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The Political Economy of ArtPrize – Part I

October 4, 2011

There have been numerous articles written in recent weeks critiquing the quality of the art in this year’s ArtPrize. Some of what has been said is important and needs to continue.

However, there is an aspect of ArtPrize that hasn’t been addressed and that is the economic impact that the art competition has on Grand Rapids. This is what I hope to look at in two separate articles.

First, there have been previous estimates and a current study is being done on the economic impact, but little discussion has been placed on whom are the primary beneficiaries of the money being spent during Artprize. Secondly, there has been virtually no investigation into the Rick DeVos created entity’s own finances, sponsors and the political significance of that funding.

Part I – Who Benefits

About a month ago I was reading an excellent book by Gergory Sholette entitled, Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture. It is a wonderful critique of this shift to art creation as a mechanism of economic development.

I tend to take books no matter where I go, so I have been out at numerous places and people will ask what is that book about. I respond and say I am reading it before ArtPrize starts for new insight into understanding the annual event. People often say they have some issues with the event as well, but “at least it is good for the economy.

But what do people mean, “it’s good for the economy?” The economy is not an entity or some benevolent institution, it is a financial system that is designed to primarily benefit the capitalist class. Therefore, the question that should be asked is, who benefits financially from Artprize? So lets look at how people are spending money and who that money disproportionately goes to.

First, based on the insane amount of car traffic in recent weeks, it is safe to conclude that lots of people are driving to come downtown. This means that the oil companies and parking lot owners are making big money. In downtown Grand Rapids, the two primary beneficiaries of paid parking are the City itself and Ellis Parking, which has substantial control over urban parking in Grand Rapids, Lansing and Flint.

Second, people are eating and drinking at restaurants and clubs in downtown Grand Rapids. According to the Experience Grand Rapids site, there are 80 restaurants in the downtown area. The primary beneficiaries of money being spent at these places are the owners, owners like John & Greg Gilmore. Sure wait staff might make extra tips, but do you think that those who cook, wash dishes and clean these establishments are getting a raise during Artprize? Another thing generally overlooked about people going to restaurants during ArtPrize is that is more people are coming downtown that means that less people are eating in neighborhoods like Alger Heights or Grandville Avenue.

A third way people are spending money in downtown Grand Rapids is on hotel rooms. There are not many downtown hotels, but it is worth noting that the majority of those hotels are owned by the DeVos family. Again, the owners of those hotels are the primary beneficiaries of the money being spent on hotel rooms. Sure there are people employed in those hotels, but do you think the men and women who clean the rooms and change the linen are making a livable wage or get extra pay during ArtPrize?

A fourth economic beneficiary of ArtPrize are venues that are not restaurants, bars or hotels. Places like the various museums downtown, the convention center and other non-service industry venues are making money. Again, the question should be asked who are the primary economic beneficiaries of these venues? One could argue with the museums that it helps keep their doors open and provides financial resources for them to bring new exhibits to town.

A fifth group that benefits are businesses that sell art supplies or commodities used in ArtPrize installations, such as hardware stores, big box stores and any place that carries paint, construction material, etc. Since there are a limited number of stores that carry these items, most of the materials are being purchased from big box stores like Meijer, Home Depot, Wal-Mart or Lowes. Of course there are people who are using recycled material in their art, but the primary beneficiaries of these art material purchases are the owners of those stores.

A sixth economic beneficiary are the people employed temporarily by artists to haul or help install pieces. There are a few companies, some local, that are making money off of transporting pieces, especially the larger ones.

Some people might also want to include in the group of economic beneficiaries being artists. A few artists will win monetary prizes, some will sell art because of ArtPrize and some might say that greater exposure is to their benefit. However, lets be clear that the over 1,000 artists who submitted works of art this year are fundamentally contributing free labor.

There might be people we overlooked who economically benefit from the annual art competition, but the primary beneficiaries are the owning class, which has not been reflected in past studies done on the economic impact of ArtPrize. The study done last year by GVSU estimated that $7 – 7.5 million in economic activity was generated because of ArtPrize, but that study did not acknowledge that most of that money went to the people who own the hotels, restaurants, clubs and parking lots.

The group hired to do the study on the 2011 economic impact of ArtPrize is the Anderson Economic Group (AEG) based out of Lansing. However, looking at that business’s profile it is clear that they operate in the service of the financial sector, which is why the Economic Club of Grand Rapids hosted AEG’s founder In September and spoke on Michigan’s economy. Considering who the Anderson Economic Group serves, do we really think they will be looking at how ArtPrize benefits working class families?

The answer of course is no. ArtPrize economically benefits the owning class and the so-called creative class, which is ultimately about promoting enterprise culture. This sentiment was best described by local business elite Sam Cummings in 2009. “Our long-term goal is really to import capital – intellectual capital, and ultimately real capital. And this (ArtPrize) is certainly an extraordinary tool.”

There may be some trickle down economic benefits to working people by ArtPrize, but it is primarily an engine for wealth that gushes up.

(Part II of this article will focus on the finances of ArtPrize as an entity, their sponsors and its political/economic significance.)

17 Comments leave one →
  1. October 5, 2011 11:11 pm

    Jeff, I agree with all of your points except #4. The museums and non-profit venues may see a bump in membership during artprize, but because entry is free and hours often extended all that adds to their payroll and utilities. A friend who works at GRAM said imagine how many more times the toilets get flushed during artprize alone and you start to understand that these venues are not cashing in unless you count the sickening amount of ap merchandise which venues must pay for.

    I would like to see the rules changed so no restaurants, bars or hotels could be venues, but you know that will not happen.

    Thanks for your insightful article.

  2. Anthony permalink
    October 9, 2011 4:00 pm

    Great article! I think another important economic consideration should be the $100,000 grant that Art Prize received from the National Endowment for the Arts. The still relatively new Chairman has refocused the department to promote the economic benefits of art and artist. Hence the new slogan “Art Works.” This is nothing new as I’m sure you read in the book. Even the slogan has been used by some arts org or other in most cities (remember the youth art program Art Works at the UICA?). Obviously there are a lot of problems with this sort of investment, not the least of which is the instrumentalization and commodification of artist and art. But even if there were no problems with the stated goal of using arts to support economic activity, I don’t see much evidence of Art Prize and the $100,000 being used to engage artists.

    Obviously stimulating the economy via artists doesn’t necessarily mean that Art Prize would need to employ artists, but I think the NEA should aim for that sort of labor if they are going to make “Art Works” their slogan. Why? Two reasons.

    1) Art is wonderful and does, as you’ve mentioned, often create financial gains for some (emphasis on the some) people, but planners, investors, and economic developers are never going to consider it a primary or relatively stable form of stimulating the economy. The NEA grants could stimulate projects that have a high likelihood of success, but wouldn’t find funding through traditional market-based or philanthropic funding sources.

    2) Several times a year I write letters, send e-mails, attend events and cast votes that I think will help support the National Endowment for the Arts. I do this because, despite being a deeply troubled organization for most of my life, the NEA is something I believe in and want to see prosper in a useful way. I do this because they are one of the few places in the federal government that has a stated interest in the well being of artists and the place of art in our communities. I certainly don’t expend all that effort so that a bunch of restaurants can sell mediocre soups, salads, and sandwiches to visitors. If I sound a little protectionist, it’s because I feel like I need to see something that connects my belief in the organization with their work in the field.

    I will be very interested to see if we ever get a reliable sense of how many artists are employed by/because of Art Prize.

  3. John A C Despres permalink
    October 10, 2011 12:30 am

    Some thoughts to add…

    The money being spent with parking services and oil companies is a bit of a canard. It is a distraction away from the multiple police officers working overtime, the parking facility that will stay open later offering extra hours to employees. There are pedicab owners making extra money due to the crowds that either walked or drove into downtown. the use of taxi services may have been up as well. As to paying the City of Grand Rapids for a parking service, I think I’d rather do that than pay a private corporation.

    To indicate that restaurants in outlying areas are suffering because a downtown facility is full because of a special event is another distraction away from reality. This is a special event for many and perhaps dining out as part of the evening downtown is a treat. I cannot possibly imagine every single person eating a hot dog or a fine steak downtown during ArtPrize would be doing the same thing in another neighborhood and spending the same money at that same moment. I ate several meals downtown at a time I would have eaten at home otherwise. While it’s true some employees may not be getting raises for their work, they could very well be getting extra hours. – I cry “foul!” on this particular notion.

    Yes there is more money being spent downtown during ArtPrize, Festival of the Arts, Celebration on the Grand, a VanAndel concert, GRSO concert, Blues on the mall and so on. These are special events folk attend at a time they may otherwise spend at home. But let’s cancel ’em all because some company is making money.

    As far as the non profit organizations go, they, as Michael stated, are getting killed financially. Michael mentions flushing toilets – interestingly two weeks ago my wife wondered how much toilet paper is used during ArtPrize. The increased numbers look good on paper at grant time, but as a friend employed by the VanAndel Museum Center stated, “We’d rather have the admission fee”.

    You state “Since there are a limited number of stores that carry these items, most of the materials are being purchased from big box stores like Meijer, Home Depot, Wal-Mart or Lowes. Of course there are people who are using recycled material in their art, but the primary beneficiaries of these art material purchases are the owners of those stores.” Huh? Most of what materials? Photographers buy their cameras, paper, processing, and so on from where? Painters are buying their guache, oils, water colors from where? Walmart? No… Sculptors are buying clay, bronze, wax from Lowe’s? No, don’t think so.

    Should we only allow art that can be and carried in by hand, perhaps no larger than a grocery sack? Of course a firm with a crane will benefit. So did the firm with the flat bed trailer that moved it here and the firm with the crane at the point of origin.

    A couple points make sense in the article above, but it reads mostly as a reason to get rid of an event because someone is making money from it. Weird.

  4. Jeff Smith permalink*
    October 10, 2011 12:36 am

    John, thanks for the comments. I think you miss the main point I was making. I was responding to the notion that ArtPrize is good for the economy, when in fact it is disproportionately good for the economy of a very few………..downtown property owners, hotels, rest/bars, private parking lot owners………which is disproportionately a group of those in the business community that have close relations with the DeVos family. Part II explains further what the political implications of this money being spent means for democracy and vulnerable populations in Grand Rapids.

  5. John A C Despres permalink
    October 10, 2011 1:04 am

    Oh, I will easily concede one point… The German artist who painted the phoenix on the parking lot (a very cool painting, too) may have purchased his paints at Lowe’s as there were about 12 empty five-gallon Lowe’s paint buckets at the site.

  6. John A C Despres permalink
    October 10, 2011 1:05 am

    Thanks! I’ll look at part two. I missed it before.

  7. October 10, 2011 3:43 am

    Well well. Did we just learn, one more time, that this is a country for the rich, by the rich. And once again the artists are being asked to help the rich remain that way, with little or nothing going back to the artists. I entered Artprize in its first year but not the past two. I’ve been saying everything in your article for two years now. Some listen. Others think I’m just sounding like a liberal artist, not a good thing to be known as in this political arena (GR). So how do you change this so the artists are better rewarded for their efforts? Yeah, right.

  8. Jeff Smith permalink*
    October 10, 2011 12:14 pm

    Dan, I know several other artists who refuse to participate as well and I think there was a great deal of negativity this year towards ArtPrize, so I do think it is possible for the political climate to change around this. I just think we need to talk about social and political factors on top of the art itself if we are going to get people to think differently about all this.

  9. bryant tillman permalink
    October 10, 2011 8:13 pm

    I think that this writer, Smith, may be overemphasizing the political aspects of what’s going on with the ArtPrize fair in Grand Rapids. The whole thing looks a bit like a participatory enterprise to me. So DeVos gets a little “kick-back” from extra business at his hotels, so what? What would we prefer from him, in terms of economic motives? Maybe this is how he sees his world. Maybe this is how he swings dick.
    It doesn’t serve anyone’s purpose to overpoliticize, or in this case, overcatagorize “moneyed interests” as somehow working against the material interests of other classes…as they sometimes do, but in this situation every little thing helps. If the so-called proletariat feels they’re getting stiffed for not getting a bonus everytime Piccasso decides to take a shit in their restrooms, this is an issue for arbitration…not for creation.

  10. October 11, 2011 3:20 am

    Bryant, Devos and company would like us to think that their art competition is not political, but it is at its core politically and economically motivated. DeVos does not get a little kick-back as you suggests, but a substantial profit off of ArtPrize. We clearly disagree on the class element, but I stand firm in my assertion and in part 2 of this article that ArtPrize has major political and economic aspects that primarily benefit the ownership class of Grand Rapids.


  1. The Political Economy of ArtPrize – Part II « Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy
  2. New Economic report underscores the money making function of ArtPrize « Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy
  3. Year Seven of the Monied Spectacle: An Indy Media Guide to ArtPrize | Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy
  4. Is Grand Rapids really better off with the likes of DeVos? | Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy
  5. 10 years of ArtPrize critique and resistance | Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy
  6. The Devil is in the Details: Public money, ArtPrize and GRPD budgeting issues | Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy
  7. ArtPrize is Back and I still Hate it | Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy

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