The Political Economy of ArtPrize – Part II
Earlier this week in Part I, I talked about who the primary economic beneficiaries are of ArtPrize, particularly the owners of the downtown businesses. In Part II I want to talk about the financials of ArtPrize, where their money is coming from and what that means for civil society in the Greater Grand Rapids area.
Several weeks ago I registered on the ArtPrize site and asked the following question: “Can I see your organization’s financial records, what your budget is, how much money you get from sponsors and a breakdown of that amount.” The response I got back was, “GVSU is doing an economic impact study, I would suggest contacting the university.”
First off, the response in no way answered my question, since an economic impact study is not likely to include the budget for ArtPrize, with a breakdown of sponsorship contributions. Second, since ArtPrize is now a non-profit they are required by law to make this information public. I wrote back to the person who directed me to GVSU and I asked the same question as before. I went to the ArtPrize office downtown and asked the same question to which I was directed to their PR guy, Brian Burch. I e-mailed Brian and have as of this writing received no response.
Getting access to non-profit financial statement, also known as 990s, is easier said than done. I was able to access the 2009 financials online, but it provides a limited sense of what kind of money has come and who has funded the annual art competition. However, there is enough information to make some observations and analysis about the amount of money funneled to ArtPrize and who is giving it.
According to the 2009 financial statement for ArtPrize, there was a total of $2,173,163.00 in expenses. The document also shows that Dick and Betsy DeVos gave son Rick $1,700,000.00 for his art competition. Some of the expenses included $605,660.00 for web design that was paid to Pomegranate Studios, which is another DeVos venture; $221,000.00 to People Design Inc. for advertising and $256,000.00 for PR provided by Seyferth & Associates. So it seems that mom & dad fronted this little capital venture for son Rick.
We have not as of this writing received the 990s for 2010 or 2011, but we were able to locate some information on finances for 2010. According to an article in Philanthropy Roundtable:
The Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation makes ArtPrize possible. “The foundation provided the venture capital,” says Rick. Last year, the contest cost $2.8 million, with the cash awards making up only a fraction of this price. The organization had to underwrite everything from its own staff time to developing a web infrastructure that can handle public voting. The physical event also carried substantial costs, such as providing shuttle buses, printing maps and guidebooks, and producing colorful silicone gel wristbands. In keeping with DeVos’ original conception, ArtPrize spent no money on advertising. The DeVos Foundation put up the prize money and made up the difference between the event’s receipts and expenses with a loan. Community sponsors also chipped in, providing $500,000 in 2009 and $1 million in 2010.
Well, we know that the amount of people ArtPrize has hired has increased over the past 2 years, so we can speculate that the budget is bigger now than in 2009. Then there is the matter of sponsors, which are numerous. Some of them are just the run of the mill downtown businesses, but there is a listing for the major sponsors, such as the Presenting Sponsor – The Dick & Betsy DeVos Foundation.
Other major sponsors are: Amway, Bissell, Comcast, Grand Rapids DDA, The David & Carol Van Andel Foundation, Haworth, Frey Foundation, Herman Miller, Meijer, Steelcase, Kendall College, PNC Bank, Wolverine Worldwide, West Side Beer, Daniel and Pamella DeVos Foundation, Doug and Maria DeVos Foundation, Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation, Rick and Melissa DeVos, VanderWeide Family Foundation, Amway Hotel, Deloitte, Atomic Object, Fox Motors, Huntington Bank, ITC Holdings, Pomegranate Studios, Rockford Construction, Square One Design, Universal Forest Products, Gilmore Collection, Varnum, ITC Holding, On Stage Services, Terryberry Company, Consumers Energy and The Edgar and Elsa Prince Foundation.
After major sponsors there are the group listed as benefactors. This list includes Crown Motors of Holland, Edward Jones, Experience Grand Rapids, Grand Rapids Community Foundation, J.C. Huizenga, Porsche, RCM Technologies, Scott Christopher Homes and Spectrum Health.
The corporations, foundations and other entities listed here make up a good portion of the local power structure, whether we are talking about the DeVos, Van Andel and Prince families, Peter Seechia, David Frey, John Huntington and Fred Meijer or just the corporate entities which wield significant power over political and economic policy in West Michigan.
This kind of sponsorship certainly plays a key role in the political culture of West Michigan. It is very doubtful that thousands of dollars are donated to ArtPrize just for fun. In fact, I would submit that these entities contribute to events like ArtPrize as a means of creating an illusion, a diversion or a buffer for public outrage.
The illusion from the money donated by the list of sponsors is that the public is to see them as what they call themselves, philanthropists. We are to believe that these great patrons donate money out of the goodness of their hearts. The financial contributions of the sponsors could also been seen as a diversion, so that people look at all the art downtown and forget about the thousands of people who are living in poverty, are unemployed and struggling to meet their basic needs. Lastly, these contributions can act as a buffer, by getting people who enjoy and praise ArtPrize to the extent that they will silence or marginalize people who want to challenge or question the power that the families and corporate entities in West Michigan wield.
If you look at who makes up the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, the Econ Club of Grand Rapids, the Downtown Development Authority, Grand Action, the West Michigan Policy Forum and the One Kent Coalition you see many of the same names involved in sponsoring ArtPrize. The Chamber of Commerce and the Econ Club have been supporters of the economic policies implemented by Governor Snyder, which have resulted in the elimination of a business tax, weakening public sector unions and taking away local power through the Emergency Financial Manager system.
The West Michigan Policy Forum wants Michigan to be a Right to Work state and the One Kent Coalition wants to radically alter local government by merging the City of Grand Rapids with the Kent County that will be led by a CEO, according to their own proposed legislation.
Another example would be the dominance of the DeVos, Prince and Van Andel families in their sponsorship of ArtPrize. According to research done by investigative reporter Russ Bellant (The Religious Right in Michigan Politics), we know that the DeVos and Prince families have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to organizations and campaigns to defeat efforts for greater equality by the LGBTQ community, both in Michigan and around the country.
Some of this funding has gone to support efforts to defeat marriage equality and domestic partner benefits or to religious groups, which preach that, “homosexuality is a sin.” Despite this kind of homophobic policy funding, I have seen nothing in writing or heard anyone discussing these issues while ArtPrize has been going on. Look at it this way, what if neo-Nazi groups or the KKK were sponsors of ArtPrize? Do you think there would be some discussion of this, maybe even rage? Do you think that the African American community and its allies would be avoiding or even calling for a boycott of ArtPrize? Sure seems likely. So why is it that when institutions that make it a priority to deny people who identify as LGBTQ their basic rights, why are people not outraged? Just because the foundations that fund anti-gay policies don’t wear white hoods, doesn’t mean they don’t do harm to vulnerable population.
It could be that this information is just not known. However, it is my contention that this information is known at some level, but there are too many people who are willing to just ignore these facts so they can stroll about downtown for a few weeks of the year and give up their power to a small sector of West Michigan, that not only has deep pockets, but undermines basic rights and the democratic process. Some might say that this kind of analysis is just conspiracy theories, but I say this is how power functions.
Postscript: Just a little side note – Brian Burch, the PR guy for ArtPrize, is also one of the Holland City Council members who voted no on including sexual orientation in the City’s anti-discrimination ordinance the past summer.
List of sources on local funding for anti-gay initiatives: