An Artist Reflects on When to Walk Away

September 18, 2015

The maker of “Capitalism Works for Me” on corporate philanthropy’s role in the art world, the ethics and compromises of getting paid, and who deserves public scrutiny.

Monkeys. Crowds at the 2011 Art Prize. Photo by Julie Falk via  Flickr

Crowds at the 2011 Art Prize. Photo by Julie Falk via Flickr.

On October 10, 2014, my stomach was in knots. I was at home in Beacon, NY, trying to swallow my lunch while my phone buzzed with calls from television news crews in Michigan. I had been chosen out of 1,512 entrants as a finalist for ArtPrize and stood a one in 20 chance of winning a $200,000 award for my sculpture Capitalism Works for Me! True/False. With this year’s ArtPrize coming up, more artists are hoping to be in a position to win the prize money this fall. But my place as a finalist wasn’t the only reason the media were pursuing me. The night before, I had announced that if I won, I would give away all the money to the Our LGBT Fund of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation. That day a quarter of a million people had read the announcement on my website, which spread on social media and was now hitting TV, radio and print news. In a country that had recently appointed a special envoy for LGBT rights and that, though we didn’t realize it at the time, was less than a year away from legalizing gay marriage nationwide, my announcement might not have caused such a sensation were it not for the powerful anti-gay political connections of the family behind the ArtPrize organization.

This is the story of a principled man using his position to work for the good of an underprivileged community instead of benefiting himself. That man is the Michigan billionaire Rick DeVos: renegade entrepreneur, art lover, a man unafraid to challenge the conventional elitist art world of the coasts and Europe. Courageously, DeVos created ArtPrize, a “radically open, independently organized international art competition,” which has transformed and democratized contemporary art by allowing the public to vote to determine the winners of large cash prizes awarded directly to artists. DeVos’ actions have also transformed his hometown of Grand Rapids, MI, the city in which the award is given. By attracting art lovers, artists and critics and invigorating the local economy, ArtPrize has saved the city from becoming, as locals put it, “another Detroit.”

It’s a good story, and it’s told repeatedly. You can read about it on ArtPrize’s website, in its promotional materials, in all the favorable local press or in a self-published $35 hardcover book on its five-year history. But unfortunately DeVos’ celebrated altruism, like that of many wealthy supporters of arts and culture, doesn’t hold up to close examination.

In announcing that I would donate my ArtPrize award if I won, I knew that I was leveraging an old myth of the artist as someone concerned not with money but solely with the integrity of his or her artistic vision.

Corporate philanthropy in the United States has come under scrutiny before—notably in 2014, when scientists and environmental agencies signed an open letter urging natural history museums such as the Smithsonian to sever ties with David Koch and other industrialists who have supported right-wing campaigns to deny climate change. This letter was the brainchild of the Natural History Museum, a roving exhibition and educational project by the artist collective Not an Alternative, which has sought to highlight the increasing influence of corporate money not just in politics but also in cultural institutions. In addition to David Koch’s support of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, there are many other acts of philanthropy that I believe are worthy of skepticism, including British Petroleum’s support of the Tate museums and Philip Morris’ donations to various cultural institutions. The DeVos family’s support of ArtPrize is a part of this large and ever-growing sphere of questionable relationships between wealthy patrons and the institutions they patronize.

The stories ArtPrize tells about itself leave out some key details. ArtPrize is a pet project started thanks to investments from the wealthy and extensive DeVos family. In 2014 ArtPrize’s revenue was over $4 million, and it very publicly awards a few giant prizes, but the hundreds of artists who mount the citywide exhibition are left to obtain their own insurance and offered limited financial and logistical support. Meanwhile the DeVos family benefits from ArtPrize in a number of ways. In 2011 the Michigan-based news site Mlive reported that tax documents showed that ArtPrize, which gets significant donations from the DeVos family, had spent large sums on contracts with for-profit businesses like Pomegranate Studios, which is owned by the DeVos family. They’re very economically savvy—the family’s business interests in Grand Rapids mean that they are well positioned to benefit from an event that brings in tourism and raises the city’s profile—and the family reaps the benefits of publicity and cultural cachet from being associated with the event as well.

Members of the DeVos family have championed far-right causes, including opposing same-sex marriage and collective bargaining. On the few occasions when ArtPrize founder Rick DeVos has been asked about his relationship to his family’s controversial positions, he demurs. In a GQ article from 2012 he remarked, “I don’t want to even weigh in on any of the political stuff. . . . I just prefer to stay away from that.” This strategy of remaining silent has generally worked. Though Rick DeVos makes plenty of conservative political donations that are part of the public record, nearly all the people I talked to in Grand Rapids, including many journalists, assume that his politics are milder than those of the rest of his family. What a great privilege it must be to benefit from the doubt created by your silence.

Rick DeVos’ silence aside, the political power of the DeVos family is clear. Richard M. DeVos Sr., the patriarch of the family, is co-founder of the multilevel-marketing giant Amway and was named the 60th-richest man in the United States by Forbes in 2012 (placing him in the top .0000001 percent). The family, which has ties to the private military contractor Blackwater, uses its money to work behind the scenes within Michigan and across the country. Each year the DeVoses are among the top donors to conservative campaigns, doling out millions to political parties, candidates and PACs. Unsatisfied with mere financial influence, Dick DeVos, Rick DeVos’ father, spent $35 million on an unsuccessful campaign for governor. In recent years the DeVoses have spent millions to defund public schools with campaigns for school voucher programs. They pushed, financially and politically, for Michigan’s successful anti–collective bargaining right-to-work legislation.

ArtPrize is presented as if it’s a gift, bestowed upon Grand Rapids, the community, and the art world by Rick DeVos and the family. I now see a calculated investment made by a family whose beliefs and actions run counter to those of most artists: homophobic, militaristic, anti-worker, anti–public schools and fundamentally anti-democratic in their methods.

Rick DeVos has proven to be a shrewd manipulator of his own mythology; I admit, however, that I too created a story about myself. In announcing that I would donate my ArtPrize award if I won, I knew that I was leveraging an old myth of the artist as someone concerned not with money but solely with the integrity of his or her artistic vision. My story, like that of Rick DeVos, was crafted for the public in a very specific way. But whereas I find his public persona as a benevolent arts supporter deceptive, I was sincere about my intentions. I took a genuine personal conflict and made it public. This was something that required a lot of soul-searching. For days I sorted through real, personal, moral questions. In the end I decided that I would stay true to my principles, even if it ended up costing me $200,000 at a time when I could definitely use the money. This was much more difficult than I expected—absolutely nerve-racking and nauseating at times. Yet I went public with my intentions because I knew that it could bring the DeVos family’s homophobia and political power into the light.

It must delight the powerful when we turn our scrutiny on artists, art organizations and one another.

Immediately following my announcement, people on all sides of the argument began doubting my motivations and questioning the effectiveness of my statements. I came under intense scrutiny. ArtPrize attempted to undermine my credibility by pointing out that the parent organization of the LGBT fund that I intended to donate to had supported it in the past, even though this support came from funds that were unrelated to the support of LGBT causes. People accused me of being a publicity hound, of hoping to bolster myself and my image, of being motivated by a long-term plan for even more financial gain (how this plan would work I still don’t understand). They wanted to know why, if I really wanted to do good, I had chosen to go about it in such a public way. I was called a hypocrite and told that I was being disrespectful of the generosity of the DeVos family. Many just thought that it was stupid to get involved in a competition if I disagreed so strongly with the organizers.

As a figure on the public stage who is also trying to carve out a living, an artist frequently needs to consider the ethics of his or her actions. What I didn’t expect, in the days and weeks following my announcement, was how the artists around me, who were not involved in ArtPrize, would react when imagining themselves in my position. Overcome by doubt, they would look at me with giant, frightened eyes and confess, “Oh wow, I’m not sure I could do that.”

I’ve felt that same natural self-reflection emerge when I see someone step forward and I wonder if I should do the same. Could I do that? Am I doing enough to help others? Where is my paycheck coming from? What compromises have I made? Before long I find myself falling down a rabbit hole of self-doubt: Is Costco really any better than Amazon? I drive a car. Am I working hard enough for justice? Should I get off Facebook and live in the woods? What is the point of my life? What have I really done? When this happens, self-reflection turns into self-destruction.

It must delight the powerful when we turn our scrutiny on artists, art organizations and one another instead of the powerful—especially those who use philanthropy to mask real damage. That doubt-filled scrutiny can be a good impulse when effectively aimed in the direction of people like Rick DeVos, the Koch brothers and other powerful figures with vested interests who support cultural institutions. What answers would they have when asked the same questions: Are you just being a publicity hound, hoping to bolster yourself and your image, motivated by a longer-term plan for even more financial gain? Why, if you really want to do good, have you chosen to go about it in such a public way? Are you a hypocrite, disrespectful of the community you claim to be benefiting? Are you doing enough to help others? Where is your money coming from? What compromises have you made? What is the point of your life? What have you really done?

There are times when it is appropriate to interrogate the motives of artists and art institutions, but these moments occur more rarely than they do in the worlds of commercial industry and politics. We must keep our focus on the larger, more powerful political actors who truly deserve our scrutiny.

Steve Lambert. Capitalism Works For Me! True/False. 9 ft x 20 ft x 7 ft Aluminum and electrical.

Steve Lambert. Capitalism Works For Me! True/False. 9 ft x 20 ft x 7 ft. Aluminum and electrical.