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What is ArtPrize?

October 26, 2010

(This article is by Richard Kooyman and re-posted from Facebook.)

The second annual ArtPrize, the world’s largest art competition decided by popular vote just wrapped up in Grand Rapids, Michigan. 192 private and public venues juried 1713 artists and placed them in a three square mile section of the core downtown where 38501 registered voters then casted 465538 votes and picked the first place winner out of the top ten. The ten finalists divided a purse of $450,000 with the first prize receiving $250,000.

Since it’s inception there have been questions as to where does ArtPrize fit in the art world big picture. Questions like how does the competition design effect artists and the public and what does the foundation behind ArtPrize think about art and its place in society? And who are the people behind ArtPrize?

ArtPrize is the brain child of Rick DeVos, son of Dick and Betsy DeVos and heirs to the Alticor/Amway fortune.  The Dick and Betsy Devos Foundation funds the prize money for ArtPrize and have been vocal supporters of the event. ArtPrize describes itself as a “radically open art competition” and  “part social experiment” where the goal is to “reboot the conversation” between the public and artists about art.

As an artist I believe it is important to ask what is the ArtPrize social experiment and which conversations about art does it feel need to be “rebooted?”

To help answer those questions the first thing to do is to look at the Artprize website. It’s mission statement, now called a ‘Design Brief’ is filled with hip sounding catch phrases that suggest a blurring of the role between artist, viewer and community, blending fact and promotion into new, yet often vacuous descriptions. Pronouncements like “You = Creator” and “ Art is the focus of the competition but the Community is the event” hint at values designed to suggest a new reinterpretation of the arts. The ArtPrize message infers that the old way of thinking and talking about art should be replaced by a new dialog and presentation, a new agenda that pairs art with community and entrepreneurship.

Ask anyone who has attended ArtPrize what they think about it and you will get mostly positive impressions about how the event is good for the economy of Grand Rapids, good for children’s art exposure and a fun event filled with amazing sights.  All these elements are true but seem ancillary to why ArtPrize was designed as a art competition decided by popular vote. Why did the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation, a Christian Evangelical Foundation, decided to provide the money for ArtPrize?  And why was it designed to be solely a public vote? Was it simply a good idea to bring business to the area restaurants and hotels or was it a statement, even a referendum against the established ideas of art in society today?

Here is one answer to these questions.  ArtPrize is an ultra conservative families new venture into the cultural art’s management business. Let me explain.

ArtPrize’s Definition of Art

While ArtPrize claims to be “radically” open to any artist who applies one still needs to be juried into a venue to show your work. A hand few of the 192 venues are juried by art professionals but the most are not and no information is given to the applicants about who is jurying their work and what their qualifications may be. ArtPrize never uses the words ‘jury’ or ‘juried’.  Rather ArtPrize sells their event as a coming together of artists and venues, a “matching” as they say.  The main reason for a public vote is explained on the AP web site as being fun – ”Who doesn’t love learning through play?”

ArtPrize says that if art is fun people will want to learn more about it. Before you teach anyone about art you need to define what art is, or what your definition of art is. What is the ArtPrize definition of Art?

The Acton institute, located also in Grand Rapids, calls itself a  “ecumenical think-tank dedicated to the study of free- market economics informed by religious faith and moral absolutes” and is financially support by The Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation. Betsy DeVos has been an Acton board member for over 10 years. In a recent Acton blog podcast titled, The Stewardship of the Arts, art was defined as a combination of 1) a mastery of skill and 2) the glorification of God.

The photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s work was sited as an example of being bad art because while it contained the skill requirement of art it was morally depraved and therefore does not fulfill the second requirement of their definition. In an essay written for the Acton Institute Journal of Markets and Morality Trinity College Assistant Professor Nathan Jacobs suggests that to be a good Christian Steward of the Arts “may require withdrawing from the secular art world in favor of something wholly different.” A “rebooting” of the definition of art perhaps?

ArtPrize’s Role in the Privatization of Art

ArtPrize pride’s itself in providing a unique type of art competition. A competition, where the public decides who and what type of art is worthy of the top prize of $250,000. In the initial press release for ArtPrize Betsy DeVos said, “Dick and I share our son’s vision for encouraging everyone to explore the arts in a truly democratic way.”

The debate about the art professional’s role in art exploration was completely side stepped the first year of ArtPrize.  Possibly feeling the art world’s skeptical look, in it’s second year they added 4 professional juried awards, sponsored by local corporations, to follow behind the public vote. While the first prize voted by the public is awarded $250,000 the 1st prize in professionally juried awards is only $5000, 50 times less in value as the public vote.

In a 1996 study by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the largest state based free market think tank in the country, called for the complete privatization of the arts. The Mackinac Center for Public Policy is located in Midland Michigan and is supported by The Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation. In the study they declared government support for the arts as being not only a bad idea, but an unfair one.

“Art is highly personal and subjective. Forcing one person to subsidize another person’s art is inherently unfair. Talented Michigan artists, like other professionals, should look to the private sector for income, not to government, for their sustenance,” and that the solution for the sustainability for artists is in benevolent patrons. “Every year, private philanthropists donate nearly $10 billion to further artists’ visions of American culture. Artists whose work pleases their audiences will soon find voluntary support from such benevolent patrons.”

In recent years conservative think- tanks have been asserting effort to redefine art into pluralistic values of art and community and connecting everything to the free market.   The ArtPrize website shows three equally sized circular graphics comprising the main elements of the competition: Venues, Artists, Public.  Speaking about ArtPrize, Dick and Betsy DeVos repeatedly pluralized creativity with entrepreneurship. In a recent Grand Rapids Press interview Dick DeVos said that their main interest in funding ArtPrize is to support “innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship.”

Redefining art on pluralistic values of creativity, morality, community and business trivializes the striving for excellence or professionalism in art, as if art alone isn’t enough. Modeling art solely to serve free enterprise devalues art. The very strength of contemporary art today, what makes it truly valuable to society, is the fact that it no longer has to serve religion, politics or business.

The DeVos’s type of entrepreneurial attitude about art values the free market over both government support of the arts and professional knowledge of the arts. The CATO Institute, a free market and individual liberty think tank begun by billionaire David Koch, is also supported by  the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation. The CATO Institute’s Handbook for Congress calls for the complete privatization of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment of the Humanities and the total defunding of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.  The handbook states ”Government subsidies to the arts and humanities have an insidious, corrupting effect on artists and scholars.”

ArtPrize uses art and artists to stimulate the local economy of Grand Rapids. They say so clearly on their website, “Art is the focus of this competition, but community is the main event.” In 2009 it was estimated, in a Grand Valley University study that $7 million dollars was generated by local businesses off the backs of the artists who exhibited. Artists themselves have for years been applauding the fact that art is good for regional and national economies. But the danger is not the effect of art on business. The issue is how does business use the arts. Are private subsidies any less “insidious” than governmental support? Business, while being a guiding principle of the ArtPrize founders doesn’t completely explain the reason why the DeVos’s designed and administer an art competition such as ArtPrize. They seem to do it for a bigger reason. They do it to control how society will look at and enjoy the arts.

ArtPrize is a example of the social conservative’s new idea of Art’s Management

Dick DeVos in a recent television interview said  “This isn’t just an art contest. It’s about changing the dynamics and conversation about creativity.”

It’s clear that there is a difference between how secular society and Christian society define art.  If the secular/Christian debate about what is art cannot be won then at least arts organizations, the current gatekeepers and managers to what is shown or preformed can be controlled.

And how does someone go about controlling how art is managed?  One way is to form the DeVos Institute of Art’s Management at the Kennedy Center. In May of 2010 Dick and Betsy DeVos gave  $22.5 million dollars, the largest gift ever for art’s management in the United States or aboard, according to Michael Kaiser, President of the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts who said, “It has been abundantly clear to me that we spend a disproportionate share of professional arts training on performers and creators. In fact, billions of dollars are spent educating dancers, singers, pianists and actors. We spend a pittance on training the people who will employ them, who will find resources to support their work and will attract their audiences.

The DeVos Institute of Arts Management will provided training and technical support for arts organizations including seminars in strategic planning, fundraising, program marketing and most importantly, board development. Boards make organizational strategy and hire artistic directors and staff to implement those strategies.

What do artists need and want from local, regional and national art’s organizations and what it will mean to move from a society where government and art professional institutions fund the arts to a society where arts funding may be completely privatized? And what effect will the DeVos’s social, political and religious beliefs have on the training of future art organizations?

It was recently announced that 35 West Michigan art’s organizations have signed up for a free two year training program, part of a national “ capacity-building” program presented by the DeVos Institute of Art’s Management. In a Grand Rapids Press interview Betsy DeVos said, “We just viewed this as a really powerful way to leverage creative talents for the benefit and enjoyment of all of us.”  Do we as artists want a future where we are looked at as primarily entrepreneurs? A world where creativity becomes something more valuable when it is thought of as good business?  Do we want local art’s organizations, locally funded, providing programming selected ultimately by local boards trained to look at the arts as a commodity to be “leveraged”?

Who ever controls the context by which art is shown or talked about can control the content of art and how we will talk about it. This is what ArtPrize does. This is something we all should be concerned about.



15 Comments leave one →
  1. October 26, 2010 4:07 pm

    Not much different than the way Wealthy Theatre, UICA and other Calvinist organizations in town run things. DeVos is just a bigger monkey.

  2. DMP permalink
    October 26, 2010 6:02 pm

    Is this article meant to be ironic?

    I thought GRIID intends to encourage critical thinking.

  3. Jeff Smith permalink*
    October 26, 2010 6:29 pm

    In light of the amount of media coverage that was so congratulatory of ArtPrize, I think Richard’s article does promote critical thinking. It forces us all to ask questions about the motives of the DeVos family, their relationship to entities like Acton and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and whether or not the spectacle of ArtPrize is a mechanism to facilitate greater privatization of the public sphere.

  4. DMP permalink
    October 26, 2010 7:58 pm

    I see. That’s what I figured the author was going for, but I asked if it was meant to be ironic since the piece (and the underlying premises) come across so strongly more as demagoguery than truly critical thinking about issues of art, culture, and community. I just wondered if it might be a satire. Sorry for the misunderstanding.

  5. October 28, 2010 12:19 am

    My piece was written with the upmost concern about art, culture and community.

  6. November 8, 2010 9:44 pm

    Hi Jeff, is this the same Richard Kooyman?

    Thanks from Mexico

  7. Jeff Smith permalink*
    November 8, 2010 9:55 pm

    yes, this is the same person.

  8. victor rangel permalink
    March 13, 2011 9:03 pm

    Until today I never heard of the Devos family or the Artprize but I think any venue that opens up opportunity for Artist and the mass public to experience Art and gain exposure and money is dare I say, “A good Thing”. This Article sounds of an elite Art critique / Dealer who doesn’t like the fact that the less educated mass populace can give their opinion about Art. The DeVos family isn’t doing anything new under the sun that past wealthy families have done for thousands of years. The Medici family arguably helped usher in the Renaissance that was backed by wealthy merchants and bankers who had political and religious agendas. 99 percent of the past world Art is from religious accounts. Religion, politics, greed, love, hate, pride, envy, lust, wars, beauty, HAVE ALL contributed to this wonderful thing we call ART. What is Art? I think You cannot define Art. Art is in everything and their are no rules. Art will always be and always transcend beyond anyones control. So try not to control who makes it, sells it, profits from it because you never will control it.

  9. June 27, 2015 7:28 pm

    This makes me sad and sickens me to think I was going to enter. I actually had a young woman come in our store an tell me that their organization would sponsor me at Art Prize and wanted me to create something family oriented as it was a Conservative event. I almost threw up at her words. Now, reading this, my heart is filled with much woe.

    “Art is the great democrat, calling forth creative genius from every sector of society, disregarding race or religion or wealth or color.”

    John F. Kennedy (1917-1963)


  1. Dick & Betsy DeVos fund Broadway play by a sweatshop profiteer about the founder of an ultraconservative church « Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy
  2. Dick & Betsy DeVos fund Broadway play written by a sweatshop profiteer about the founder of an ultra conservative church « Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy
  3. Foundation Profile: Dick & Betsy DeVos Foundation « Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy
  4. Year Seven of the Monied Spectacle: An Indy Media Guide to ArtPrize | Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy
  5. Holy Wars: ArtPrize, Blackwater and the DeVos Family (Episode 14) – UnApologetics
  6. 10 years of ArtPrize critique and resistance | Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy

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