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The money connection between ArtPrize and the Right to Work law in Michigan

January 15, 2013

For months we have been attempting to get the 990 financial reports from ArtPrize for 2011, but every time we would send a request we were ignored.Picture 1

Fortunately, this is public information and the online Non-Profit resource, GuideStar, posted the 990s for ArtPrize from 2011.

We have written in pervious years about the political economy of ArtPrize and who were the main funders of ArtPrize, both primary sources and sponsors.

The 990 for ArtPrize in 2011 is consistent with the first few years, in that the primary funding source is the Dick & Betsy DeVos Foundation.

According to the 990 for 2011, the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation have provided ArtPrize with $5.2 million. There is some income from merchandize and sponsors, but the bulk of the money is provided by the foundation of the parents of Rick DeVos.

Additional financial information worth noting is that there were three “independent contractors” used by ArtPrize in 2011 – On Stage Services ($192.852), Square One Design ($152,617) and Pomegranate Studios ($559, 327). Independent is a loose term to use considering that Square One Designs does lots of other DeVos family business work (Amway, Windquest & Reserve Bar) and Pomegranate Studios is run by the DeVos family.devos

One last aspect of the financials of ArtPrize is based on a question that is asked of non-profit entities in the 990 form, section IV, which asks – Did the organization engage in direct or indirect political campaign activities on behalf of or in opposition to candidates for public office? The answer that ArtPrize put for this was no, which is technically correct. However, this does not mean the public shouldn’t reconsider the significance of such a question, particularly as it relates to what the Dick & Betsy DeVos Foundation funds.

After the Michigan Legislature pushed through a Right to Work law in December it was revealed that Dick & Betsy DeVos have been major funders of Rights to Work policies, primarily through their contributions to the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. The Mackinac Center has been pushing Right to Work policies in Michigan for years and was one of the main architects for the state’s new law.

Dick & Betsy DeVos (along with other DeVos family members) have been part of the work of the West Michigan Policy Forum, which has made Right to Work one of its main priorities, since the group was founded in 2008. Right to Work policy was a significant part of the last conference, held in September of 2012.

What this all means is that the same people who fund ArtPrize are the same people that made Right to Work a law in Michigan. This should raise lots of questions for all of us, whether you are a supporter of ArtPrize or not. What is the significance of the relationship between people who funded a 19 – day art event in downtown Grand Rapids and the same people who attack workers and unions in Michigan?Picture 3

Another way to frame this is by asking what is the significance of those who engage in cultural management who also engage in the management of public policy? The DeVos family understands the importance of public relations and ArtPrize is in many ways a PR coup for the family. How could anyone be critical of people who put on such a large cultural event as ArtPrize?

It’s not a question of whether or not there are any positive outcomes of ArtPrize. The world is not black and white and we must avoid looking at the world through a binary lens of good and evil. Instead we have to think critically about the nuances of how systems of power work.

If labor unions and other sectors of Michigan want to come to terms with how the Right to Work law came into being, they are going to have to grapple with the strategic use of DeVos family money. Such grappling will have to go beyond the simplistic GOP vs Democrats analysis and see how their funding strategies are primarily about wealth accumulation and social management.

If I wanted to fight back against the Right to Work policies, I would use ArtPrize as a forum to challenge the DeVos family’s political and economic influence.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. January 15, 2013 9:58 pm

    Several years ago Dick and Betsy Devos also established the Devos Institute of Arts Management at the Kennedy Center. The Institute gives workshops and seminars across the country to art institutions and organizations to better their management policies. This seems uncomfortably close to their effort managing union efforts. One can’t help but wonder how their political attitudes regarding labor management spills over into the Arts.

  2. January 15, 2013 10:01 pm

    Thanks Richard for adding this bit of information. It is vitally important for all of us to recognize how the DeVos family uses their money, for public, social and cultural management.

  3. Donna Munro permalink
    January 16, 2013 1:37 am

    How would you use artprize? Do you mean enter art that questions the connections? Boycott? It would be great if a huge number of artists entered exposures of the DeVos agenda in the artprize competition, but would venues be “punished?”

  4. January 16, 2013 1:53 am

    Donna, you raise good questions and you could certainly use artprize with the tactics you mention. I don’t have any specific answers and a variety of tactics would probably work, but I think that the timeframe of artprize itself provides lots of opportunities to challenge the power that the DeVos family has both politically and economically. It certainly deserves a lot more attention and could generate lots of actions.

  5. January 16, 2013 1:41 pm

    I think what Jeff is doing by writing articles like this, or his great socially engaged project with signs at last year’s ArtPrize, provide information which is really powerful.
    Information about ArtPrize and the Devos’s is slowly reaching the art world population and there is a growing criticism of AP because of that information.
    Artists and people seriously interested in art are not only recognizing that the Devos’s support and engineer a lot of bad things, but that the ArtPrize model is an art event model that is unsustainable and unfair.

    ArtPrize is a corporate model that takes the free labor of artists and uses that labor to generate millions of dollars for area businesses.
    ArtPrize is unsustainable in the long run in that it requires artists to 1) expose themselves to a tacky competition model 2) artists have to pay in to be taken advantage of 3) exposure in the competition is unfair (not all venues have the same quality of exposure and no one can realistically get around to see all the art work)

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