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The Political Economy of ArtPrize – Part II

October 7, 2011

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:


21 Comments leave one →
  1. October 8, 2011 12:48 pm

    Great article Jeff. I often get told in defense of the Devos family that they have no influence on the outcome of ArtPrize. This seems like a naive statement since the ideological competition could never be supported on this scale without a major funding source. Also the money and the influence of the Devos family allows them to set the boundary and the rules of the competition within a section of Grand Rapids in which they have the most controlling influence.
    I’m not sure you would agree or not but as a artists I don’t so much have a problem with spending large amounts of money on an art competition. I object to spending large amounts of money on a art competition of this type. I also think the Devos’s really missed the boat. They could have decided to take those amounts of money and create a truly international art competition the likes of London’s Turner Prize. Grand Rapids could have been as international rich a city, culturally and economically, as Miami’s Art Basel. But they chose another purpose for ArtPrize.
    It will be curious to see whether their sponsorship numbers drop next year with all the negative press and reaction they received from this years top ten results. They might even have to spend more more to repair the damage done.

  2. kswheeler permalink
    October 8, 2011 5:43 pm

    Jeff, it is really impressive that you managed to pull together this much financial information, given the non-cooperation of ArtPrize to provide even the state-mandated info that all nonprofits must supply.

    Thanks for connecting the dots about the idea of ArtPrize being sponsored by people who have actively gone after the LGBTQ community and funded hate initiatives against them. The DeVos family and many of those listed as sponsors have played reprehensible roles in that effort.

    And thanks for also noting that this same group of power brokers stand behind and fuel the current state government with its mandate to take billions of dollars from the poor and seniors and hand it over as a massive gift to capitalists and corporations–not to mention its EFM law that allows overturning of legal contracts, and taking work from municipal workers and giving it to private corporations instead. These power brokers are people who are hostile to the vast majority of Michiganders on a number of levels.

    And yet, ArtPrize has helped to lull many people into a kind of stupified admiration for everything that the DeVos clan has supposedly given us. It’s interesting how Rick DeVos never gives *any* credit that I’ve heard to the thousands of hours given to him by volunteers, and the hundreds of thousands of hours given to him by the artists, many of whom have work that goes ignored completely during the event.

    I also find this statement disingenuous: “In keeping with DeVos’ original conception, ArtPrize spent no money on advertising.”

    Right. What about that quarter-million you spent the first year on PR, Rick? Public relations is a form of advertising, and it does much of what advertising does: creates and presents a brand, gets word out about the brand/event; generates good will for the entity selling the product/service/event. $250,000 bucks will buy quite a lot of that.

    It’s good to think about what we’re being sold along with ArtPrize…and what we’re paying for it.

  3. October 9, 2011 2:31 pm

    I have been very outspoken, especially during artprize, about the connections between DeVos money and anti-gay agendas they fund. The Until Love is Equal campaign has also had many discussions about this on their facebook page. The artprize crew is very aware of this and the others who have spoken out each year about these connections. It is true everyone is afraid to touch the issue due to the economic connections that are shown through the list of artprize sponsors. I am very saddened that more GLBT leaders in West Michigan do not speak out about the DeVos anti-gay agenda, instead they seem to sit back, take it, and even get in bed with them.

  4. Emma permalink
    October 9, 2011 3:54 pm

    Jeff – Thanks for this article.

    This bothers me too:

  5. October 9, 2011 3:57 pm

    Michael, I was aware that Until Love is Equal was talking about the Brian Burch connection, but I hadn’t seen any online discussion about the DeVos/Prince anti-gay funding. If that is the case then great, but it needs to be amplified. Thanks for your comments.

  6. kswheeler permalink
    October 10, 2011 6:48 pm

    Emma, thanks so much for this information. I was unaware of the NEA grant.

    A family that has decried the idea of “government handouts” and promotes “less government” is taking money that they don’t need from the NEA to bolster up an effort that’s been tailored to provide profits for DeVos-owned businesses–what hypocrisy.

    When you think of all the legitimate artists and art organizations that could have benefited from that cash, it seems, in my opinion, to border on the criminal.

  7. Emma permalink
    October 13, 2011 7:23 pm

    kswheeler –

    My thoughts exactly. Interesting that the current head of the NEA is a federal appointment by Obama, and here they are dolling out cash to folks who would never support a democratic administration, his campaign, let alone government involvement. I can’t see it working the other way around.

  8. Emma permalink
    October 13, 2011 8:09 pm

    Also –

    Looks like the Devos Institute of Arts Management at the Kennedy Center accepted an organization called Midland Center for the Arts into its capacity building program in 2010, which is supported by the Michigan Council of Arts and Cultural Affairs – a partner organization of the National Endowment for the Arts. Sound like they know the Devos’ quite well.

  9. October 14, 2011 12:42 pm

    Midland is also home to the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the largest state based free market think tank in the country is supported by The Dick and Betsy Devos Foundation. It over the years in papers and statements has called for the complete privatization of the arts.


  1. When elites give money to each other: ArtPrize financials for 2010 « Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy
  2. West Michigan Philanthropy is simply generosity, according to the GR Press « Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy
  3. GQ’s take on ArtPrize and the DeVos Family « Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy
  4. Suckling at the power Teat: MLive and stenography for the DeVos Family « Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy
  5. The money connection between ArtPrize and the Right to Work law in Michigan « Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy
  6. The Wall of Fame: Wealth and Influence at GVSU | Grand Rapids People's History Project
  7. Year Seven of the Monied Spectacle: An Indy Media Guide to ArtPrize | Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy
  8. More evidence that ArtPrize & Rick DeVos are connected to Far Right Politics | Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy
  9. Moral Pronouncements aren’t enough: Artprize, the DeVos Family and Trump’s Executive Orders | Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy
  10. 10 years of ArtPrize critique and resistance | Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy
  11. It’s not Philanthropy, It’s Ideological and Class Warfare: How the DeVos Family Foundation contributions complement their political donations – Part IV – Funding DeVos-created projects | Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy
  12. ArtPrize is Back and I still Hate it | Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy

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