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Some ArtPrize Questions Courtesy of The Grand Rapids Press

September 19, 2011

In Sunday’s Grand Rapids Press, Meijer Gardens curator Joseph Becherer (who will be curating the ArtPrize exhibits at the Gardens) enthuses about the event: “Can you feel the excitement?” he asks. “The energy?” Yes, we definitely feel the mosquito-like buzz, augmented by the constant local media coverage—as well as the sound of merchants and restaurateurs oiling the draws of their cash registers.

Becherer goes on to state that ArtPrize is a “discussion” and gives the readers some benchmark questions to ask themselves. So, in the case of economy, here are his questions and my answers. I’m offering them in advance, as I’m sure they will remain unchanged from my 2009 and 2010 answers.

The What. “What am I looking at?” Becherer advises we ask. “…What need might creating [this piece] fulfill for the artist?…What about it might attract or deter others? What value does it hold for you?”

Well, Joe. If I’m at ArtPrize, I could be looking at a piece that was specifically created to win a bucketload of cash. The need that caused the artist to create it was so that he/she could retire and actually do art with some meaning for the rest of his or her life.

What could deter others about the piece is wondering, “Did this piece actually come from a legitimate artistic vision? Does someone just suddenly dream that a giant Loch Ness monster or gigantic aluminum flowers might have a deep message about social justice, a personal trauma, childhood memory, or some other meaningful content? Or did they just think, ‘What’s the biggest and most attention-getting thing I can create for this circus?’”

Just having to worry about that issue means that many of the pieces automatically hold less value for me.

The How. “How was this object made? How does it hold together visually?…How does it compare with other art in your memory bank?”

Hmm. How the object was made, and how it holds together physically always seems to me to be a bigger concern at ArtPrize. As in, “Is that giant table and chair going to fall on my head?” As for how something holds together visually, since ArtPrize could be renamed “Battle of the Titanic Art Pieces Vying for Public Attention,” scale issues come to my mind. Is the Steam Pig actually larger than that pencil drawing of life-sized soldiers? Does that mean it will win? Did anyone notice those exquisite Japanese-style prints in the bank building? Nah. They were only 10” by 12”. They don’t have a chance.

As for how this all compares with other art in my “memory bank,” how do thousands of paper airplanes dumped off a building in a Midwestern city compare with the time I saw the Winged Victory in the Louvre? I really don’t think you want me to answer that question, Joe.

The Why. “This is a tough one. Ask yourself why this work was made from the perspective of the creator, the audience—and you.”

The answer: Why, Joe, is this a tough question? It was potentially made by the artist, as I mentioned before, because there is serious money involved. Why do people buy lottery tickets? Is that an artistic expression too?

The work could have been created after that artist captured one of the primo spots for ArtPrize public viewing, because frankly, if you’re not in the City Center, you’re toast. Location, location, location.

From the perspective of the majority of Grand Rapidians, the bigger, the better. We’re not, apparently, a very subtle population. Is it big and funny—like a monster pig or sea creature? Check: we love it. Does it have a heart-warming theme—like a giant penny for Mommy? Ahhh, cute….we love it. Does it display some technique we can’t figure out, like a sculpture made in shifting sand? Cool: we vote for that. But only if we get to see it while walking around the Monroe/pedestrian bridge area, eating a hot dog.

After all, we do have our standards.

And, from my perspective, why might this all be happening? That’s easy, too. According to the theory of the “creative class,” the next wave of big business profits are going to come from making city interiors appealing to so-called creative types so they’ll live there…and spend money there. The toehold is not what developers term gentrification (God forbid we ever use that word!) but “renewal.”

The DeVos family appears to know that the pyramid scheme model is dying; it’s only really working now in Third World countries, where people haven’t yet been stripped of all their available cash and still believe that American-style capitalism is going to make them rich…as opposed to just making the DeVos family richer.

So they’re branching out. Young Rick has marched to the front lines of the art world to start prepping the “creative class” strategy into a new cash cow for his family. He’s even offering his thoughts on “art entrepreneurship.” ArtPrize money is an investment, and the return on that investment could be huge. It’s already bringing in additional hotel, store and restaurant profits. Last year, there was even tacky “official” merchandise: hats and t-shirts for babies, drink bottles, and more. And that’s small change compared to its potential pay-out in years to come.

By contrast, a statement that was created by anti-“creative class” artists in the Detroit area a few years ago included this thought:

“We have seen what gentrification has done to other cities, displacing working class and poor people…In Detroit, it has faked progress, pretending to cure real issues of racism and poverty with fancy new buildings. Frankly we think it is boring and stupid. It is a cycle of destruction and reconstruction that could go on forever, but only benefits those who already have money. They say a rising tide lifts all boats, but that assumes that you have a boat.

Next time, Joe, please ask some harder questions.

29 Comments leave one →
  1. September 19, 2011 2:21 pm

    Richard Florida’s ( ‘The Rise of the Creative Class’) language about creativity and the creative has been adopted by art institutions, government, and politicians alike. His use of familiar sounding terminology attempts to homogenize what for years has remained a mystery to many – Art. Florida’s writing on the subject of art from a public policy position has become an insidious pox to the art community as a whole.

    Florida contends that the basis for the Creative Class is economic and is composed of two groups. The first being ‘The Super Creative Core’ includes computer and mathematical occupations, architects and engineering, the medical and social sciences. The arts and entertainment occupations are listed last. The second component is comprised of the ‘Creative Professionals’. These are management occupations, financial, legal, healthcare and sales occupations than support the Super Creative Core.

    A word search in “The Rise of the Creative Class’ for the words ‘creative’ or ‘creativity’ brings up those words roughly 1200 times. In comparison the word ‘artist’ appears only 48 times . Richard Florida’s idea of who is creative and what is creativity is broad but you don’t have to delve deep into the book before it becomes apparent that creativity to Florida equals capitalism.

    “ I define the highest order of creative work as producing new forms of designs that are readily transferable and widely useful- such as designing a product that can be widely made, sold, and used; coming up with a theorem or strategy that can be applied in many cases; or composing music that can be performed again and again.” Richard Florida

    This is the concept that Rick Devos has adopted for ArtPrize. You take the artist segment of the “creative class” and use it as a economic development plan for the business community in a perfect Richard Florida melding of business and creativity. “Art = Community” and ” You = Creator” are key Florida like slogans right from the ArtPrize website.

    In all my criticism of ArtPrize itself I maintain a champion of the artists. If most professional artists who enter ArtPrize new of the Koch Brothers type political activism of Dick and Besty Devos I doubt they would apply any longer. It’s a matter of educating them. But I also have high standards for my fellow artists. Not everyone who enters ArtPrize is really an artist. That’s part of the Richard Florida pox. All you have to do is call yourself an artist and enter a portrait made out of wine corks. That is why your seeing such bad art along with the good stuff.

  2. kswheeler permalink
    September 19, 2011 2:44 pm

    Richard, thanks as always for your incisive comments and additional information. I ddn’t want to take a side trip to explain Florida’s entire concept in the article, but you do a wonderful job here summing it up. He does refer to the “creative class” as being made up of hipster entrepreneurs more than artists. And, just like his acolyte Rick DeVos has shown us, it’s all about the profits in the end.

    I completely agree with your statement that there is legitimate, and even impressive, art to be found amidst the dubious at ArtPrize. Other people, who feel that art is a type of entertainment, will object (as they do every year) that ArtPrize is “fun” and “great for Grand Rapids,” etc.

    I think one of my main problems with the entries, as I indicated in the commentary, is finding myself troubled by how much the demand to “go big” and attract attention and popular support might undermine the integrity of the art being created.

    Thanks again.

  3. September 19, 2011 3:42 pm

    Great and good art can arise anywhere… even through venues such as ARTPRIZE, but it does not follow that great or good art is the natural and predetermined product of such an exercise. What is the purpose of investing so much into a single outlet for generating art when art by its nature and historical prerogative can (and I would say MUST) arise from so many diverse settings and streams of events, personalities and range of amount of available resources?

    Other questions I would ask about the art produced and presented through exercises like ARTPRIZE would go something like this: What about this art makes you shake in the shoes of your own core beliefs and values? Does it do this through its beauty or its terror or both? How does it make you love it in a way you have never experienced love? How might it offend you? Does the offense make the art worthy in how it makes you think or changes how you think, or is it superfluous and gratuitous? What is the main impulse in your attraction in spite of its offenses or its ability to incite love?

    I’ve just returned from a production of Titus Andronicus by Shakespeare. It is a play that explores the absurdity and terror in cycles of personal and political revenge. In one of the scenes a woman is brutally raped and has her hands and tongue cut off. This is art that was underwritten by the theatre goers and DeVoses of its day, hundreds of years ago. Its offense is also its great strength and its lasting power. How much of the contestant art of ARTPRIZE will risk such offense to serve the impact of the art?

    This is not to say that only art that does so is indeed art, but that in leaving out such a large proportion of possibility in art we denigrate and cheapen the exercise of such a contest and its outcome.

  4. TheJudge permalink
    September 19, 2011 4:42 pm

    Kind of can’t help feeling like this article is coming from a place of privileged hipsterdom. You have some legitimate criticisms on the way artprize was started, how it is run and how the devos klan is involved. You’re absolutely right, many many people enter artprize who are more motivated by the prize than the art.

    I guess my question is, unless you’re a snobby art purist, and only you and your liberal-arts educated, white middle-upper-middle class friends really KNOW what art REALLY is… unless you are that asshole, who cares if someone is trying to win a prize by making something cool to look at? If you don’t want to go to artprize, then stay home and read some Chomsky and let everyone else have some fun.

    “Art” is what you make it. It CAN be political and challenging and deeply moving/disturbing. And frankly, that’s my favorite kind. But who are you to shit on someone’s piece (especially minority “amateur” artists in poverty) just because it doesn’t conform to your vanguardist notions of what art is supposed to be?

    MOST importantly, what is the alternative you’ve come up with? You’ve provided NO ideas or alternatives whatsoever. You think that if artprize is cancelled, that gentrification will end, direct democracy will flourish and capitalism with be immediately replaced by gift-economy and mutual aid?

    artprize is cool and it’s a lot of fun and it gives a lot of people joy for a few weeks a year. I personally love that Daddy Warbucks is shelling out his money and I get to have a great time on his dime. So unless you have an alternative, just stay inside your towers of privilege and pretension and quit shitting on everyone else’s parade

  5. September 19, 2011 4:57 pm

    I’ve heard this argument before, that by decrying the limitations and exaggerations of something like ArtPrize one becomes or must be an elitist. But that in itself is an elitist argument and ignores the more democratic idea that art can, does and must come from many and all levels of humanity… most of which are not privy to the ability to produce or promote itself and its art in anything like the way ArtPrize and its entrties, and most especially the winners, are able to do. That such a huge amount of what are ultimately finite resources goes into the search for art in this way and leaves the rest to lanquish un discovered, seen or heard is elitist, shows a preference and a kind of censorship.

  6. TheJudge permalink
    September 19, 2011 4:58 pm

    You know what? I can be a real dick before I’ve had my coffee in the morning. I’m sorry if my comment came off super dick-ish. I don’t mean to attack you personally.

    However, I still am bothered by how much energy some people spend on criticizing artprize. Oftentimes, at the exclusion of actually coming up with an alternative.

    Perhaps you can answer this, but is artprize really hurting anyone or thing?

    My orientation towards the whole thing is to simply subvert the goals and aims of the corporate puppet-masters in small ways: don’t buy the official artprize merch, Make your own peice that contradicts the neolibral shit-show, don’t vote for shit you don’t like, don’t support the corporate businesses… and DO support the local folks who are trying to make our city better. DO figure out ways to enjoy life more, at the expense of the rich bastards and despite the rich bastards. Enjoying artprize doesn’t make me like devos. I just personally really really love and enjoy artprize, because it is more in line with the principles I believe in: you shouldn’t wait for “the professionals” to fix your life for you, just do-it-yourself, and it is very inclusive (something that “radicals” could learn from).

    I went to EMU for art for a year but I dropped it precisely because of this kind of hipster bullshit orientation towards art. as if there is some supreme authority on what is and is not good art. That is completely ass-backwards and antithetical to the values of democracy, community, equality and peace that you seem to purport.

  7. TheJudge permalink
    September 19, 2011 5:06 pm

    let me clarify. I’m not specifically decrying the decrying, because you’re correct that would be, perhaps, elitist as well. I am arguing against all the energy put into anti-artprize sentiments, when the existence of artprize does nothing to stop the existence of other art. (In my opinion, it probably serves to inspire more people to create.)

    I am also opposed to the disparaging remarks made about the penny collage’s creator, whom I believe was a 1st generation immigrant who was not part of the creative elite, but who nonetheless had something she wanted to say.

  8. September 19, 2011 5:13 pm

    You aren’t listening very closely.

    My favorite poetry came from a young homeless kid in an orphanage outside Nairobi Kenya. He read it in the yard between the corrugated metal huts (twenty or more to a hut, about approx 12’x 20′) where the kids lived and cooked over charcoal and had school where they learned about art. The play the kids wrote and produced there about being a homeless kid in Nairobi was likewise one of my favorite theatrical productions of all time. I could go on defending my artistic preferences, and in the end it sounds like we don’t so much disagree as you are bent on defending something that I, in the end, think is silly and not a very direct or inclusive way to promote art.

    I hold participation in such a venue against no one… and I know what art festivals with their food booths accomplish for a community that cannot sustain a large and constant presence of people in their market streets on a day to day basis. I do not begrudge them the opportunity to get people away from TV and the computer any somewhat disingenuous way they can short of marching them through bound and chained… and as I have said, I do not exlcude the possibility that decent, even moving, art can be a result… I just think the lack of inclusion of provacative political moving and dark art precludes the prize from being, in the end, about Art. I’ve no reason to pretend otherwise. Shit. I like corndogs and cotton candy as much as the next guy. It’s just not very good as a steady diet.

  9. September 19, 2011 5:23 pm

    TheJudge’s question is a little crass but a fair one that I hear often. I think his point is that people knowledgeable about art, people in the field of art seem to him to be elitist and that art is anything anyone wants it to be and ArtPrize is fun for the whole darn family and thank god for the Devos’s giving the shinny penny a chance to win last year.

    But I’m afraid TheJudge is going to more and more disillusioned because ArtPrize under pressure from critics has already started to become more “elitist” ( TheJudge’s word not mine). They have realized if they really want the art world to take them seriously they need to have less shinny pennies and flying pigs and more pieces like Beili Liu’s “Lure/Wave Grand Rapids” and have organized more exhibition centers that are curated by knowledgeable experts. They even have given in to pressure and now have juried awards that are awarded by even more professional experts in the field of art.
    I think someone at ArtPrize is smart enough to realize you can create a competition that will attract real artists with real international appeal or you can have a fun for the whole darn family flying pigfest but in the long run you can’t have both.

  10. kswheeler permalink
    September 19, 2011 6:37 pm

    Bob and Richard, thanks for your great comments. They cover a lot of points I would make in response to The Judge’s remarks. Bob, loved your example of the enduring power of Titus Andronicus; we’d be lucky in GR to see one work emerge from ArtPrize with the same kind of force and horror.

    But ArtPrize entries, by the very nature of the competition, seem to me to be largely sanitized by anything “messy” or controversial: rape, lust, politics, hate, the ravages of ambition. I would think it’s clear that a piece does have to be “family friendly” in order to have a hope of winning.

    Just wanted to add a couple of points:

    1.The Judge’s comments equating knowledge about art and elitism mirrors comments sound strikingly to me like those made by far-right-wing conservatives. They, too, feel that the academic study of any subject is “elitist.”

    But the fact is that everyone looks at art from their own perspective, and that includes a mix of emotional response, a level of education in art, and how a piece speaks to their own experiences. There’s no getting around that.

    2. I think it’s easy to say, “Hey, it’s fun, just enjoy it.” If ArtPrize was put on by some local crafts guild, I’d say that too.

    But ArtPrize represents in my opinion a kind of capitalist takeover, and one would have to be pretty naive not to see that.

    Example: the DeVos family just essentially bought the UICA for their little Rick; they poured money into the new building, which purchased a seat on the board for Rick. He’s moving his own organization into the old building a stone’s throw away.

    Now, suddenly the UICA is the official “celebration” launching pad for AP. They are putting on a lavish brunch, complete with Bloody Marys and mimosas, to discuss ArtPrize’s”legacy”. Even more disturbing is the UICA plans for a series of classes on helping artists become professional business owners operarting “professional creative practices.”

    See an alarming trend here? I do.

    3. I can assure The Judge I am the farthest thing from a “hipster” that you will ever meet.

    4. Why on earth would it be my responsibility to come up with an alternative to ArtPrize? Seriously?

  11. kswheeler permalink
    September 19, 2011 6:38 pm

    Richard, I also wanted to quote a great comment you made on GRIID earlier about ArtPrize that fits with this discussion:

    “ArtPrize may be proud that they bring both good art and bad art to Grand Rapids but I question why would you even want to bring bad art into the mix? The only reason I can think of why you feel that would be important is because you want a world where art isn’t about knowledge or history but rather about popular opinion. And in ArtPrize the more average opinions win.”

  12. September 19, 2011 7:19 pm

    Thanks ks! I recently wrote a letter to the CEO of ArtServe Michigan asking about the appropriateness of a non-profit arts agency partnering with a organization backed by the Dick and Betsy Devos Foundation. There reply seemed less than interested.

  13. September 19, 2011 8:18 pm

    Interesting about UICA… didn’t know that. I remember when Twilight Tribe Poets did a naked poetry reading there. Guess that wouldn’t go over so big now eh? It was great fun for the whole family in my mind. By the way…. anyone have a taping of that event?

  14. kswheeler permalink
    September 20, 2011 12:29 am

    Yes, I’d say the chances of a naked poetry reading at the UICA these days are about as good as Rich DeVos giving away all his money and joining an ashram.

    Bob, you’d probably be surprised at how swiftly the DeVos family is co-opting the arts organizations here. Actually, it was Jeff Smith who first let me know about the UICA situation, and shortly afterward I read some additional things about it on MLive.

    Naked poetry with the Twilight Tribe…sorry that I missed out on that.

  15. randomdot permalink
    September 20, 2011 11:29 am

    Sounds to me like TheJudge is just a capitalist sympathizer and an apologist for the DeVos family.

  16. September 20, 2011 12:36 pm

    I think TheJudge is asking a fair question that most likely is on the minds of many local Rapidians who really enjoy the event…..’ is artprize really hurting anyone or thing?’

    The answer is yes.

    The more local politics gets the more participatory it becomes. I may not be able to have a direct effect on politics in Washington but I can have some effect in my backyard.
    The media is filled with stories of the Koch Brothers buying their political influence and investing in social and cultural programs. Dick and Betsy Devos and their evangelical foundation are Michigan’s Koch Brothers.

    Their attack is on a social and cultural level using the tactic of replacing knowledge on the issues with popular opinion. Whether the topic is intelligent design in the schools or art on the streets they are betting on conservative opinion winning over professional knowledge. This is the foundation of ArtPrize. Hidden behind the smoke screen of economic development and a fun art experience for everyone is an insidious anti-intellectualism, a dumbing down of the aesthetic experience.

    ArtPrize could but chooses not to distinguish between a copper shinny penny sculpture and Beili Liu’s “Lure/Wave Grand Rapids”. The design of ArtPrize fosters mediocrity and subjects artists to groveling in the streets for a chance at the prize.

    Now Grand Rapids has Rick Devos on the boards of both the UICA and the GRAM. He will be speaking later this month at a conference on ‘Creativity and Biblical Wisdon” at ‘Cornerstone University’s Institute for Christian Cultural Engagement’. The evangelical Devos family is personally invested in the cultural institutions of the city. Their brand of dominionist beliefs is being steered onto the national cultural arena with the $22 million dollar ‘Devos Institute of Arts Management at The Kennedy Center’ that provides arts management and organizational training for arts organization, institutions, museums and organizations around the country.
    These are dangerous developments for all artist. The Conservative Christian Right have never won the legal battle over the definition of pornography (Cincinnati v. Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center 1990) but realizes a battle can be won as to how people think about art. That battle Dick Devos said “is to be fought at the state level.”
    To look the other way and ignore these politics when it comes to ArtPrize is a personal choice but the results have future ramifications for all artist and our cultural institutions.

  17. Brett Colley permalink
    September 20, 2011 3:57 pm

    I think it is appropriate (CRITICAL, even) for engaged citizens to feel suspicion when an institution as powerful as the DeVos Family Foundation extends its wealth as support to our cultural organizations. Clearly, the DeVos family has a great deal of power and influence to assert in this region (and nationally.) However, I do think it is somewhat unfair to assert a sense of conspiratorial insight into the internal mechanisms of a relationship like the one between the DeVos family and the UICA without more investigation/better understanding.

    As a long-time advocate and current (7-year) Curatorial Board member, I can offer my perspective. (Take it as you will.) I don’t believe anything about the fundamental mission of the UICA has shifted from the Sheldon location to the new building. In fact, I think the “new” UICA is as willing to entertain the prospect of a naked Poetry Reading as it ever was…(assuming it was high-caliber poetry and there was some meaning to the bared skin!) The UICA was offering (or hosting) workshops on how to be a professional artist long before the shift to this new facility. Such programming was not inspired or initiated by ArtPrize or DeVos money, but stems from the UICA’s mission to educate and prepare the next generation of artists who want to earn their living from their craft.

    DeVos money comes smothered in a suspect smell; I certainly appreciate that. I don’t trust money. I don’t trust my OWN relationship to money; no one should. That said, I do trust Jeff Meeuwsen and the dedicated staff of the UICA to adhere to their long-standing ideals to the best of their ability, faced with a mercurial economy and its attendant pressures. They’re a great MIX of authentic people/personalities, as emotionally invested in arts culture as I am. None of us agrees with the others 100% about what should be done, or how. It’s a dynamic union of ideas. Again, keeping some heat on the UICA (and others) to stay their course in service of the broad community is appropriate, but I want to discourage folks from lighting their torches just yet.

  18. September 20, 2011 4:21 pm

    I’m sorry to monopolize this discussion but I feel passionate about it.

    I appreciate you position. But I question whether we would be as open and forgiving if a Monsanto employee was on the board of Whole Foods or even your local food co-op? Are we not all in agreement that it was wrong for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas who worked for Monsanto to recently rule in favor of his old boss regarding Monsanto’s GMO alfalfa? Rick Devos sits on your board of directors and recently said in an interview his parents and grand parents are his business role models. Should this not give all artists reason for concern?

  19. Brett Colley permalink
    September 20, 2011 5:52 pm

    I concede that it is reasonable for the UICA (Board of Directors) to ask Rick DeVos to recuse himself from any decisions regarding…(ArtPrize)? In fact, I have every reason to imagine that the Board has already been engaged in this practice. I trust the ethical judgement of folks like Kathryn Chaplow, Yolanda Gonzalez, etc. In my life as an academic we operate regularly as committees, and we certainly make consequential group decisions wherein some faculty have clear conflicts of interest. Under those circumstances, my colleagues and I remove ourselves from the process. I’d be genuinely surprised (and disappointed) to learn that the UICA Board was including R.D. in decisions pertaining to DeVos-related matters.

    I appreciate the passion of your arguments and the integrity of your position. Woud I prefer that the UICA never accepted another dime (and never felt the need to) from the DeVos clan? Yes, certainly. Do I think that DeVos money has skewed the UICA’s programming to more conservative values? No. On this I can speak not only theoreticially, but from practice. DeVos $$ support hasn’t changed the way in which our Curatorial Board chooses art or artists. The only visual arts-related decision in recent history that the Curatorial Board (all volunteers, by the way) has not had great agency in making is whether or not to serve as an ArtPrize venue. This was never a vote, but a decision made by the UICA staff. Though it may be easy for you or others to criticize that decision (and trust me, there were those of us on the CB who were not thrilled) and to interpret it as a concession to DeVos support, I would suggest that the REAL pressure imposed upon the UICA to participate in ArtPrize wells up from the CITY/community itself. Given its marketing force and obvious popularity in this region, it would have been clearly detrimental for the UICA not to wave the AP banner.
    I’m no more excited/please about those conditions than you, perhaps, but I sympathize with the quandary. It has less to do with RD on the board (In 2009 he may still have been only a prospective member…I don’t recall) and more to do with cultural expectations and the need for the city’s broad-based support. Sadly, the UICA cannot operate on integrity alone, or the credibility it retains with its toughest critics. We don’t pay the utilities.

    Jurying work for ArtPrize has become a volunteer act for an already volunteer Curatorial Board. We are not “forced” to do it. However, the process is quite similar to that employed during other seasons, for other programs, and the ART itself is
    of the same sensibilities…no censorship. In short, I don’t feel that the DeVos money has had any effect on the work we choose to exhibit, and the moment it DOES is the moment I resign from the Curatorial Board and retract my own financial support.

  20. September 20, 2011 7:08 pm

    Thanks for your detailed reply. My Clarence Thomas analogy was a poor one and I regret making it. I didn’t mean to suggest the problems was Rick Devos affecting the curatorial decisions of the UICA. From what I have seen the UICA has been one of the saving graces of AP. It’s the one stop I’ll make next week.
    My concern is the referendum AP makes against the established art world. The suggesting that the conversation needs rebooting, the emphasis on the public vote over knowledge and all the Richard Florida references given in above replies. UICA is now a willing partner in all that and with Rick Devos on the board and Devos money in the house thats probably not going to change.

  21. Brett Colley permalink
    September 20, 2011 11:04 pm

    Wiith respect to everything you’ve just stated, I am whole-heartedly sympathetic. I’ve very much appreciated and related to your intensive critiques of AP…there’s so much there to wrestle with. I look forward to future discourse. Even, one day, in person.
    The King of Poor Analogies (or at least one of the royal court),

  22. kswheeler permalink
    September 21, 2011 12:12 am

    Brett and Richard, thanks so much for the discussion–very interesting. Brett, I appreciate your inside view of the UICA since the DeVos involvement. I’m very sorry to say that I don’t share your optimism, though, that things are going to remain relatively unchanged.

    When I look at the UICA website, I see event after event that is ArtPrize-DeVos-fueled: seminars for schoolkids using AP as a “learning lab.” The opening celebration held at the UICA building. The AP legacy brunch. The event where artists come, present their ArtPrize entries, and beg the public for votes. And the two-day seminar in October that teaches artists how to build their work into a “professional creative practice” that generates profits. This seminar teaches everything from planning fundraisers to developing business plans to looking for corporate sponsors, and it’s co-sponsored by ArtPrize AND the UICA.

    I see Rick DeVos’s fingerprints all over these events. Right now the entire events section looks like something that fits right into his own business model/agenda….especially that seminar.And it all goes way beyond just agreeing to have UICA serve as an ArtPrize venue.

    Even more disturbing was the quote I found on the webpage about the new UICA facility. In large, colored type is a quote, not by these people you speak of who have such integrity about the UICA vision, but by Rick DeVos. He states, “This [the new facility] is our opportunity to create a new gateway to downtown that is anchored by the UICA, a fundamental institution.”

    So…he’s appears to be saying that the UICA is to become a draw and an “official gateway” into AmWapids, the city that is essentially owned and run by his parents. I don’t see this as a positive trend.

    I love the UICA and it’s been an important resource since its Race Street days. But I’m afraid that it got greedy. The UICA folks wanted that big, shiny building so much that they sacrificed their independence to get it. Anyone who lives in GR knows that the DeVos family does nothing for free. It makes me sad, although I sincerely hope that you’re right and the changes that are coming are minimal and that the public will still benefit more than the UICA’s new corporate masters.

  23. Groucho_Marx_Paris1968 permalink
    September 21, 2011 6:17 pm

    Why does art have to be a competition? Is this a misogynist sport’s event or an attempt to shake people’s minds thru. audio/visual manifestations of the artist’s own? I agree that art is subjective, here is a work that was created based upon a survey of what people liked to see the most in their art…,r:4,s:25&tx=121&ty=45

    I think it’s shit, but whatever. The problem I have with artprize is not vast amounts of work that doesn’t do anything for me, it’s…
    1. The Prize
    2. Increased workload of workers in key downtown areas – I have many friends who work in the places everyone goes to, and they literally have no free-time for the entirity of artprize, their lives become their job. Their bosses might as well put cots up in the back of the stores.
    3. Corporate Take-Over – like what’s been said before, the UICA’s connection to DeVos, Florida’s book that tries to connect creativity and profit, All major businesses + MLive being a super annoying hype-machine weeks if not months before Artprize DDay.

    On the positive side, I have seen some great works, things that moved me. Yet I don’t feel indebted to ArtPrize for this. I don’t see why Grand Rapids under a different society…ie, not capitalism, couldn’t have ArtPrize like events all year round. There Judge! I devoted 1 min. of my time to have some kind of alternative! 🙂

  24. Brett Colley permalink
    September 22, 2011 4:14 pm

    ks –

    I feel compelled to address some pretty serious misperceptions you have (and are sharing) regarding the UICA’s programming through the ArtPrize calendar. In expressing your unwavering suspicion of the UICA’s current trajectory, you listed several events from the UICA’s website that you’ve attributed to the influence of ArtPrize/RD. However, the majority of this activity is standard fare…

    I’m not sure what one would find so nefarious about a children’s “learning lab” at the UICA (which employs educators as part of its staff and is filled with thought-provoking artworks)…? Kids can/should learn through access to art. As I’m sure you’re well aware, this is activity very much lacking/under-funded in our public schools, which makes the UICA programs that much more valuable. The UICA’s educational staff, Elizabeth Gooddard and Becca Schaub, are fantastic people (NOTE: I’m connecting abstract concepts to names/people) Those are most decidely THEIR “fingerprints” on ARTcation; It’s their concept, their title, their programs. Again, Elizabeth and Becca were doing such programming long before ArtPrize, and have done similar things around past exhibits at the UICA, such as Material After-Life, (S)Edition, Associations, and We WANT kids to learn from art, no matter what else is happening in the city this time of year.

    Opening Celebration
    As I’m also sure you know, when exhibits open – during ANY season – it is traditional that we (the UICA) celebrate (with a reception.) Of course this particular party coincided with the opening of ArtPrize. To what end would the UICA fail welcome the public that night, ignoring the opportunity to capture their share of an already captive AP crowd? The curators are proud of the exhibits, the artists are excited to present them. Is ArtPrize dictating the schedule here? Absolutely. It (AP) has forced the reconfiguration of the UICA’s calendar since 2009 and I don’t care for it…but I do not begrudge the UICA (who are ultimately serving the artists on display) from taking part in the celebration. Like the UICA, dozens of other venues also threw parties on opening night of AP, and Rick DeVos does not sit on their boards.

    Creative Many for Artists
    Again, seminars on how to make a living as an artist (such as Creative Many for Artists, which was developed by ArtServe Michigan, not ArtPrize) have a history at the UICA that pre-date ArtPrize. Some of these workshops have been developed by UICA staff, some have been hosted by the UICA but facilitated by other entities, such as the Grand Rapids Arts Council and the Avenue for the Arts. Portfolio building is integral to any working artist, whether capitalist or not.

    Legacy and Desire
    As for the “Legacy” event you referred to, you’re not reading closely. The UICA’s Brunch and Banter series is organized around themes this year, similar to those of the popular “ART:21” PBS series. “Legacy” in this context does not refer to ArtPrize or the DeVos clan, but to the work of the artists who will be speaking on that afternoon about their work. If you jump to conclusions about one word like this, you can incite irresponsible, inflammatory gossip.

    I SHARE your reservations concerning the “Soap Box Series” which, as you point out, can amount to artists pandering to the audience for votes, or worse, denigrating other participants. It’s clearly no forum for sophisticated critical discourse around arts and culture. So, I empathize with your suspicion on that count, but I cannot support your critique of a “learning lab” (sounds great to me…art and kids and education), a portfolio building workshop or an artist discussion series. You may be equally as critical of me for my role as an educator. I teach a course at GVSU entitled Senior Seminar in which I help students to build websites, document their work, build a resume, write a bio, etc. These are the standard, self-promotional practices of our discipline as PROFESSIONAL ARTISTS, whether we wish to apply for grants, exhibitions, residencies, work, etc. What alternative to a professional creative practice do you propose? Must we remain amateurs in order to retain our credibility?

    I want to close by emphasizing that no one has appointed me as an apologist for the UICA, and I am certainly not wading into this discourse to defend/advocate for the marriage of DeVos dollars to our cultural institutions. I share the vast majority of Richard’s concerns, and also seek to preserve civic life, inform our democracy and insulate art from corporate interests and homogenizing forces. Much of my distaste for ArtPRize stems from the vast orange NET that descends over all creative expression in this region, claiming it as it’s own.

    Yet, in the midst of that, longtime volunteers like myself have worked to produce events/programs of integrity and merit, DESPITE the context of this insidious/ridiculous competition that, as Richard stated so succinctly, substitutes/confuses popular opinion with knowledge. I want the efforts of behind-the-scenes educators like Elizabeth Goddard and Becca Schaub to be celebrated, not scorned. They didn’t create the context…but they are working industriously to make the most of it, to take advantage of an unwieldy influx of interest in art to shape a new generation of supporters. They are NOT focused on art as commodity, or competition, but on the intrinsic (not instrumental) values of art.

    I don’t care to see anyone (even inadvertently) malign such wary, earnest workers.

    KS, Richard, everyone still following along, I’m enjoying our dialogue.


  25. Brett Colley permalink
    September 22, 2011 4:30 pm

    I meant “weary, earnest workers”.

  26. Brett Colley permalink
    September 22, 2011 4:58 pm

    ks –
    There’s one other thing that I meant to address:
    You indicated that you were disturbed by a quote you found on the (UICA’s?) webpage about the new UICA facility. It’s from Rick DeVos, who states, “This [the new facility] is our opportunity to create a new gateway to downtown that is anchored by the UICA, a fundamental institution.” Then you offered an interpretation: He (DeVos) “appears to be saying that the UICA is to become a draw and an “official gateway” into AmWapids, the city that is essentially owned and run by his parents.”
    My own displeasure with this quote stems from the fact that the name of Rick DeVos has now attained such status/prestige cache in our creative culture. Rather than a prominent artist, curator or even a city leader, the UICA elected to use the “popular guy”. That said, I don’t think there’s anything particularly inflammatory or political about the statement…it’s pretty banal; typical promotional rhetoric. In all honesty, I think the idea of a non-profit contemporary arts center becoming a cultural hub or civic point of pride is pretty exciting. There are many other sorts of civic institutions I’d love to see flourish and celebrated, as well…but it’s not as if this hyperbole was uttered in reference to the latest school of finance.

  27. September 22, 2011 5:12 pm

    Brett, I also appreciate your thoughtful insight. Your perspective on the UICA is important in this discussion and I appreciate the fact that you are taking the time to give us your personal opinion.

    I think the underlying issue in Rick Devos’s involvement with the UICA and the GRAM, and his parents involvement for that matter, is their active and vocal conservative politics. Some people have accused me of being unfair to Rick Devos, who I have never met personally. They defend him by saying personal politics and religious beliefs are somehow separate from cultural arts involvement. The battle for artistic freedom and aesthetic quality has always been a battle of political and religious beliefs. Rick Devos recently said that his parents and his grand parents are his biggest role models. Does his share their political and religious agenda?

    Betsy Devos has been a national leader against public schools and in favor for using public money for religious education. They have worked for years to destroy public education, which includes art education for all children in the state.

    The Devos’s political fight to reduce state and federal government has all but eliminated any real state arts agency advocating for Michigan’s cultural institutions and artists. And in it’s place we have the non- profit, private ArtServe Michigan which seems to be more interested in promoting the business of creativity than creativity itself. Their artist as entrepreneur terminology is right out of the Richard Florida/ArtPrize playbook and it seems dubious that they have partnered with ArtPrize. Why then?

    I could go on but the point is we all accept the fact that ones politics impacts business and how our society functions. That includes the arts and cultural sector. To be fair Rick Devos is probably being singled out amongst other board members who may have similar beliefs. But then again other board members do not have the wealth and political power that the Devos name has. That should be a concern for every artist.

  28. kswheeler permalink
    September 22, 2011 10:29 pm

    Brett, as a former educator myself, I would consider the UICA website a “primary resource.” I have to say that resent your statement that I am spreading “misconceptions” about the UICA’s involvement with DeVos and ArtPrize when both are splashed across your website like a recurring theme in a symphony. As an “outsider,” what am I supposed to think when it appears that at least 80 percent of your current events exist to hawk ArtPrize, ACCORDING TO YOUR OWN COPY ON THE WEBSITE?

    I’m glad you agree with my assessment of the Soapbox series event. It is in the worst possible taste, and I’m frankly surprised that the UICA board agreed to it. It’s the kind of trashy thing, however, that one has come to expect from the DeVos family. As my father often remarked, money cannot buy taste.

    I am aware that you have opening events for new exhibits, but the text describing this event calls it The ArtPrize Opening Celebration, which sounds like it’s a celebration of the beginning of ArtPrize, not a party for the artists who are displaying work in the UICA galleries. It is promoted FIRST in the descriptive text as a place where one can complete one’s ArtPrize voting registraton: “Come to UICA to complete your ArtPrize 2011 voter registration and take part in an opening celebration of ArtPrize exhibitions…”

    The UICA is also holding an AP preview night, which most venues are not doing–furthering the impression of ArtPrize promotion.

    The opening sentence of the “Legacy and Desire” brunch is, “Start your ArtPrize experience with an insightful event …” which certainly gives the impression that it, too, is more about ArtPrize than anything else.

    I said nothing to malign the people who run the workshops for students (or any of the staff, for that matter), and I’m aware that other events and venues are explored in this program. But using ArtPrize as a “learning lab” features AP to impressionable kids as a great, fun experience that gets them out of school for a day (and as someone who has been in classrooms, I know how much that is valued). It also, as Richard might also point out, introduces all art, good and terrible, as having roughly the same value–which is one of the difficulties of ArtPrize. And there is a certain stinging irony of promoting ArtPrize to schoolkids given the DeVos family’s scorn for public education.

    As for the “Creative Many” seminar, it says right in the copy that it is co-sponsored by the UICA AND ArtPrize. The message is very similar to the one that Rick DeVos has been hawking around town: artists should think of themselves as businesspeople. And yes, artists have to figure out how to make a living so that they can keep doing their art…but encouraging things like corporate sponsorships and self-fundraisers and keeping profit and balance sheets seems to me to take the focus off art and onto the business side, which I think tends to get in the way of creative effort. (I speak here as the niece of a well-known artist who did manage to make a living as an artist, but not by selling himself as a court jester to a corporation or holding cocktail parties to raise money for himself). And there’s that ArtPrize name emblazoned in the description again.

    I did and do question the UICA’s staff’s judgement in accepting DeVos money, which I think is going to come at a very high price over time.

    But I never denigrated their value to the community or their expertise, as you suggest in your post. I have not “scorned” them and their work–far from it if you reread my posts. And It is clear to me that you are not a DeVos apologist, and that some of this crap unsettles you as well; you didn’t need to re-explain that.

    But I suggest to you that you and your board should take a good, long look at your current, ArtPrize-laden website, with everything from the AP-framed events to the Rick DeVos quote. If you don’t want to give the general public the impression that the UICA is rapidly being subsumed by the DeVos family interests, I suggest that some rewriting, at the very least, is in order.


  1. Works on paper |

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