestra’s Grammy Award-nominated album, “Inventions & Alchemy,” plus its accompanying DVD featuring harpist Deborah Henson-Conant, bequeathed the gift from his personal estate.

The former chairman of Steelcase, Inc., who died July 7, was a longtime supporter of arts and culture across West Michigan.

Related: Grand Rapids remembers Peter M. Wege: philanthropist, environmental activist, arts patron

Early in September, Grand Rapids Ballet unveiled a $1 million gift from Wege’s estate. One week later St. Cecilia Music Center announced it also was the recipient of a similar $1 million gift. Both bequests were earmarked for the organization’s respective endowment funds.

At Friday night’s opening of its 2014-15 Pops Series in DeVos Performance Hall, the Grand Rapids Symphony unveiled the award for its endowment fund, which currently stands between $16 million and $17 million prior to Wege’s gift.

Wege’s philanthropy was focused on his love for people, said associate conductor John Varineau.

“He loved to take care of people, nurture their talents and provide exceptional cultural offerings to enhance this community’s quality of life,” Varineau said. “His love for his hometown and his dedication to local causes has been a big reason for the success of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s 85 years.”

Related: ‘Hip harpist’ Deborah Henson-Conant: Peter Wege made Grand Rapids Symphony’s Grammy nomination possible

Wege’s ties to the Grand Rapids Symphony date back decades. He was a longtime season subscriber and a major donor year after year to the orchestra’s annual fund. When the organization moved to new offices in 2004, the former chairman of Steelcase, Inc., helped Steelcase provide all new office furniture.

Wege was the primary sponsor for the Grand Rapids Symphony’s “Piano Pops 2” compact disc featuring pianist and Grand Rapids native Rich Ridenour.

The Wege Foundation underwrote the Grand Rapids Symphony’s associate conductor chair, which lead Varineau to jokingly refer to Wege as “Dad,” to which Wege would call Varineau “Sonny” in return.

Previously, Wege had contributed to the orchestra’s Legacy of Excellence Campaign, a long-term effort to build a $40 million endowment for the Grand Rapids Symphony.

Last year, the philanthropists Rich and Helen DeVos pledged $20 million for the campaign, and another $12 million in future gifts had been pledged at the time of the announcement in May 2013.

Related: Grand Rapids Symphony’s $40 million endowment campaign launched with $20 million DeVos pledge

The $1 million bequest was unexpected, according to Peter Perez, chairman of the symphony’s board of directors.

“Peter Wege understood the vital importance of local arts organizations like our orchestra,” Perez said. “He helped encourage and support the work of people and organizations across our community. His leadership has enhanced West Michigan’s quality of life through his dedicated commitment over the course of many years.”

Last season, the Grand Rapids Symphony’s endowment fund provided the orchestra with a little over 8 percent of its total revenue for the year.

Specific uses for the gift will be decided at a later date.

“Peter Wege asked us to assess how the gift can be best used,” said symphony president Peter Kjome.

Education and outreach were among the causes Wege valued in his lifetime.

jvIf you look at all of the programs meant to broaden the base of the Grand Rapids Symphony, such as the annual “Symphony with Soul” concert or educational concerts, you’ll find the Wege Foundation logo, Varineau said.

“Peter was passionate about making sure the arts are truly for everyone,” Varineau said.

$1 Million Gift to St. Cecilia Music Center

GRAND RAPIDS (WZZM) – The St. Cecilia Music Center announced Monday they’ve received a $1 million endowment from the Estate of Peter M. Wege.

Wege died in June. Last week, the Grand Rapids Ballet also announced they had received $1 million from Wege’s estate.

St. Cecilia says they plan to dedicate next week’s annual Great Artist Gala to Mr. Wege in recognition of the gift.

“Everyone at St. Cecilia Music Center is beyond thrilled with this news and we feel so very privileged to be remembered by Mr. Wege in this way,” said Cathy Holbrook, Executive Director of St. Cecilia Music Center in a press release. “When Mr. Wege’s daughter, Mary Nelson, called to tell me this news I was flabbergasted. Mr. Wege had been a long-time generous supporter of SCMC but we were not expecting a bequest from him. This is the largest single donation SCMC has ever received in our 131 years history. We are so grateful to Mr. Wege and the Wege family.”

St. Cecilia Music Center’s Great Artist Gala takes place next week on September 18, 2014. The concert on the 18th brings 20-time Grammy winner and jazz pianist Chick Corea with his band the Vigil to Grand Rapids.

Tickets for the Great Artist Gala dedicated to Peter Wege can be purchased by calling St. Cecilia Music Center at 616-459-2224 or visiting the box office at 24 Ransom Ave. NE. or online at www.scmc-online.org.

The Wege Mission Carries On

Let there be no doubt that Peter M. Wege’s has legacy bearers who continue to do “all the good” they can.  Two of them said it best themselves.

The September issue of Grand Rapids Magazine featured an article about Erin Wilson (pictured left), director of Wealthy Theatre, an historic landmark saved by Peter M. Wege and the family foundation.  Boarded up for 14 years in 1989, the former vaudeville showhouse was about to be demolished when neighbors came to Wege for help. As usual, Peter had a bigger idea. Let’s restore the theatre, clean up surrounding buildings, and rejuvenate the once thriving Wealthy Business District.

Now it’s a bustling street of businesses and homes anchored by the theatre Peter rescued. Erin told the Magazine Peter is an “iconic figure,” for the “direction our neighborhood has taken.”

Eric continued: Mr. Wege did some chess-like things on the block that transcend the theater support when he paid an inflated price to buy and then shut down a store that served as a drug ring in the 1990s. He made this neighborhood livable by doing proactive things in a surgical manner with his resources.

The second mission carriers are Christian and Kathryn Birky who attended Healing Our Waters conferences as teenagers.  Kathryn graduated from Brown with a Masters of Environmental Science and now runs a non-profit in Gambia, the Gambia Horse and Donkey Trust.

Here is Christian’s recent note to Dear Mr. Wege,

I am a West Michigan native and avid environmentalist. I attended the first few HOW conferences while in high school, and remember meeting you at breakfast at the Amway with my sister Kathryn before the very first one. Since then, I have gone on to study politics and environmental studies at Princeton, where I just graduated. I am moving back to Michigan, and recently I have come across your influence in several places, from innovative business practices at Steelcase to great work by the Wege Foundation. I wanted to express my gratitude for your leadership on environmental issues. There is still much work to be done, but please know that you have inspired another generation of environmental leaders. We will benefit from the example you set, and we appreciate it!

Peter’s mission thus carries on in these two bright and passionate young people. How thoughtful of them to tell him so.

Erin Wilson, theatre Director, born in Muskegon Heights, he now lives within five blocks of Wealthy Theatre, where he’s raising a family with his partner, Amy, who is a ballet dancer and instructor.
At the May 2004 meeting that created the Healing Our Waters movement to save the Great Lakes, Peter M.Wege, organizer of the conference, is pictured welcoming the 70 assembled environmental scientists. Wege told his audience that HOW “is the most important single project of my life as an environmental activist since starting the Wege Foundation in 1967.”