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Grand Rapids Fortunate Grandson continues tradition of profit making for the few

July 27, 2011

I have heard numerous people over the past 2 years make the argument that Rick DeVos is blazing his own path and shouldn’t be judged by the previous DeVos generations’ political philosophy. A recent article in MiBiz would suggest otherwise, especially for those who are not under the spell of Capitalism’s promise of riches.

The MiBiz article mostly focuses on Rick DeVos’ more recent project known as 5×5, a competition of sorts, which requires those seeking funds for start up business projects must present their idea to a panel of judges. This is really old news for those who follow GR politics since the 5×5 venture has been happening since January of this year.

5×5 is not an entirely original idea for Grand Rapids, since another project called Sunday Soup follows a similar model. Well, not really. There are fundamental differences between the two projects, Sunday Soup is grassroots, takes place at the DAAC and allows anyone who attends to be part of the collective decision on which art-based proposal will get funding. 5×5 is not grassroots, gives out money for business-focused projects and uses judges that are primarily culled from business circles.

Cut from the same cloth

The MiBiz article is instructive in that not only provides DeVos an unchallenged forum to promote his ideas, it tells us something about what he really values.

The article provides a little information on DeVos’ history of for-profit projects. He mentions Sprout as his first venture and says that it didn’t do as well as planned. Soon after he started ArtPrize, which as we all know has been widely successful. Rick DeVos then goes on to say:

“Perseverance is the key, as is not treating failure as something that marks someone for life. (Failure) is inevitable if you’re trying. If you’re not failing, you aren’t trying hard enough.”

Interesting, although not surprising, that the MiBiz writer does not challenge DeVos on this notion of perseverance. Here is a guy who comes from a multi-billion dollar family, with business and political connections that have a global reach, and he wants us to believe that he became successful because he persevered?

In addition, Rick DeVos has become quite good at using cutting edge language like “decentralized models” and “a dynamic ecosystem of entrepreneurs.” DeVos wants us all to think that he embraces a communal/collectivist approach to life, but despite his use of language we need to ask the basic question…….who benefits from these kinds of projects?

The MiBiz article makes it clear that the local elite business community fully endorses his projects, as well as the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority (DDA). There is no mention of working class people, racial minorities or those who live anywhere other than the downtown business districts. So it seems clear who the beneficiaries are.

The MiBiz article also mentions a third project by Rick DeVos, called Momentum. Momentum is a business “boot camp” where applicants are vetted and are then eligible for much larger capital investment funds. The project provides mentors (all White business people) and a group of business sponsors that also attempt to present themselves as “community minded.”

The MiBiz article ends with one more comment from Rick DeVos that is also instructive. “I love ideas, and I love the connection between ideas. I love innovation and trying things in that spirit of rebelliousness you have to start from when you’re trying to do something new. … Anything we can do to support that is a good thing.”

First, there is nothing rebellious about anyone who was born into wealth and continues to promote well accumulation for a chosen few. Second, there is nothing terribly innovative about any of the projects that Rick DeVos has created to far. The 5×5 and Momentum projects are both designed to do what organizations as old as the National Manufactures Association – generate more wealth for a select few and then make the claims that this new wealth will trickle down to benefit everyone.

The trickle down notion is even what drives ArtPrize if one considers who the primary beneficiaries are of that project. The downtown businesses – hotels, restaurants, clubs and private parking lots – are the big winners. Sure some working class people might make extra tips, but the whole idea is based on the fact that hundreds of artists will invest their unpaid labor with only a handful of artists getting paid.

ArtPrize is also “successful” in that it has received an uncanny amount of local news coverage (which is essentially free advertising), so much so that in 2010 ArtPrize coverage trumped election coverage despite the fact that there was a Governor’s race. Add to this the recent announcement that ArtPrize is receiving $100,000 of federal money, which essentially means that working people are partially subsidizing a project that will disproportionately benefit the business class.

For all the claims that Rick DeVos is a rebellious guy who is stepping out from the shadows of his father and grandfather, we think it would be more accurate to say that he is continuing the family tradition of transferring wealth to a chosen few while most of the community struggles to meet its basic needs.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. July 27, 2011 8:33 pm

    This is a much needed article, I hope a lot of people read this one.

  2. July 27, 2011 10:44 pm

    Being a business incubator is as much about molding ideas to the way you want them to be as it is about encouraging individual vision. No one, including the Dick and Betsy Devos Foundation, gives $500,000 of their money without a plan in mind. Rick Devos’ Artprize is about molding a populist notion of what is art and how it should be thought of.

    Is Rick Devos following in the footsteps of his parents? The Dick and Betsy Devos Foundation’s recent foray into art’s management with the Devos Institute of Art’s Management at the Kennedy Center is a 22 million dollar investment in deciding how and who manages our local, national and international art institutions and organizations. Seems like the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

  3. Jeff Smith permalink*
    July 27, 2011 10:58 pm

    thanks for the comments Richard and for the additional analysis

  4. July 27, 2011 11:01 pm

    One might argue that Rick’s business ideas go unchallenged, I have never attended a Momentum-MI event so I can’t say for sure that the process does not involve any kind of SWOT analysis or other challenges. Jeff, have you been to a Momentum-MI meeting such that you can prove that challenges are not a part of the process? Obviously Sprout got challenged by the marketplace and it lost. I tired using Sprout by the way, having no idea who was behind it, and I found it to be clumsy. Apparently a lot of other people did too.

    As for ArtPrize, it also draws national news, and it draws in tourism dollars and it is a part of the bringing back the cool to GR which plays a major role in economic development. Sure, people who own hotels and dining establishments in town are rich. An argument can be made that their employees should be paid more. Or maybe we should pass a new law, that ArtPrize tourists can only eat at places owned by poor people. Oh, wait. Anyway, ArtPrize has brought more good to GR than if there were no ArtPrize.

    Money does not guarantee success. Sprout is a good example. If only it were that easy. It sounds like you just don’t like rich people, and no matter what good they do it is never good enough.

  5. Jeff Smith permalink*
    July 27, 2011 11:13 pm

    Jim, I have not been to a Momentum meeting, but their website seems pretty clear about a process that supports business-centered projects.

    If you are going to make the claim that ArtPrize has done more good than bad for the city then I’d like to see more evidence that this is the case. Also, how do you define city? My point is that the primary beneficiaries are those that own property downtown, which is a small sector of this community.

    Lastly, it is not a simple question of whether or not I don’t like rich people. The point of the article and other postings on this site is that those who promote capitalism do so at the expense of working people and the environment. My critique is not a personal thing it is a critique of what I would see as structural injustice and exploitation. It comes down to a fundamental question of how people who are identified as rich “made” their wealth. My read on that is they do it off the labor of others and then use their wealth to dictate social and economic policies that continue to benefit the very economic system that benefits the ownership class or the working class.

    Real democracy can not exist as long as you have a minority of people control the bulk of the wealth in this society.

  6. July 27, 2011 11:22 pm

    I think the question should be what is actually accomplished compared to what is being said is accomplished.
    Take ArtPrize as a case in point. Grand Rapids and the Devos family sell ArtPrize as a huge economic success for the city and as having a big effect on the art world with it “drawing national news”.
    From the professional art world point of view it hasn’t drawn that much national recognition as a major influence outside of it’s initial first year buzz. It’s controversial, being scene as an American Idol type of competition that replace knowledge about art with popular opinion.
    And the 7 million dollars injected into the local economy was generated off the backs of artists who have to pay all their expenses for the lure of a slim chance of winning the cash prize.
    The national artists organization W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy) says that it is time artist be paid for making the world a more interesting place and the promise of prizes is more a liability than a benefit. Do musicians come to play in Grand Rapids for free? Do you get to go to movies for free?
    So I agree with Jeff’s questioning that it is easy for Rick Devos to make all kinds of pronouncements. It never hurts to questions things that sound to good to be true.

  7. July 28, 2011 12:53 am

    VC/Incubation organizations are business centered. I’ve been looking at one myself (not Momentum) for projects I’m working on and yes I’d be leery of any VC that tries to move my company off from its progressive values. I believe it is possible to do business in a way that treats people and the environment right. Alot of people on both side of the aisle keep telling me it can’t be done. We’ll see. Are there any VC’s that do not focus on business? That’s just the nature of that kind of a VC company. To criticize it is like blaming a cat for having fur.

    Short answer to the benefit of ArtPrize to the community (I use the word “city” in the general metro area and community sense of the word) – The Rise of the Creative Class by Richard Florida. Short term direct benefit – sure downtown sector, long term benefit – read the book. Grand Rapids is specifically mentioned and I believe that with things like ArtPrize, and other creative things may help save GR from the doom predicted in the book.

    I do wholeheartedly agree with your last paragraph. Concentration of wealth… that’s what the debt ceiling debate is really about.

  8. July 28, 2011 12:59 am

    richard, see my comment above

  9. July 28, 2011 12:46 pm

    Jim, I’m glad you mentioned Florida’s book “The Rise of the Creative Class”. I think Florida’s work represents a confusing morphing of terminologies and ideas in an attempt to facilitate new ways of thinking. Florida’s premise is that the rise of post industrial cities is dependent on what he terms the “creative class”. Sounds like artists and designers and writers doesn’t it? Sort of.
    Florida separates the creative class into two categories 1)Super-Creative Core and 2)Creative Professionals. Sounds like artists and writers and designers doesn’t it? Not really.
    In fact artists ,designers and writers are only a small subset of Florida’s first classification. Florida sees the majority of the creative class as being the smartest people in science, engineering, education, computer programming, research who are the ones who are thinking of new commercial products and consumer goods.
    Richard Florida’s takes the typical understanding of the word ‘creative’ and makes it a business term. This concept is written all over the language of ArtPrize. The ArtPrize website is filled with hip sounding yet vacuous phrases like “You = Creator” and “ Art is the focus of the competition but the Community is the event”. If you watch closely you can hardly find a public announcement by Rick Devos or his parents where they don’t use the words ‘artist’ and “entrepreneur” together in the same phrase or sentence. Art to them is business. 5×5, Momentum, ArtPrize, ” creating”, are the new, fun, hip means of generating business ideas.
    You, along with Rick Devos may want to thank Richard Florida for that but I have a problem with the whole scheme. My problem is that art doesn’t serve such a corporate model. It never has. And whether you are a venture capitalist or the old Soviet Russia, if you try to manage pure art into what you think it should be, it disappears.
    Rick Devos wants to think of ArtPrize like he thinks of 5×5. He thinks Grand Rapids is this large venue where all artists have to do is show up and be creative. And he sees this model as fresh and unique, a sort of referendum against the current model of exhibiting art work in the real art world. But it isn’t any different really. A artists can’t just show up and find a space. They have to apply and be juried into the event just like they would have to be juried into any other type of art competition. The only difference being that in ArtPrize artists don’t really know who is doing the jurying. It all sounds new. Just like the words “creative class” sound new.

  10. July 28, 2011 2:30 pm

    Richard, I completely agree with you, and disagree with Jim. “The Rise of the Creative Class” is, in my opinion, a repellent book, and a self-serving one. It’s almost like a primer on how business people can capitalize and hold captive creative minds for profit and gain. And you are correct: art is not, and has never been, a servant of corporate interests. In fact, quite the opposite. So the entire premise is ludicrous.

    The book also promotes gentrification through its theory of “street level culture” to attract so-called creative types to your city in order that their skills can be co-opted by “entrepreneurs.” This part of the book always reminds me of the old-fashioned practice of leaving out a bottle trap of honey-laced wine so you can capture and kill flies in the summertime. “Come here, little fly…we have hipster bars, cool galleries, a thriving Twitterati society, AND a huge prize you can win for your work!” Right.

    Florida’s book is shaping up, in the long term, to have little basis in fact. There was a study done a couple of years ago that showed that what he calls the “creative class” was playing no part in any economic growth in the past two decades. Everything was still in the hands of the corporate elite.

    There’s a group of activists out of Toronto that are organizing against this premise and the way it’s used by greedy capitalists like the DeVos family–it’s called Creative Class Struggle. You might enjoy looking at their website, and Jim might find it instructive as well. Their mission statement reads, in part:

    “Creative class’ policies are designed to build money-making cities rather than secure livelihoods for real people. These policies celebrate a society based on inequality, in which a select group of glorified professionals is supported by an invisible army of low-wage service workers. Seduced by the promise of prosperity and growth, governments around the world are reorienting their economies along these ‘creative’ class lines without consulting immigrants, women, people of colour, low-wage workers, and others directly affected by their decisions.”

    Of course, now that Rick’s handlers have managed to teach him his Florida talking points, they probably will continue to use this positioning of ArtPrize for some time to come.

    Jeff, great article–thank you.

  11. July 29, 2011 11:40 pm

    You do realize that all of the old “master” painters and artists were completely funded and sustained by the wealthy elite that ran those societies right? Beethoven didn’t just write music for the fun of it. He wrote music and performed it at swanky house parties held by aristocrats swimming in cash, gold, and jewels.

    I don’t really know what the point of this article is.

    Rick DeVos is a capitalist!? OMG so surprising!

    What kind of capitalist, however, this article does not illuminate.

    However, based on Rick’s involvement in, my guess is one who at least has a bit of a mind toward social improvement, whatever form that takes

    I will say that you’re on point about his naive attitude about failure being somehow not an obstacle for anyone. If I had millions of dollars at my disposal via my wealthy family, I wouldn’t be afraid of failure either. Other people might be a bit more skittish about dropping a huge load of money on a failed business venture, however.

  12. Joel V. permalink
    July 30, 2011 9:58 pm

    Most excellent, and a great approach to understanding the news. Critical voices are very refreshing.

  13. July 31, 2011 9:15 pm


    There’s one crucial difference between the patrons of the Renaiisance periods forward and the “creative class” capitalists. Patrons like the Medici, the German ruling princes, the Spanish monarchs, etc., retained court painters and other artists to work primarily for their own families. Visual artists with patrons such as these would do family portraits…tutor the family’s children…create murals in various rooms at their estates…create their funeral monuments. The Medici had their court artists also create works for the citizens of Florence to enjoy; the Spanish monarchs would have their court painters and sculptors create art that memorialized battles, etc., to further their legacy among their subjects.

    These artists were not used to turn a profit. They were not be lured to live in specific places in order to go to work to generate more money for their patrons. Their art, although occasionally constrained by assigned subject matter, was relatively free of a profit motive during its creation and after its completion.

    Also, I’d say it’s as likely that Rick DeVos has the good of society at large at heart as it is for a cat to be a loving guardian of mice.

  14. August 1, 2011 11:58 am

    And isn’t it just a bit ironic that Rick Devos’s ArtPrize applied for and accepted a NEA grant for $100,000. The Devos family has long political ties to Dick Army who when he was in politics worked to dismantle the NEA. I thought Dick Devos ran on a platform to dismantle the government, not accept money from them.

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