Opinion

Now Is ArtPrize’s Chance to Prove It Deserves an Art World Spotlight [UPDATED]

Steve Lambert, "Capitalism Works For Me" at the Kendall Galleries of the Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids, Michigan
Steve Lambert, “Capitalism Works For Me” at the Kendall Galleries of the Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids, Michigan (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Last night, artist Steve Lambert announced that he will not be keeping the money if he wins an ArtPrize award. ArtPrize is the large art festival that gives away over half a million dollars through a balanced formula of art professional and public voting (each group gives away roughly $300,000).

According to Lambert’s post, the reasons for his decision, among other things, focus on the family of ArtPrize founder Rick DeVos, which for generations has been on the “wrong side of the fight for civil rights for LGBT.” As an LGBTQ individual who has long fought for equal rights, I am happy with Lambert’s decision, and as the judge in the time-based category who selected him as a finalist (which also makes him eligible for the grand prize), I am delighted that he’s using the platform to continue the conversation about capitalism that his work at ArtPrize, “Capitalism Works For Me, True/False,” raises.

Capitalism, as Lambert certainly knows, is a complex system, and to simplify it means we’ll never understand it properly (the same way a simplification of socialism ends up with caricatures that are far from reality). The American nonprofit-industrial complex is part of capitalism, often filling in gaps when governmental funding falls short (or is cut), and sometimes even giving the mistaken impression that governmental funds were not required in the first place. Organizations like ArtPrize, not to mention so many others, are inevitably tied to individual agents and players in the larger system who often serve bigger agendas, some of which may be pointedly political.

Where I disagree with Lambert is this: writing off a whole organization because of one funder — no matter how big — is not always constructive. Almost all museums and arts nonprofits benefit from those ill-gotten funds, whether through war profiteering, natural-resource pillaging, slavery, or other heinous actions. And to blame one individual for his or her family’s actions is certainly not fair.

But now that ArtPrize has invited the contemporary art world — as messy as it is — into their Michigan city, they should realize that they will have to adapt as much as the art world is learning to adapt to it. Artists, curators, and critics are great at pointing out the contradictions of the systems that impact them. We’re often looking for the weaknesses in those systems, eager to expose the hypocrisies or dysfunctions that aren’t always evident.

Lambert is right that ArtPrize should make it clear that they support LGBTQ artists and the community, and that they are committed to the bigger issues that impact the arts, like housing, wages, arts funding, and accessible education. In his interview with Paul Schmelzer about the matter this morning, he offered a clear suggestion that would be a great way forward: “It seems Rick DeVos’s views are not as extreme as his parents’, and especially his grandfather. However, if that’s true, I wish him the courage to be just as outspoken as his family, but on the side of love and acceptance, fighting for working people, ending militarism, and the value of publicly funded education for all. It would be nice to hear from him on that.”

When I attended ArtPrize as a juror last month, I did so with my husband, and we didn’t feel marginalized at any time by the organization, even though I’m well aware that the experience is never going to be typical of someone who lives and works in Grand Rapids. I even briefly met Rick DeVos, who came across as surprisingly shy, and was impressed by what he described as his passion for creativity. I encouraged him to see ArtPrize! The Musical, another one of my juried finalists, which skewers him and the absurdities of ArtPrize.

All of this underlies a bigger issue: if Grand Rapids is serious about embracing art and about the art world embracing them, they will have to prove that they’re committed to helping create an environment where art can flourish — one where all types of people, ideas, and identities are welcome to play, work, and live together. Until that happens, they shouldn’t be surprised if ArtPrize’s mission to be a “radically open” art community is never fully realized. Rick DeVos and ArtPrize, make a statement to demonstrate that your mission isn’t only an idea, but a commitment to something more.

Updated, October 10, 15:03 EST: ArtPrize’s Director of Exhibitions Kevin Buist has released a statement about Steve Lambert’s post. Buist writes:

“Naturally, speculation has been swirling since last night about what ArtPrize’s response to this would be. In short, we think it’s great.”

He also explains:

The Grand Rapids Community Foundation, the organization behind the Our LGBT Fund, is an ArtPrize sponsor. Earlier this year we were proud to announce the that Community Foundation awarded ArtPrize a $50,000 gift to work to ensure that everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, ability, or socioeconomic status, can join the conversation and have their voices heard at the world’s largest art competition.

And he offers the “current 2014 breakdown of where we get our money” to help dispel any confusion about ArtPrize funding:

  • 31% comes from foundations. This includes the our founding sponsor the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation, as well as about a dozen others, including the Grand Rapids Community Foundation.
  • 5% comes from federal, state, and local government sources (thank you, taxpayers!).
  • 55% comes from corporate giving. This is a long list of local and international brands, led by Meijer, PNC Bank, Kendall College of Art and Design, and Amway Corporation.
  • 9% comes from our individual and family membership programs, ArtFan and ArtClub.
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