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ArtPrize, art and the aesthetic experience: An interview with Richard Kooyman

August 7, 2017

We recently conducted an interview with artist Richard Kooyman, someone who has been critical of ArtPrize from the very beginning. Richard and his partner began a campaign to boycott ArtPrize, a campaign which you can find at this link

What made you decide to want to organize such a campaign?

ArtPrize/DeVos Resistance was organized by myself and Melanie Parke after the election of Donald Trump. We began the group when Betsy DeVos, one of ArtPrize’s founders choose to work for Trump, but our objection to the ArtPrize model began the very first year after it was announced.
As artists we felt boycotting an art event involving Betsy DeVos is an important political statement and it’s something artist’s could easily do. We started a Facebook page and a Twitter account. Both of these were blocked right away by ArtPrize.

We are calling for a boycott of ArtPrize by artist and viewers. We feel that if more people know about the connection of the DeVos’s to ArtPrize they wouldn’t want to attend an event that ultimately benefits the pocket book and cultural cache of Betsy DeVos and her family. Boycotting is a direct action that can have an important effect and it doesn’t cost you time or money. In fact, boycotting ArtPrize will save you time and money!

As an artist, what do you find objectionable about ArtPrize?

There are two heads to this snake called ArtPrize. One is the politics of the people behind ArtPrize and their view of Art, and the other is the event model itself. The two are intimately ensnarled.
The history of Dick and Betsy DeVos’s political activism is both religious and capitalist. There has been a lot written about them online. Janet Reitman wrote a great piece for Rolling Stone where she unpacks this really well.

There is this thread of privatization running through all of their political agenda. They have this belief that anything will be better off if it can be taken out of the governmental realm and privatized. The DeVos’s see the privatization of everything from schools to culture as an economic opportunity but also a way to control these things and to profit from them in the process. From the start ArtPrize was promoted as a return to “democracy” in the arts. They even called it “part social experiment”. The Grand Rapids Press quotes Betsy Devos as saying, “Dick and I share our son’s vision for encouraging everyone to explore the arts in a truly democratic way.”

From the onset that just smelled wrong to me. There is no inherent democratic quality to art. Art just is. You don’t “democratically” experience art. You experience it. It’s important to note that people like the DeVos’s aren’t advocating for “democracy” in banking or real estate or even when it comes to voting, so it beg’s the question why are they so concerned with “democracy” in the Arts? I can only guess that to the DeVos’s there is an element of controlling culture in the ArtPrize model which they liked. Culture like political opinion can be controlled if you have enough money and power and dictate the terms of engagement. And I think they didn’t want Institutions like the NEA, which they have wanted to eliminate for years, setting the narrative for culture. They want to set the narrative and they want to make money in the process.

The other head of the snake is the event model itself. It’s unsustainable for artists. It’s a pay -to -play model that takes advantage of artists as free content to capitalize off of. Let’s be honest, the real purpose behind ArtPrize isn’t Art, it’s the economic development of Grand Rapids businesses, many of which are owned by the DeVos family. I don’t think the DeVos’s really are interested in Art. They want to use artists to make money. Rick DeVos said as much. He once said that initially he wanted to have a film festival but realized it would be too expensive to put on so he decided to do an art competition. After ArtPrize8 the ArtPrize team televised a wrap up of the event and the first thing they started talking about was that ArtPrize made a record $28 million dollars. It seems it’s the most important selling pitch to them. ArtPrize has charts and diagrams that can tell you how many people came, and how far they walked, and how many hamburgers they ate, but they never tell you how much it costs the average artist to do ArtPrize.

ArtPrize makes $28 million dollars and yet they have the audacity to charge artist an application fee. ArtPrize will brag how they give out almost $200,000 in grants to artists but just do the math. $28 million vs. $200,000. The NY artist John Powers once called ArtPrize a “scrum for a prize”, which it is. It dangles this big carrot in front of artists, who have a hard enough time surviving in the world. It’s a model that uses us for their own financial gain and it’s not right.

Some people argue that since it is so successful, the majority of people really must love it. How do you respond to this?

It doesn’t really matter if a lot of people like it. In Spain lot’s of people like bullfighting, but that doesn’t make it right. Lot’s of people voted for Trump. That doesn’t mean they made the right choice.

ArtPrize is an example of the success of today’s neoliberal politics. ArtPrize is bright and shiny. You can buy swag. It has large crowds. It feels like something big is going on. It’s got that perfect aesthetic balance of cutting edge along with soft puppy dogs. But like most neoliberalism the harsher realities behind the scene aren’t always visible. Most people walking around don’t realize that these artists paid to apply, paid to make the work, ship their work, paid to be in GR for 19 days, and then had to ship it all home again, all while area businesses made $28 million dollars. People don’t see that aspect of ArtPrize.
There is this long standing myth that visual artists should be willing to show there work for free because it’s good exposure. That is changing. Organizations like Working Artist and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.) are arguing that visual artists need to be paid for what they provide society. Doctors, realtors, even politicians don’t work for free so why should artists. The people that attend ArtPrize for the most part are not an art buying crowd so ArtPrize should be more sensitive to the fact that they are getting all this content for free.

The other thing I hear over and over is how great ArtPrize is for children’s art education. How ironic, that the DeVos’s, who are the main driving force behind the destruction of our children’s public education, which includes art education, now proudly boast how great it is that a school class gets to spend one day looking at art downtown as a class trip. It’s sick. It’s an example of them controlling culture for their personal gain.

What are some of the important things that you think people should know about the DeVos Family?

A lot of artists and people who go to ArtPrize just don’t know about the political activism of the DeVos family and terrible things they have done to our society. More and more people are becoming aware now that Betsy DeVos is Secretary of Education but many don’t realize the millions of dollars these people have poured into political campaigns and PAC’s that want to eliminate a women’s right to choose, or their long term attack on public education, unions, and environmental regulations. The poisoning of the Flint water system happened because Rick Synder became governor put there by the DeVos’s. Betsy DeVos’s parents were the driving money behind California’s Prop 8. Her brother is the corporate mercenary Eric Prince, founder of BlackWater.

And the majority of people have no idea that Dick and Betsy DeVos gave a bunch of money to start the DeVos Institute of Arts Management which is now at the University of Maryland. Why does a extremely evangelical couple who made billions of dollars selling soap want to start an institute on the east coast that trains people in the administration and management of our arts institutions? I contend it’s about controlling culture.

Also the death of the NEA can be traced back to the DeVos family. For years they backed Peter Hoekstra as congressional representative in their district. They also backed Rep. Dick Armey from Texas. Both of these men were the driving force behind the campaign to eliminate the NEA back in 1996. And they have succeeded. We have basically no meaningful public support of the arts today because of the political influence of the DeVos family.

One claim that ArtPrize makes is that they make art more democratic with their voting system and that they have brought art to the masses. What is your take on this point?

Well the funny thing about ArtPrize’s initial “social experiment” is that it didn’t take them long to realize it wasn’t working too well for them and they were forced to change it. I think ArtPrize saw this populist idea of a public vote as a way of snubbing their noses at the his/herstorians, art writers, artists, and curators who spend their lives studying and working in the field of art. You don’t just wake up one day as an artist or an art historian or art writer. It takes a life time of knowledge building. ArtPrize wanted people to believe that Joe the plumber’s opinion on art was just as valid as all of the knowledge that experts have. The DeVos’s political activism doesn’t like experts. They don’t like expert scientists or expert historians. It’s too hard to push your own religious and economic agenda through if you have to deal with someone who is an expert. It’s too difficult to tear down environmental regulations aimed at corporate pollution if you have scientific experts to deal with. It make it more complicated to push your belief that a viable life begins at the moment of conception if you have those pesky scientific experts telling you it doesn’t.

The problem in ArtPrize’s “social experiment” came when a 13ft mosaic of Jesus with buffed up abdominal muscles won the grand prize. In the larger art world ArtPrize was seen as a bit of a joke because the public picked a horrendously schmaltzy piece as the grand prize. ArtPrize realized that if they really wanted to build a internationally recognized art event that maybe this public vote thing wasn’t the best idea after all. So

the next year they came up with this whole new narrative about exploring the “tension” between the public and a new juried vote. I’m thinking it pained the DeVos’s to have to do that. It went against everything ArtPrize was sent up to be about in the beginning.
I remember it being a pretty funny night on social media when Jesus won the grand prize.

Now ArtPrize seems to want it both ways. On one hand they create this narrative that your opinion is the most important thing and all you need to do is come to downtown and vote your feelings. And yet they also have been adding these educational aspects to the event to help people become better educated and to be able to think and converse better about art. This public vote thing is just a great big marketing pitch to get people to show up by creating this false affect of empowerment.

Why do you think so many artists chose to buy into an event like ArtPrize?

I don’t think that many artist do buy into it. I’m hoping the number who don’t will increase as more and more learn about the embedded interdependence between ArtPrize and The DeVos’s. I think this year the number of applicants is down to around 1400. That’s really not that many considering all the artists around the country.

Those that do attend may just not be aware of the political marriage between the DeVos’s and ArtPrize. I still get local artists who insist that the DeVos’s politics and ArtPrize are completely separate. That’s just not true. ArtPrize is listed as the primary project of the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation. Betsy listed it as her project on her personal foundation before she went to work for Trump and she served as a Director on the AP board until she went to Washington. The DeVos family still gives a lot of money to ArtPrize.

I believe in artists. I believe in their good hearts and I think that if most artists really knew about the DeVos’s and the facts, they wouldn’t apply.

What role(s) do you see art play in society and how does ArtPrize undermine these roles?

This is an important question to me. It’s the driving force behind why I have devoted so much time and attention watchdogging ArtPrize.
Art provides society with new ideas and it asks both new and age old questions. It is

the purest human action we create. When you come to a work of art, whether that is a painting or a dance performance, it’s not about you. It’s really about surrendering yourself, if only for a moment, to what the artist has done. T.S Eliot said art isn’t about self expression, it’s about the extinction of the self. You are getting the self and all your baggage out of the way, to be able to have this profound aesthetic experience.

ArtPrize could have decided to put on a purely aesthetic experience for people. And they could have decided they would pay artists to do this. Dick and Betsy could have afforded to do this without any outside help. If that was the case I would have less of a problem with the event.

But they don’t do that. Not only do they use artists for their financial gain but they intentionally scheme an aesthetics that resembles and extols corporate culture. They are saying don’t surrender yourself by learning from the artist. They are saying your personal opinion, is more important than what the artist wants you to think. From the beginning ArtPrize wasn’t about the pleasure of experiencing art, it was about saying everyone is going to be the judge of art. They are advocating not to surrender yourself to art, but to assert your personal opinion over art. Rick DeVos intentionally made a for profit contest, a commercial game, a circus, out of the aesthetic experience. That’s a shameful and ignorant handling of something that is very important and special to me.

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