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Grand Rapids, ArtPrize and Whiteness

September 28, 2017

Recently, I was driving back into Michigan on highway 94 and saw a billboard just after re-entering the state that read, Cool City – Hot Art. The billboard was created by Experience GR and also included the words food, beer and music.

This billboard, in many ways, is reflective of the economic, political and cultural climate that exists in Grand Rapids. If we were to more honestly depict in words what the reality is for Grand Rapids, this is what the billboard would actually look like.

Grand Rapids is such an overtly White City. The whiteness permeates everything about the city, from the hyper-religious reality to the heavy handed entrepreneur/free market/philanthropy crap that is constantly shoved down our throats. This is also the case with the litany of non-profits that exist, with their emphasis on practicing white savior politics. Then there is the cultural climate in Grand Rapids, where every organization claims to celebrate diversity, but more often than not engages in cultural appropriation or is patronizing to the populations they “serve.” Most organizations, whether it is city government, the Chamber of Commerce or culture-focused say they love black and brown people, but only if they remain loyal to whiteness. If people of color dare to challenge the whiteness that permeates Grand Rapids, they will be further marginalized and punished.

When I say whiteness, I am not just talking about white people, I am talking about a way of being in the world that centers and privileges white reality and white values. Now ask yourself who has economic and political power in this city? Who has power to impose their will on other people or whole communities? What entities spend a great deal of time celebrating Grand Rapids and all of the lists that the city has been included in over the past 5 years? Who in this city makes it a point to say that Grand Rapids is a great place to raise a family? The answer is always white people. Whether we are talking about the DeVos family, the Meijer family, Secchia, Jandernoa, Rockford Construction, the Right Place Inc., the Art Museum, the Christian Reformed Church, the commercial news media, Experience GR, Mel Trotter Ministries or ArtPrize.

Notice in the altered billboard above that the words, beer, art and music are crossed off and replaced by poverty, racism and gentrification. While the dominant culture in Grand Rapids likes to think of beer, art and music, a disproportionate amount of those in communities of color experience, racism, poverty and gentrification. Whiteness says we need to celebrate the good things in our city, and that is because they “good” things disproportionately happen to white people.

For communities of color, the reality is quite different. Think about this. Why are there a disproportionate amount of black and brown folks living in poverty in Grand Rapids? Why are there a disproportionate amount of Black and brown folks in the Kent County Jail or facing probation in this city? Why are the public schools predominantly made up of black and brown students? Why are the neighborhoods that are experiencing gentrification disproportionately made up of black and brown folk? Why are black and brown neighborhoods disproportionate targeted by the GRPD? If Grand Rapids is so welcoming, why the hell are so many people in the immigrant and undocumented community living in constant fear? I mean, if Grand Rapids is such a cool city and the best place to raise a family, then why the hell are so many people from communities of color struggling to survive or wanting to get the hell out?

ArtPrize and Whiteness

We are in year nine of ArtPrize and that means that for a few weeks thousands of people will descend upon Grand Rapids, look at art, stay in hotels, eat in downtown restaurants and park their cars in every possible space imaginable. In addition, the city always tries to keep all these visitors from having to deal with those on the street asking for money or sleeping in storefront entryways.

Then there is the experience of many artists of color who are either outright being censored for their work or are marginalized by the lack of exposure or the intentional omission of art venues that feature works by artists of color (Cultura Collective). This is in part because ArtPrize is primarily about downtown Grand Rapids and that it has to offer whiteness. There are hotels, restaurants, bars and music venues because those with power in this community has made sure that the downtown has been heavily invested in. When you think of the Grand Rapids Brewing Company, the BOB, the Amway Grand Plaza, the DeVos Convention Center, the Art Museum or the UICA, what kind of spaces do you think they represent? These are white spaces, plain and simple.

Then there is the very nature of ArtPrize, which is often billed as a free wheeling art exhibit where anything goes. However, apart from the fact that is is an event that is bankrolled and run by members of the DeVos family, the event is really just another way to promote and celebrate the the free market. Artprize awards a select few with cash prizes, some of which are chosen by handpicked jurors and the rest are voted on by the public. Those artists that with through the public vote shows just how democratic the event truly is, according to the ArtPrize founder Rick DeVos. So rich people funding an event that financially benefits them and their friends, while the public gets to vote is called democracy? Sound familiar. This is exactly what the DeVos Fanily does in the political arena, where they contribute millions of dollars to candidates to make sure that the legislation that gets passed protects and expands their wealth and the other values they want to impose on the rest of us

There was a recent article in the New York Times about Artprize entitled, How a Quirky Art Prize tied to the DeVos Family Went Political. Like most stories about ArtPrize, the NYTs piece completely misses the point. ArtPrize doesn’t have to be heavy handed about the content of the art submitted. In fact, they could care less about the content. What Rick DeVos and his family care about are: the PR benefits of the event that gets people to say, “they’ve done so much for this city”; the amount of money they make from the annual event; and the hope that people will be less inclined to examine the power and influence their family has in West Michigan.

But there is also another aspect to the spectacle that is ArtPrize, which brings us back to the notion that Grand Rapids is a White City. The racism/white supremacy, poverty and gentrification that plagues thousands of people in this city will still plague people in this city after ArtPrize is over. Those who have political, economic and cultural power in this city, will still have that power after ArtPrize. ArtPrize does not and will not change the realities of racism/white supremacy, poverty and gentrification. ArtPrize does maintain the status quo and business as usual, despite its appearance. In a word, ArtPrize maintains whiteness in Grand Rapids.

So, to those of us who are descendants of Europeans and Euro-Americans, we have to come to terms with the reality that Grand Rapids is a White City. What some people call West Michigan Nice, is essentially whiteness. West Michigan nice is not wanting to upset anyone, it’s avoiding conflict and it is not wanting to confront the ugly reality of our history or the present.

At this point, maybe readers will expect some sort of plan or suggestion on how Grand Rapids can stop being a White City. However, as I have learned over the years from those in communities of color, we all need to figure this shit out and stop wanting people to provide us with a fucking blueprint on how to stop participating in white supremacy. We (us white folk) need to do the hard work, get over our fragility and start working on dismantling white supremacy in all its manifestations.

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