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Year Seven of the Monied Spectacle: An Indy Media Guide to ArtPrize

September 21, 2015


Year seven is upon us. Whether you like it or not, for the next month or so, the spectacle that is ArtPrize, is pretty much all you will hear about. Forget about Donald Trump, Iran or climate change, thousands of people invading downtown Grand Rapids is all that matters.

This is year seven and for seven years we have been writing about ArtPrize. Therefore, it seems fit that for year seven, we provide you with an Indy Media Guide to ArtPrize. However, before we begin, it is worth noting that our ongoing critique of this monied spectacle does acknowledge that there is pleasure, entertainment and benefits to ArtPrize. We do not see the world in some overly simplified binary world of good and bad, but we do want to see a world where those with obscene wealth and power are challenged or at the very least made to feel a bit exposed.

  • Back in the summer of 2009, as ArtPrize was first being announced, we were one of the first media sources to raise questions about the intent of this so-called art extravaganza. The main issue we raised was around the larger PR function such an event would provide for the DeVos family. We asked, what impact will such an event have on any insurgent movement to challenge organized money? Like most billionaire families, the DeVos family cares deeply about its public image and ArtPrize seemed like the perfect opportunity to bring more converts to the, “where would Grand Rapids be without them,” crowd.artprize-a1jpg-d4f2cce303c9ff47_large
  • By year two, it became clear that the local news media had become unpaid cheerleaders for ArtPrize. Even during the inaugural year, ArtPrize had already garnered the allegiance of local media, as we noted in our story entitled, Reporting on and Promoting ArtPrize.  In that article, we quoted local property owner and managing partner of CWD Real Estate Sam Cummings. Cummings said, “Our long-term goal is really to import capital – intellectual capital, and ultimately real capital. And this (ArtPrize) is certainly an extraordinary tool.” Such a comment confirmed for us the overriding role that the annual event would play in Grand Rapids. Later that year we published the finds of a news study to make the point about how ArtPrize had become the media darling. ArtPrize trumps democracy: What the Press coverage tells us about the Press reveals that even during a gubernatorial election year, ArtPrize had nearly twice as many stories in the Grand Rapids Press as all election related stories, 153 ArtPrize articles to 87 election articles.11760190_688805574558301_7881155605291540005_n
  • In year two, we were also fortunate to have artist Richard Kooyman allow us to re-post his thoughtful piece on the danger that DeVos money and ArtPrize would pose to art and culture in general, in his piece What is ArtPrize? 
  • In year three, we began to look more closely at the financial aspects of ArtPrize. The mainstream news media has always run stories about how much money is “brought in by ArtPrize,” but they have never really explored who are the big financial winners, as we did we our story, When elites give money to each other: ArtPrize financials for 2010. We have also made it clear, based upon 990 documents, that Rick DeVos has been bankrolled by his parents, Dick & Betsy, to put on the annual monied spectacle. It became clear from the 990 documents that a great deal of the money was simply being passed around from one DeVos entity to another, although this was never a theme of any media reporting.devos-ap
  • In 2012, a GQ article about the DeVos family and ArtPrize generated some interesting conversation, but not by local news media, as we pointed out in MLive article misses the point of the GQ article on ArtPrize. The GQ article was one of the first outside media sources to discuss the political dynamics of ArtPrize, something that Rick DeVos constantly wants to distance himself from. 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.” 
  • In 2012, we continued to explore the money and politics of ArtPrize, we our 2 part piece entitled, The Political Economy of ArtPrize. In Part I, we explored the more general impact that such an event has on art and culture and in Part II we explore in more detail the relationship between those who finance ArtPrize to what else the monied elites finance at the local, state and federal level. photo-4
  • 2012 was also the year that local activists engaged in a photo bomb campaign (called ArtLies) to visually make a point about the money and politics of ArtPrize donors, sponsors and the DeVos family. 
  • In 2014, artist Steve Lambert generated lots of attention and discussion around the politics of ArtPrize, with both his installation piece and his announcement that if he won the prize money from ArtPrize he would donate it to a local LGBT effort, since the DeVos family has historically funded anti-gay campaigns. What Lambert was able to do was to force both ArtPrize and the larger community to ask more fundamental questions about the political economy of this annual monied spectacle.

Ultimately, we believe that you cannot separate the funding sources of events like ArtPrize, from the political desires of the capitalist class. The DeVos funding of ArtPrize is a way to distract us and make us feel good for a few weeks out of the year, while the politics they fund bludgeon us all year round.


5 Comments leave one →
  1. September 21, 2015 1:07 pm

    Thank you GRIID and Jeff Smith for continuing to educate.
    Ultimately it is the individual artist who can take a stand for justice. I support all creative artists in all their endeavors and believe that they continue to participate in ArtPrize because they either just are not aware of the political forces behind it or they just get duped.

    Artists want to succeed and it’s hard going. They want to make their work and have a visual impact in the world and ArtPrize if this glamorous carrot that is dangled in front of them. And this carrot is even worse now then ever since there has been real professional improvements to the event. Gone is Rick Devos’s naive and complete catering to populism which has been replaced by some good institutional and individual input. These new ideas wish to present more serious and important aspects of visual art. I welcome that change.

    There has been recent writings to the effect that ArtPrize isn’t fair in how some venues just don’t get the traffic that other venues do. It’s not fair, but then again when did anyone say art was democratic. Artists need to be smarter about why and where they want to exhibit there work.
    There are real concerns that ArtPrize is just a economic development plan for Grand Rapids businesses. It is, and that is wrong and does a great disservice to Art. But in this neoliberal world so are many other art events that artists participate in. Artists need to be smarter about what the real intentions of the event is and weigh the benefits over the obstacles.

    Until our system ever changes artists need to survive in the system we have. I get that and support all my fellow artists in making those tough business decisions.
    But we as artists need to become better politically educated. And we need more places like GRIID to become better educated.
    I believe all great art is essentially about a type of truth seeking. The basic truth is that the people behind the money of ArtPrize are responsible for promoting just about everything I feel is wrong, and which I shed tears, in our society. I want to try to help educate my fellow artists to say that this is just one place, one thing, in which I can take a stand and make a difference.

  2. Brett Colley permalink
    September 22, 2015 2:31 am

    Thanks for keeping the critical fires burning under their/our feet, Jeff (and Richard!)
    And thanks for being the first to publish my earliest thoughts on AP, too!’s-addition-to-the-artprize-“conversation”/

  3. September 22, 2015 3:57 am

    Thanks Brett. A big apology for not including your article in the guide. Thanks for adding the link!


  1. It is impossible to have justice and equity as long as the DeVos family has power | Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy
  2. The narrative of Grand Rapids is one of White Supremacy: Paid for by Start Garden | Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy

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