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Yesterday, during her confirmation hearing to be the next Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos responded to a question from Senator Bernie Sanders about whether she would work with him to make US public colleges and universities tuition free. “Senator I think that’s a really interesting idea, and it’s really great to consider and think about,” DeVos responded. “But I think we also have to consider the fact that there’s nothing in life that’s truly free. Somebody’s going to pay for it.”
This was, as others have pointed out, quite a rich statement coming from a billionaire who inherited and married into vast sums of money — and has since used that money to consistently fund institutions and programs that advocate for the spending of public funds on private, particularly Christian, schools. In her hearing, DeVos also said that states should be left to decide whether guns are allowed in schools and whether children with disabilities have access to the services they need. She also lied to the Senate about her relationship with her mother’s foundation.
Whether or not you follow national education debates, the name DeVos may sound familiar if you participate in the art world in some way. It’s the one attached to ArtPrize, that “radically open” art competition in Grand Rapids, Michigan, that awards more than $500,000 to winning artists every year.
ArtPrize is not Betsy DeVos’s creation; it was dreamed up by her son Rick. Her and her husband’s foundation, the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation, did pay for ArtPrize in its initial year, 2009. The contest and the organization that administers it have since gone on to secure independent funding. “It was, undeniably, a DeVos family production at first, though not any more,” MLive reported in 2015. “‘We get much more of our funding from elsewhere. We are now self-sustaining,” ArtPrize Executive Director Christian Gaines explained.
This is important. I’m not here to argue that those of us in the art world should boycott ArtPrize because of Betsy or refuse to accept its money (though others have said as much). I myself let ArtPrize pay for me and my visit when I attended as a panelist in 2015. But I do think it’s crucial to make note and be aware of the connections at play here. Rick DeVos is the founder and current chairman of ArtPrize, which was listed in 2014 as one of the most highly attended art events in the world. And Rick DeVos is very, very proud of his mother.
The DeVoses are one of many examples of millionaires and billionaires who’ve used their money to simultaneously support right-wing political organizations and left-leaning cultural institutions (exhibit A: David Koch and the Metropolitan Museum of Art). Spending in this way is a form of soft power — a means to look benevolent and enlightened while being pretty nefarious. It’s also the reality of arts funding in this country; I don’t know of anyone who’s yet figured out a convincing workaround. But acknowledging that situation should never stop us art world masses from calling out, discussing, and pushing back against it. We may not have the money, but we do have some power, and we should attempt to use it to convince our beloved arts institutions to openly support us, even if it mean pissing off a board member.
I’ve found myself thinking that there’s perhaps another stab of irony in Betsy DeVos’s claim to Bernie Sanders that nothing is free: the art competition created by her son and originally funded by her own foundation prides itself on being so. At one point, at least, DeVos supported the idea that free public art was worth paying for; if only she thought the same of education.
Update, 1/19: A readers has pointed out to me that ArtPrize is neither the only, nor the biggest, art connection for DeVos. In 2010, she and her husband, Dick, gave $22.5 million to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, where she had served on the board for the previous six years (thanks to an appointment by George W. Bush). The gift was the largest private donation in the institution’s history and endowed the creation of the DeVos Institute for Arts Management, a training center for cultural leaders. The institute moved to the University of Maryland in 2014. The following year, Bloomberg Philanthropies launched an Arts Innovation and Management program that awards a combined $30 million in operating support to hundreds of cultural organizations across the country. Bloomberg’s “robust” two-year training program was developed by the DeVos Institute of Arts Management.