I was drinking my second Ketel One and orange juice at 9:30 am on a private jet between the Marine Air Terminal at Laguardia Airport and Grand Rapids, Michigan when I realized this trip might have been a bad idea.
I consider myself a relatively nice guy, and after being given two rides in a private jet with leather seats and mahogany finishes, unlimited free drinks, free food cooked by Grand Rapids’ hottest chef (“He’s a genius!” one ArtPrize official said as we were served some fancy mac and cheese), and a swank hotel room, I realized it’d be difficult to say anything bad about ArtPrize, the “world’s largest art competition” (ArtPrize says 400,000 people attend the event, but it’s unclear how many of those are just Grand Rapid residents who happen to be passing by). These art junkets are relatively common. Festivals and rich people fly journalists around the world all the time to cover art, film, and everything else. But ArtPrize, I’d been told by another journalist, was peculiar in that it was particularly lavish and particularly boring. No other festival would spend so much money to get people to cover something so banal.
I’d been flown to Grand Rapids by a PR company paid for by ArtPrize, which is funded by billionaire Rick DeVos, the 33-year-old heir to the Devos Family fortune. That fortune was mostly acquired through owning Amway—the company that makes nutritionally questionable substances like Nutrilite as well as beauty products that are sold through “distributors” to people who are usually unemployed or poor and are encouraged to buy as much product from Amway as they can afford (or not afford). They oftentimes lose more money than they make. Amway has been called a pyramid scheme for decades, but it has skirted being defined as one by the Federal Trade Commission because it has convinced regulators that its distributors know how its distribution system works, and that they may lose money in the process.
The DeVos family is also one of the biggest contributors to far-right politics, donating millions to Focus on the Family, the American Enterprise Institute, and similar organizations that bash unions, same-sex marriage, and other markers of progress that are pivotal to America’s maturation. They even received a commendation from the Koch brothers for their work. It’s not clear whether Rick harbors similar sentiments. A quick check of his Twitter suggests he does. He refuses to talk about politics to the press.
But that, I was told again and again, was beside the point.
“Imagine that you were held responsible for the beliefs your father and grandfather held,” Christian Gaines, the director of ArtPrize, told me. He’d been wooed from his job at IMDB in L.A. two years ago to live in Grand Rapids. “I think you give people room to evolve.”
ArtPrize is not about politics, Gaines and DeVos said over the three-day trip. ArtPrize is about art—and prizes.
“I just want to live in a more interesting place,” DeVos told me at the ArtPrize Hub, a glass-encased box of a building in the middle of the city’s downtown. “There’s no master strategy except to make this place more interesting. Fundamentally it’s a party.”
ArtPrize is a “radically open and democratic” art competition, and “the biggest one in the world” according to its backers. It started in 2009, and since then has awarded about $500,000 a year to artists—including locals who do things like carve bears out of wood, and slightly more famous artists like Ran Ortner and Steve Lambert. Any place in Grand Rapids—bars, coffee shops, hotels, etc—can apply to host art during the competition, which lasts for 19 days. And anyone can apply to have their art hosted in one of those spaces. All residents within the city’s borders (roughly 190,000) during those 19 days are eligible to vote and help determine a winner.
In 2012, the competition added a juried award, which is selected by an annually-rotating panel of art world professionals. The reason for adding the juried prize was to “create a tension between populism and professionalism,” according to myriad press materials. Though that may be the “Midwestern Nice” way of saying the juried prize is the only way to ensure batshit conservative art doesn’t overtake ArtPrize each year.
DeVos said he helped create ArtPrize because he was “inspired by the internet.” But, like with the internet, when you open up a venue previously closed to the public, the people (often very white and very old) who feel their voice has been ignored by an institution will quickly fill the void.
Despite the millions of dollars awarded over the last seven years, ArtPrize has hardly made a splash beyond Michigan state lines. It’s actually kind of a joke in much of the art world, where populism and a democratized aesthetic are often frowned upon. Sure, there’s some coastal snobbery contained within that criticism, but that doesn’t delegitimize the critique: ArtPrize, with few exceptions, has not produced artwork of note, has not launched careers or changed discourse. Its greatest achievement is that it has made a few lucky people who will never have success in the actual art world moderately rich and somewhat venerated for a few days each year.
In the lobby of the Amway Grand, the nicest hotel in all of Grand Rapids (where journalists invited to attend the yearly competition are put up), sat two pieces that were popular enough to keep the hallways of the hotel constantly packed with ArtPrize visitors. One piece was a 50-foot-long American flag with a depiction of an American soldier at one end. A woman stood by it holding Sharpies and visitors were encouraged to use those Sharpies to write the name of their heroes on the flag. “God” and “Dad” were the two most popular.
Across from that was a painting of a Miss America-looking Lady Liberty, welcoming about ten caricatures of different ethnicities into the United States. A soldier holding a machine gun stood guard in the corner of the painting, ensuring the protection of the newly arrived Americans.
There was, apparently, much more art like that, but the press was ushered by ArtPrize employees imported to Grand Rapids from London and New York and Los Angeles in cars sponsored by Honda to see the better art (the PR team was very reluctant to diss the Americana, or hold one artist’s reputation over another, but there’s a reason we were taken to only a few places and not given cars of our own, despite the lavish budget; at one point a PR representative did say “Rick personally has a legitimate art collection, not at all inspired by the KKK,” a reference to the jingoistic pieces in his parents’ hotel lobby). That included a piece by the established Brooklyn artist Kate Gilmore. She’d taken an abandoned house, painted it pink and gotten volunteers in white lace dresses to sit on swings and swing from the house’s insides through its open windows. She won the $200,000 juried prize. It was a nice piece, I thought, but I know very little about art. Two other journalists who work for art publications told me it, and every piece in Grand Rapids, even the more professional ones, were inoffensive, bottom-of-the-barrel, and “not good.”
Is ArtPrize a legitimate art competition, I asked one artist.
“No,” he said.
On the last day of the press junket, I met with Jeff Smith, a longtime Grand Rapidian who runs a blog called the Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy, and who has been extremely critical of ArtPrize. Over pancakes at a Big Boy, he explained how ArtPrize benefitted the real estate interests of the DeVos family—they own several buildings downtown, including the Amway Grand, and have their name plastered on everything they donate to including the city’s convention center and the city’s main performing arts center. He also explained that ArtPrize took away momentum from smaller, more radical art gatherings in Grand Rapids. I wasn’t convinced. If ArtPrize indeed is a real estate scam, it would have to be one so complex and long-term that it could only be pulled off by people experienced in executing complex, multi-billion dollar rackets.
Looking for more evidence of the competition’s nefariousness, I called Steve Lambert, whose semi-famous piece “Capitalism Works For Me,” was shortlisted for the juried prize last year. Lambert took the opportunity afforded by that publicity to rail against the DeVos family, and said if he’d won he’d donate the prize to LGBT charities to counter the effect the DeVos family has had on gay rights.
Sure, the DeVos family is pretty backward—Rick’s father Rich once said being on President Reagan’s AIDS commission in the 1980s taught him that gay people are to blame for the HIV crisis: “...actions have consequences and you are responsible for yours”—but does that mean the family can do no good? Much of art is backed by extremely rich, terrible people. Walk into any wing of any museum in Manhattan and you’ll see names of wealthy, immoral individuals etched on the walls. Part of Lincoln Center was renamed after a $100 million gift from David Koch, a notorious libertarian businessman known for supporting toxic Republican campaigns.
“You can’t exist as yourself in 2015 without selling yourself at least a little bit in capitalism—you can’t opt out,” Lambert told me. “But you can draw a line once in awhile and say this is too much.”
Was ArtPrize the line?
I couldn’t help but feel like despite the politics surrounding ArtPrize and the banality of the art, there wasn’t anything particularly wrong with it. Billionaires have done worse. But there wasn’t anything particularly right about it either.
I left the Amway Grand, rode in a sponsored car to the airport, and boarded the Amway Bombardier back to New York City. And then the sense of worry I felt on the way to Grand Rapids returned. After all the wining and dining and chauffeuring and schmoozing, what would I say about the art?
I drank a Bloody Mary and looked out the plane window, surveying Michigan’s green tundra. Out of a deep haze, brought on by three days of hedonism and amateurish art, I was reminded of a favorite Seinfeld episode; it appeared vividly in my mind as if on a screen before me. It’s the one where they start using the phrase “yada yada yada” to gloss over boring parts of stories, and things get out of hand. George begins to worry a woman he’s attracted to has yada yada’d over her sexual infidelity.
“I’ve yada yada’d sex,” Elaine tells George in the episode. “I met this lawyer, we went out to dinner, I had the lobster bisque, we went back to my place, yada yada yada, and I never heard from him again.”
“But you yada yada’d over the best part,” Jerry interjects, incredulous.
“No,” Elaine says calmly. “I mentioned the bisque.”
Peter Moskowitz is a writer in New York.