The ninth rendition of ArtPrize, the world’s largest art competition decided by popular vote, has wrapped up in Grand Rapids, Michigan with the grand prize going to an embarrassing portrait of Abraham Lincoln made out of pennies. This year some 384,000 people traveled to downtown Grand Rapids to cast a vote for the artist they believed deserved to win the $200,000 grand prize, filling the coffers of local businesses with $28 million along the way. Part clever art event, part social experiment, mostly an economic development plan for Grand Rapids, ArtPrize was devised by the venture capitalist Rick DeVos and his parents, Dick and Betsy DeVos. Yes, that Betsy DeVos.
It wasn’t the first time the public had picked something so banal. In 2011 they chose a 13ft mosaic of a buffed Jesus crucified on a cross. After ArtPrize received some ridicule from the larger art world media, they changed the rules somewhat. Since then there have been two grand prizes. One determined by the public, who are required to travel to downtown Grand Rapids to vote in person, and another grand prize awarded by a panel of art professionals.
This year the public selected A. Lincoln by Richard Schlatter of Battle Creek, Michigan, a 8’ x12’ portrait of Abraham Lincoln, made out of 24,000 individual pennies. Schlatter’s construction of pennies follows a long line of trite ArtPrize entries. Over the last 9 years there have been numerous two-dimensional portraits and compositions made out of three-dimensional objects such as pushpins, Rubik’s cubes, wine corks, and compact disks, and now, pennies. Schatter’s A. Lincoln is a DIY home project easily Googled which turns up multiple how-to kits and step-by-step videos.
Christian Gaines, ArtPrize Executive Director, seemed to be reaching for words to describe Schlatter’s A. Lincoln, “The public has chosen work that is large scale, iconic and familiar, and one that reflects qualities that are widely admired — patience, skill and considerable labor.”
My wife, the artist Melanie Parke, and I have been watchdogging ArtPrize from its beginnings in 2009. ArtPrize is like a snake with two heads, one of which is the right-wing politics of the family spearheading the prize. The other head is the event model itself, a profit making scheme that exploits artists by pitting them against each other in a vapid competition.
Everything devastating that has happened to Michigan, its broken school systems, the death of its unions, decreasing environmental regulations, even the Flint Water Crisis can be traced back to political money spent by the DeVos family. (Ironically, the ArtPrize jury selected as the best three-dimensiona entry, "Flint," by the New Orleans-based artist Ti-Rock Moore. It featured a drinking fountain continuously spewing brown water under the sign “Colored.") Within the DeVoses conservative political agenda runs the thread of privatization. They contend that everything from public education, and even cultural resources, is better economized when privatized.
But privatization for the DeVoses also translates to cultural control and money. This ethos of control is exemplified by the DeVos Institute of Arts Management which Dick and Betsy DeVos started at the Kennedy Center and now is located at the University of Maryland. The Institute “provides training, consultation, and implementation support for arts managers and their boards”. By shaping the ideas of managers and boards of cultural institutions and organizations they in essence have a hand in controlling culture.
They also make a lot of money in the process. Last year ArtPrize brought in $28 million dollars for area businesses, many of which are owned in some way or another by the DeVos family. The ArtPrize model capitalizes on content provided by artists in order to draw people to Grand Rapids. Hundreds of thousands of people come to the event to vote, all the while spending money at hotels, parking garages, bars, and restaurants.
Artists also have to spend money. They have to pay to make their work, ship it, to be in Grand Rapids for the length of the event, and then take it all down and ship it home. On top of that, ArtPrize charges the artists a steep application fee. ArtPrize takes advantage of artists and offers a false promise of exposure through a humiliating hustle for prize money with a winner take all mentality. ArtPrize functions in a way that is not unlike Amway, the multi-level marketing company founded by Betsy DeVos’ father-in-law. Some people realize a large payout while the majority walk away with nothing having worked hard and for free.
The DeVoses political and cultural agenda is dependent on their particular brand of populism, in which science, government, culture, and even facts themselves are secondary to popular opinion. From its inception ArtPrize relied on language that suggested the art world lacked respect for the average person’s artistic opinion. ArtPrize claimed it wanted to “reboot the conversation” about art, while the event is referred to as “part social experiment.”
As Betsy Devos said in one Grand Rapids Press interview: “Dick and I share our son’s vision for encouraging everyone to explore the arts in a truly democratic way.” I’ve never known Republicans to argue that anything needed to be more democratic or egalitarian. So why art? While the idea for ArtPrize came from Betsy’s son, Rick DeVos it was Dick and Betsy Devos who provided the start up and prize money and remained intimately connected to the event.
The Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation claims ArtPrize as one of its projects, as did Betsy DeVos’s former personal foundation. Betsy was listed as a director on the ArtPrize board up until she resigned last November to work for Trump. ArtPrize gets foundational support from the Dick & Betsy DeVos Family Foundation, the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation, the Daniel and Pamella DeVos Foundation, and the Douglas and Maria DeVos Foundation. They also receive support from Betsy DeVos’s own family’s foundation, the Edgar and Elsa Prince Foundation. Amway, the family company, is a “leadership level” sponsor of ArtPrize.
When Betsy DeVos became Secretary of Education, Melanie and I decided to organize a boycott of ArtPrize. Boycotting a flawed art event model, founded and funded by Betsy DeVos seemed like a direct political action that lots of people would be willing to do. It would be an easy way for people to take a stand against the madness of Trump and wouldn’t cost anyone time or money. In January, we started a Facebook group and a Twitter account called- ArtPrize/ Devos RESISTANCE. We called ArtPrize out on social media when we saw their policies as damaging to artists. Such as when they bragged about how successful the 2016 event was because it made area businesses $28 million dollars even though artist still had to pay for every aspect of their participation. Or when they just said stupid stuff like announcing a reception for artists nwhile at the same time informing the artists that they would only be offered one free drink at the event. And we continued to remind people of the connection between ArtPrize and Betsy DeVos.
It didn’t take long for ArtPrize to block us on Facebook and Twitter. A public conversation about the workings of ArtPrize and the politics of its founders was one that ArtPrize’s Christian Gaines wasn’t willing to have, or as he put it on Facebook: “fuck right off.” To be honest, our group of 400 members didn’t have much of an effect this year. It’s unclear if we changed any artists minds about attending; the number of artists who participated in 2017 is about the same as last year. This year we also sent passionate, informative letters to each of the professional jurors, asking them not to participant in Betsy DeVos’ ArtPrize. We never received a reply back from any of them.
I’m often asked why artists and nationally known professionals continue to participate in ArtPrize. On my more sympathetic days I say that they might not know about the intimate connections between ArtPrize and the right-wing political activism of the DeVoses. On more cynical days I feel like they just don’t care and were seduced by the sexiness and hip marketing of ArtPrize, along with the royal treatment I’ve heard is given to participating jurors and media (GQ’s Matthew Power was flown to Grand Rapids in a private jet).
The reactions we received to the suggestion of boycotting ArtPrize fell into distinct categories. The first were those who got it right away and without a blink of an eye said they wanted nothing to do with Betsy DeVos or ArtPrize. Then there were those who understood our anger at Betsy DeVos but just couldn’t connect the dots between her politics and what she owns, and this event. They made up all kinds of excuses. They said they didn’t want to boycott ArtPrize because it had become such an important boom to local small businesses. Some would say they didn’t agree with Betsy DeVos’s politics but ArtPrize was a unique art educational experience for school children across the state. The irony, of course, is that it many Michigan’s schools no longer having viable art programs due to the collapse in education funding that DeVos herself largely presided over here.
There were those who questioned our political integrity or suggested we not boycott ArtPrize but use it as a platform to show work that expressed our anger. They thought that supporting a boycott would stifle the enjoyment of those who attended. But that’s the whole idea behind a boycott: to interrupt routine consumption for the sake of a greater political good. Not surprisingly, the most resistance, came from people who worked for ArtPrize or the Grand Rapids media: institutions and organizations intimately connected to ArtPrize or the DeVos family themselves. These people are entrenched in the system that is ArtPrize and don’t want to make the connection between politics and their paycheck. I’ve learned a lot about direct political action and going up against something as big as ArtPrize. I learned that it never is and it never will be a wasted effort to speak truth to power. The neoliberal aspect of ArtPrize is powerful and won’t be changed overnight. But it definitely won’t be changed by doing nothing. It’s never too late to take a political stand, and it’s not too early to commit to boycotting ArtPrize in 2018.