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GQ’s take on ArtPrize and the DeVos Family

August 18, 2012

Within the past 24 hours, I have had friends message me to see if I had seen the recent GQ article on ArtPrize and Rick DeVos.

Comments have been exchanged and conversation have ensued which led me to believe that a response was relevant considering Grand Rapids is about to embark on year four of ArtPrize.

My first reaction to the Matthew Power piece in GQ, which was written based on his visit last year, was that it was nice to see such a mainstream publication willing to talk about the political dynamics of ArtPrize.

Early on in the article, Power lets his readers know that he wants to know the motives behind ArtPrize, a question many of us have been asking since it was first announced.

It was also refreshing to see the article include information on the politics of the DeVos family. The GQ article does not give enough details on their political and economic influence, but that the writer even dared to go down that path is important since none of the commercial media in Grand Rapids has been willing to utter a sound about the influence of the DeVos family and ArtPrize. In fact, the local media as we have noted on numerous occasions has been nothing short of a PR engine for the event. We have also noted that local news outlets have demonstrated that reporting on ArtPrize is more important than reporting on electoral politics.

It was equally refreshing to see Matthew Power include critical comments from two local artists, Paul Amenta and Michael Pfleghaar. Amenta and Pfleghaar both do not mince words when talking about what they find objectionable about ArtPrize, which is important considering that the event itself has not been very interested in providing a forum for critical discourse. Last year this writer attended a panel discussion on AtPrize at GVSU where not one of the panel members was willing to provide any critical comments about the annual event; and, when one audience member did, the panelists danced around his question.

Pfleghaar should also be saluted for saying that the “DeVoses were oligarchs who treated Grand Rapids like a playtown, and he also suspected ArtPrize was somehow part of their shadowy conservative cultural agenda.” Pfelghaar also stated, “Rick’s money is their money to me. He was born into this fortune.”

This last comment cuts to the core of the issue in many ways, despite Rick DeVos’ attempts to distance himself from his family’s political legacy. According to the 990s we have looked at for ArtPrize, Dick and Betsy DeVos gave their son $1.7 million in 2009 to help him make his dream become a reality. His parents have continued this trend, along with other DeVos family members and the Prince family, providing hundreds of thousands each year to underwrite some of the larger venues.

Rick DeVos’ desire to distance himself from the family politics was reflected in this comment in the GQ story where he says, “I don’t even want to weigh in on any of the political stuff. I just prefer to stay away from that.” Sorry Rick, but you do not get to stay away from that since the political stuff is woven into the very fabric of ArtPrize as we have noted in a previous posting entitled The Political Economy of ArtPrize.

Does Rick really believe that he can separate his activities, such as ArtPrize or Start Garden, when they can only happen because of the family money? He can no more distance himself from his family’s politics than any other child of a billionaire family unless they reject the wealth, which ultimately means rejecting how that wealth was acquired and what kind of influence and power that wealth buys. Rick cannot distance himself from the anti-LGBT, anti-Union, anti-public education and pro-privatization policies that the DeVos family has financed and lent their name to for decades.

This influence was reflected in the GQ story when the writer pointed out that some people he spoke with said that many artists are hesitant to submit critical pieces or voice criticism of ArtPrize. Powers states that this form of “self-censorship” was due to “all the funding the DeVoses provide for cultural institutions.” Indeed, it is extremely difficult for the cash-strapped nonprofit world to slap one of the biggest hands that feeds them.

Lastly, the GQ article was instructive in its observations about Rick DeVos and his family, with references to a bodyguard-protected family car waiting for them in the alley to the bodyguard hovering near Rick during the ArtPrize awards ceremony last year at the convention center. If Rick is afraid of being assaulted or kidnapped for ransom, he might consider that animosity towards his family is not just because of their politics, but because there are millions of people living in utter poverty while his family owns their own island and Grandpa is consistently one of the top 100 wealthiest people on the planet.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. August 18, 2012 11:32 pm

    Finally some national exposure telling it like it is.

  2. Arielle Leipham permalink
    August 19, 2012 8:32 pm

    Can you provide a link to the Matthew Power article, please?

  3. August 19, 2012 8:39 pm

    Someone sent me a PDF of a short version of the article. The long version will be online at GQ sometime soon. If you want me to send you the PDF, give me an email address and I will send it to you.

  4. Ryan permalink
    August 23, 2012 12:09 pm

    This author is a sad individual, his jealousy of Rick DeVos is sickening.

  5. August 23, 2012 12:18 pm

    Ryan, you really think that I am jealous of a guy who gets millions of dollars from mom and dad to play with in Grand Rapids. You apparently didn’t read the article or the critique. What is sad is that Rick DeVos wants to avoid the politics of his family, but use their money and to continue their politics, without any accountability.

  6. signalsign permalink
    August 29, 2012 1:44 am

    thank god you are here to keep him accountable jeff

  7. Josh permalink
    August 29, 2012 1:53 am

    “People are starving! Rick’s grandfather has an island!!!!”

    Hold on, buddy. Let’s not resort to sensational journalism if we’re going to levee a fair critique of ArtPrize.

    While I have no issue with the questions that Power’s raises in his article, I take issue with the tone. His article starts with a preposition — that young Devos has conspired to form the most elaborate trick on artists and the public alike. The trick? A covert plot to draw talented artists to town, use their talents, and then award a huge cash sum to an undeserving artist, all the while generating millions for conservative super PAC’s. It’s as if Rick were about to jump out from behind a camera screaming “PUNKED!” a la Ashton Kutcher.

    I just don’t see it. I’ve lived in G.R. for years, so I’m sure that I’m biased in my defense of ArtPrize, but I’ve just seen too many superlative benefits to think there was or is any underlying motive.

    Power’s article fails with me because I feel his scorn. I feel it because I’m not arty. I don’t deserve to vote, and I don’t make a 100% effort to see every (or even half) of the entries. He’s already judged ArtPrize and relishes in victory when a juried prize is announced. In fact, he actually uses the word “failed” to describe ArtPrize. C’mon. I’ve spent too many sunny Saturday afternoons with my kids along the Grand River marvelling at Nessie or Rusty to care what the G.R. elite do with their political contributions. I’ve bought food from vendors, purchased ArtPrize logoed coffee mugs, filled up my car with gas. For me, ArtPrize has been nothing but a “win”.

    Nowhere in the article will you find an opposing viewpoint. No merchants who benefitted, no families who attended, no one who won. His artists come off as dejected, demoralized crybabies who either don’t understand what the competition is, who their audience is, or both. He doesn’t even describe the medium last year’s winner used, only taking shots at the model the artist used.

    There may be a select few in the media or in the art community who look upon ArtPrize as ArtLite, or even a few that get “depressed when it comes around” (artist Pfleghaar, grow a pair already), but the kids, regular folks, and people who support artists in this world actually enjoy our little West Michigan tradition, despite the fact that Grandpa DeVos owns an island.

  8. August 29, 2012 12:02 pm


    Since the Matthew Powers article link came online I have read a hand full of blog posts and online reaction to the article calling it scornful and elitist and that it fails to report the reactions of people like yourself. But if you could just be a bit more fair to the critique of the populistic aspect that does in fact get reported in the article you might realize that the article really isn’t about you or Grand Rapid’s view of ArtPrize. It’s about Rick Devos, his family, and how ArtPrize is looked at by the rest of the art world. And, for very good reasons, that view isn’t as rosy as people in West Michigan think it is.

  9. August 29, 2012 12:09 pm

    Josh, just to be clear, I don’t think that Power’s article is a masterful piece of journalism. You point out he does not include any downtown vendors who have benefited from ArtPrize, which is true. However, if one looks collectively at all the media coverage in the past 4 years it is clear that the coverage has been more than positive, it has been gushing to the degree that one would think the local news agencies are hired PR arms of ArtPrize.

    What I think is beneficial about the Powers article, which is stated in the above article, is that he asks a more fundamental question…..what is the motive of Rick DeVos to put on such an event. You can say what you want about the event itself in terms of turnout, people’s exposure to art, ect, but looking at what motivates the DeVos family to fund such an event is where I found value in the GQ article. I have written similar articles over the years, but to get national attention with a critical eye towards the event with DeVos money was valuable.

    We obviously don’t agree on ArtPrize or the DeVos family, but the fact that you responded to this somewhat obscure blog means you must have been seeking out an opportunity to blast anyone critical of DeVos/ArtPrize. Maybe you work for them, maybe you volunteer for ArtPrize or maybe you are just an apologist for the DeVos family. For as much as we want to separate the enjoyment people get from taking their kids to see the art in downtown GR from the politics of ArtPrize, it just can’t be done. I for one will continue to critique the event and the DeVos family because of their politics and obscene amount of wealth, especially in the face of such poverty in West Michigan.

  10. Michael McGowan permalink
    September 20, 2012 2:39 am

    You mean his artist’s come off as real. One only has to look to the past 2 winners to see conservative values in action, and the sham that is Artprize. I love that The owner of The Gilmore Collection threw one of his reserved artist’s, art piece’s, in the trash today because it was too edgy.

  11. James permalink
    October 22, 2012 12:49 pm

    First off, I don’t have a dog in this fight, since I’m not even American. I thought the article was an interesting look at ArtPrize and the DeVos family, neither of which I had heard from before. My first impression of the article was that it was very one-sided in its approach, as Josh mentioned. There is something to be said for populist art. Not all art needs to be edgy to be good. The article seems to rail against conservative, “safe” art, despite the fact that it can occasionally be good art.

    That said, Sturgeon’s law states that 90% of everything is crap, and I’m sure that’s true of ArtPrize. I’m also sure that Rick DeVos is quite smart. I tend to agree with the GQ article that this is a tool in some greater plan of his. But then everybody has motives, rich or poor. It’s worth keeping an eye on his, because with his money, they’re more likely to influence society.

    Finally, Jeff, I disagree with your premise in your final paragraph, and this is what actually motivated me to respond. The fact that Josh responded to your article does not mean he must have been seeking out the opportunity to blast anyone critical. By that same logic, the only people who found your article would be people who already agree with the topic before reading it, thus rendering it useless. Either people can come to your article without preconceived bias, and then agree or disagree, voicing their opinions in the comment section. Or, everybody comes to your “obscure” article searching specifically for criticism of ArtPrize, whether to agree with it or to refute it. What makes those looking to refute it worse than those looking to confirm it?

    As for ArtPrize itself, we have something in Hamilton called SuperCrawl, which is similar, although it doesn’t have a prize. I’ve been once, and disliked 90% of the art for intentionally being too edgy or for being badly done or for pandering or for a multitude of reasons. ArtPrize seems to be the same sort of thing, except hosted by a patron instead of the city: an attempt to buy cultural cachet. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, who cares?

  12. Sarah permalink
    December 4, 2012 4:32 pm

    The GQ article was just so shallow and dizzyingly cynical . His writing remind me of how an an angsty-angry teenage hipster would react to…well, pretty much any positive community event. The guy came in hating on the town and suspicious of every nice thing presented. He dug through the crowd of nice people until he found a couple snarky ones and made it sound like he is presenting the truth of how everyone thinks.It’s disgusting and and heavily biased.


  1. MLive article misses the point of the GQ article on ArtPrize « Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy
  2. Suckling at the power Teat: MLive and stenography for the DeVos Family « 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. 5 Things Betsy DeVos Will Fund for ArtPrize 2017The Black Sheep

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