I’m not keeping the money.
Last week I learned I was a jury pick for ArtPrize in Grand Rapids. Shortly after I found out I was on the short list for the public vote as well. At that point I had a shot at the $200,000 public vote prize, the $200,000 juried prize, and a 1 in 4 chance of winning a $20,000 jury prize for my category.
It’s a lot of money.
I didn’t enter ArtPrize with the hope of winning. I was curated into a show during ArtPrize. I had heard a bit about the contest and decided to give it a chance and have the piece reach an audience it may not otherwise. I was certain I had no shot at winning. I liked that my piece was understood and appreciated by critics and the public alike.
ArtPrize is hard to explain. It’s a project of Rick DeVos, who comes from a very wealthy family. How did they make that money? Founding Amway – Multi-Level Marketing, which is a polite term for a pyramid scheme. They’re married into the family behind Blackwater, the private military outfit. They’re against unions and advocate for school voucher programs. They’ve been major donors to Focus on the Family, Acton Institute, Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, and Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich’s campaigns. You may have read that article I sent last week, or about their unionbusting and plan to defund the Left in Mother Jones. (I encourage you to read them. It made my choice much easier.)
What bothers me the most is the DeVos family has, for generations, been on the wrong side of the fight for civil rights for LGBT people. And they back their opinions with millions in political money against civil rights. It’s a long story, but the end is: they haven’t changed.
Tomorrow night, I may win tens of thousands of dollars of their money.
Now, I could do a lot with that money. I’m trying to build up Public Forum. I’m trying to raise money for the Center for Artistic Activism so we can continue doing our work. I mean, I don’t have to tell you I could use the money.
But I had to ask myself, how bad does it have to be for me to say no to the money? In this situation, where is my line? And I realized, “oh, it’s behind me.”
So today I pledged, if I win I will not keep any of the money. I will hand over all my award money to the LGBT Fund of Grand Rapids. I will also volunteer to come back to Grand Rapids with the Center for Artistic Activism to work with LGBT to fight for equality.
The Center for Artistic Activism has worked for equal rights for LGBT people in Russia and the former Yugoslavia, in the most homophobic countries in the world. We’re prepared for Western Michigan.
The reason I became an artist is because I believe it helps create free human beings. It can show us other ways of looking at the world, other ways the world can be. It makes us more empathetic, more understanding, and more open. It helps us grow. I think the money behind ArtPrize is working against, what I see as, the spirit of art itself.
Update: Interview on Eyeteeth
I did a short interview on Eyeteeth and talked about this more.
Update: ArtPrize Responds and I Have Some Questions
ArtPrize has posted a response. (archive.org link) Overall, I’m pleased. There’s a few things I could nit-pick at (for example, they say “political statement” I say it’s an ethical position) but that’s to be expected. I do have a few questions I’m hoping to get answers to now that ArtPrize has welcomed the conversation, as they put it.
- Did the LGBT Fund give $50,000 to ArtPrize, or just the Grand Rapids Community Foundation? It’s very different. Personally, I can’t imagine the LGBT Fund using money specified for those issues on Rick DeVos’ project, so I am quite skeptical of this.
- Kevin Buist’s explanation of the budget re ArtPrize was confusing. What percent of funding comes from DeVos connected money, and what’s independent? When 55% is corporate giving, and one of those corporations is Amway, a DeVos owned company… Well, it would be more clear it was explained as n percent DeVos connected funds and x percent independent funds. The numbers, as given, almost seem meant to obscure the real data.
- I was really hoping to find out if Rick DeVos and ArtPrize will speak up and take action for equality, love, and acceptance for LGBTQ folks. Not to mention the other issues I talked about. But that wasn’t mentioned in their response.
Glad to hear they “welcome the conversation” though and I can’t wait to have it.
ArtPrize, you know how to reach me.
UPDATE: ArtPrize Responds Again in an open letter from the Exec. Director
Christian Gaines, Executive Director of ArtPrize, published “An Open Letter to Steve Lambert” on Monday titled “A Message about ArtPrize, Social Equity, and Inclusion.”(archive.org link) Please read it. For all their talk about welcoming conversation, I hoped to get some answers to my questions – I didn’t – but what what I did learn has severely eroded my trust in the organization.
Gaines answers were misleading, in a way I can only see as deliberate, about their funding sources and the purpose and intention of their diversity funding. I had to make some calls and I learned the truth.
Below is my response.
Rick DeVos, what is your silence protecting?
Thank you for responding.
I’ll get to my main questions shortly, but you’ve reminded me to send a thank you card to the Frey Foundation, who put up the money for that $2000 seed grant you made a point of mentioning in your letter. Every cent helped pay a portion of the round-trip shipping to get my sculpture out to Michigan. I am especially fortunate to be one of the 25 who received that grant. The other 1512 artists this year each had to fend for themselves to put on ArtPrize. This lack of respect for artist’s labor (when ArtPrize prides itself on millions in revenue it generates) has been a consistent criticism since ArtPrize began. 25 grants, that ArtPrize does not pay for, are a step forward but there are many artists left whose labor needs to be compensated fairly.
Now regarding my questions: I wish you would have answered the ones I asked.
My first question was simply if LGBT Fund money was used for ArtPrize. Kevin Buist’s statement conflated sponsorship from Grand Rapids Community Foundation with their LGBT Fund, but they are quite different in scope and intention. You didn’t answer my question, and in fact you left me more confused about the LGBT Fund’s role.
So I called them.
I talked to Diana Sieger, the President of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation. Diana explained that the LGBT Fund is focused on helping homeless LGBTQ youth, which is estimated at 40% of the homeless population in the area. (You see, when cultures and families like ones from the Christian Reformed Church don’t accept and love their children for who they are, many sadly end up on the streets.)
She also said the LGBT Fund was created just a few months ago, well after the Community Foundation grant was given for Art Prize. Interesting.
Then I got my answer.
The grant for ArtPrize came from the general fund and supported, explicitly: translating text into Spanish and creating mobility pathways for the disabled.
Spanish translation and mobility pathways?
You’re talking like you’re crossing the finish line when you just left the starting blocks. Congratulations on the $50,000 grant for diversity and inclusion, but let’s be honest, this only directly benefits LGBTQ people who are in wheelchairs and/or only read Spanish.
So why mischaracterize this support the way you did?
In fact, why mention it at all?
At first I thought it may be a miscommunication, but I looked back at what you and Kevin wrote and it seems you deliberately made it unclear. As representatives of ArtPrize, the slippery way you and Kevin publicly described this even had me confused. I asked you to be straightforward about the involvement of the LGBT Fund and you chose not to answer. Instead you further blurred not just the funding source, but the work the funding paid for. I had expected us to have an honest exchange, but I can’t help but find your statements disingenuous. I now wonder what ArtPrize has really done (not said publicly, but actually done) to improve inclusion? And why should anyone trust an answer this time after being so evasive and misleading?
The second question I asked was what percentage of money comes from DeVos’ family interests and what percentage is independent. This still hasn’t been stated plainly in the way I requested. Perhaps because DeVos money is so entangled in Grand Rapids that it’s hard to say if a supporter is free of their influence. The DeVos family has a share in numerous corporations and foundations in Grand Rapids, as well as real estate – is it even possible to untangle into a simple figure? Perhaps not, and I am asking too much.
My last question was if Rick DeVos and ArtPrize will speak up and take action for equality, love, and acceptance for LGBTQ.
As far as your own position and feelings about LGBTQ issues as an individual, this is not a bigotry audit of you or your staff. I understand you have LGBTQ co-workers, friends, and family – we all do.
As an organization, conversation and board resolutions are a step, but what is important when it comes to equality is action. You’ve already undermined my trust about your words, which makes me just as doubtful of your follow through.
Regardless, let’s not lose sight of the real issue of why I pledged to donate the ArtPrize money and why your connections are controversial. None of ArtPrize’s public declarations of acceptance or internal policies can undo the damage the DeVos family has done for decades to LGBTQ rights, and to our unions, to our schools, and our culture. And ArtPrize remains directly connected to DeVos.
You asked how I would further improve LGBTQ inclusion efforts at ArtPrize. I’d like to help, so I thought about this for a long time.
ArtPrize could continue to do more to be welcoming and accepting of all people and really lead the way for equality for all. It would be wonderful. I’d like to see it happen.
But then people will make the connections to the unfair labor policies the DeVos family supports, and how that connects to ArtPrize’s very structure of launching a city-wide art show with little to no administrative, shipping, installing, or financial support for the hundreds of artists and spaces involved. That will become an embarrassing issue for ArtPrize also, and you will have to say you welcome the conversation, and then implement those changes.
Then people will make the connections to attacks on public schooling, and how those cuts affect the education of people in the area, particularly arts programs, and how that connects to ArtPrize’s artists and audiences. That will become an embarrassing issue, and you will have to say you welcome the conversation for that too, and then implement those changes.
Then people will make the connection to how the DeVos’ operate Amway and how its policies and profit system exploit people and primarily benefits those at the top, and they will again understand how that connects to the way ArtPrize treats artists and the region. That will become an embarrassing issue, and you will have to say you welcome the conversation for that as well, and then implement those changes.
Then people will make connections to how anti-democratic the DeVos family operates in throwing millions into policies they desire, instead of participating democratically with citizens on equal ground. People will see how that connects to ArtPrize and how citizens and the artists involved have no say in how ArtPrize is fundamentally run and impacts their city to the benefit of DeVos real estate holdings, investments, and development companies. That will become an embarrassing issue, you will have to say you welcome the conversation for that too, and then implement those changes.
I thought about this a long time. It’s a mess, because this is not just about LGBTQ rights. ArtPrize has a lot of work ahead.
I do want to offer something though. The first thing, the very first thing I would suggest to improve ArtPrize, is have a heart to heart with Rick DeVos and see if he is willing to stand up publicly for equality. Not equality within your office, but for the nation. See if he really believes in it. Ask if he will donate to the LGBT Fund. Ask if he will donate to the the LGBT Resource Center at Grand Valley State University. Ask if he will speak out publicly for same-sex marriage rights.
If not, I would separate myself from him as quickly as possible.
I know Rick DeVos has said in interviews he does not want to talk about politics. However because ArtPrize was birthed and continues to run with DeVos funds, given the context and history of that money, the outspoken beliefs and political influence of his fellow family members, and the political nature and ramifications of ArtPrize, staying silent is one luxury and a priviledge Rick DeVos can not afford. What is his silence protecting?
In your letter, you left off the last part of Hrag’s quote, which echoed my original request, (my emphasis added) “Rick DeVos and ArtPrize, make a statement to demonstrate that your mission isn’t only an idea, but a commitment to something more.”
Good luck with all your work. I wish you the best,