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Some Thoughts on ArtPrize in a New Political Reality

Dewitt Godfrey

(image: Dewitt Godfrey)

This is a blog post about ArtPrize, money, and politics. In the past I haven’t addressed these things with this level of clarity, but now is not a time for silence. We put out a statement on the ArtPrize blog about recent political developments (read it here), but I thought I’d add more of my personal take below.

I’ve been part of ArtPrize from the very beginning. I remember hearing Rick DeVos give the original pitch to me and a dozen other people who worked for a previous company he’d founded. I was stunned by the elegance and the power of the idea. I knew it would be incredibly hard to pull off, and I wanted to help. I got that opportunity and took it upon myself to ensure that ArtPrize didn’t suck. That’s actually what I told myself in my mind, “Don’t let this suck.” I poured myself into developing and refining the artist-facing portion of the event. I argued passionately with haters in comment threads. I convinced skeptical artists to enter and cautious curators and critics to visit as jurors.

I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished so far, but over these eight years I’ve also come to terms with how naive I was at the beginning. It wasn’t my sole responsibility to make sure it didn’t suck, that was ultimately out of my control. The successes and failures of a thing like ArtPrize ride on the efforts of thousands of people, and even then certain elements are left to the whims of chance. ArtPrize has worked, but there’s nothing I control that guarantees that.

Last year, as we were in the hustle of ArtPrize Eight while following the news of a contentious and insane election, I started to sense a deep change in circumstance, like the ground shifting. Eras of American culture can be pretty effectively mapped to presidential administrations, without necessarily claiming a cause and effect relationship. Administrations and our reaction to them have a way of coloring the national mood. When I say “the Reagan years,” that has a cultural meaning as well as a political one. During the event this past fall it occurred to me that the entirety of ArtPrize up to that point had taken place during the Obama years. The meeting I mentioned earlier, when Rick laid out his simple vision for an art event that would take over the city, took place in January 2009, the same month Obama was inaugurated.

As we worked on the event, no one thought “Gee, this will be a perfect for the Obama era!” But looking back now, it’s clear that it reflected the sensibilities of the time. Those years were defined by hope in technology, participation, and democracy that seem a little too innocent now. Social networks! Apps! The “long tail”! TED Talks! With a little gumption and some cool tech, we can change the world! That sheen has been fading for a while now, but the events of the last few months signal an abrupt end to the techie optimism of the Obama era. We thought giving everyone technological “platforms” with which to amplify their voices would lead to a flourishing of expression, art, and entrepreneurship. A lot of that happened, but platforms like Twitter, for example, also emboldened misogynists, white supremacists, and Russian bot armies. Many news websites enabled comments, only to the turn them off years later. The elegance and simplicity of the big ideas that captured our imagination turned out to be more complicated than the original pitch. Things get messy.

ArtPrize has avoided the invasion of hateful trolls that plague platforms like Twitter and Reddit, but our early infatuation with elegance and simplicity has slowly given way to the unglamorous daily tasks of building a sustainable and consistent nonprofit art organization. We began as a wild idea dreamt up by someone with the means and the connections to get it off the ground, but we’ve become a broadly supported institution that gives artists, curators, and educators over $700,000 a year in grants and prizes. Initially, ArtPrize was an experiment in applying free market forces to the task of assembling an exhibition. ArtPrize was founded on the notion that if the carrot on the end of the stick was big enough, everything else would self-organize in an interesting way and figure out how to eat it. When the idea was announced, there were people who were confident that this approach would fail, and it was enormously satisfying to prove them wrong. But skepticism of our laissez faire model did have some merit. It turned out this was a brilliant way to start something, but it was not a great way to run something. As ArtPrize ages, we find ourselves confronted with the same challenges of any organization that supports the arts. How does the work get made? How are people supported? Who’s invited to be part of the audience? How do we keep it fresh? The giant carrot on the stick, as tantalizing as it still is, can only do so much. For everything else, we have to show up and do the work.

Now it’s 2017 and suddenly doing the work involves confronting the question of what ArtPrize will be in a new era. What is a post-Obama ArtPrize? What is ArtPrize in the Trump era, whatever that turns out to be? We’re just starting to figure this out—and honestly—we’re off to a very challenging start. This week Betsy DeVos was confirmed as Trump’s Secretary of Education. Betsy has been a financial supporter of ArtPrize, through her foundation, since her son Rick founded it. She served on the board until recently. I’ve never agreed with the politics of the DeVos family. Since before ArtPrize began I knew that working on Rick’s projects meant finding common goals with people despite disagreeing on a vast array of other issues, and defending this strategy against criticisms leveled by my own “side.” This has not been easy, and I have moments of doubt, but I reject the notion of insisting on perfect ideological alignment before agreeing to work toward a common goal. It’s puritanical, petty, and it breeds tribalism. I deeply disagree with the DeVos’ politics. And I’m deeply committed to what ArtPrize is doing with their help. Is that complicated? You bet it is. Most things are.

I’m not alone. The majority of the ArtPrize staff is with me in navigating a path through their own progressive politics and the perceptions that funding can carry. We’re not alone in the art world, either. The DeVos family funds every major art institution in Grand Rapids, with as much or even far more money than they give us. The tension between conservative money and progressive art organizations isn’t unique to Grand Rapids, either. If you think there isn’t a questionable aspect to the funders of a particular art organization, you probably haven’t looked hard enough.

I’ve become pretty comfortable plotting my way through this, but Betsy’s appointment came as a genuine shock. As late as the GOP convention, Betsy sounded cautious and unconvinced when asked by reporters about Trump, even though her preferred candidates, Rubio and Cruz, were clearly not going to get the nomination. I thought, even if I’ll never agree with Betsy on policy, there’s a much more basic question of integrity at play here. Surely, she could never support a candidate who talks like an aspiring dictator, spurns philanthropy, exhibits no working knowledge of the constitution, and prefers lawsuits and crony capitalism over free markets. Trump, it seems obvious, is not a conservative in any coherent sense of the term. Even though I’ve always disagreed with the DeVos’ social conservatism and free market fundamentalism, I thought I understood it. Now I’m forced to confront the fact that I was wrong. I have no idea what’s happening. I can’t imagine why Betsy would take this job.

Betsy has taken a lot of heat in the confirmation process, and unlike most people spilling ink about her, I’ve actually met her, so I feel the need to make a few things clear. First of all, she is not stupid. She’s an incredibly intelligent and insightful person, even if her confirmation hearing didn’t seem to reflect that. Second, she’s not evil. I believe that she truly wants to improve education outcomes for children, even if I think that her policy proposals will not accomplish that. More importantly, working for an administration that shows the early warning signs of fascism is not a situation that can be redeemed by good intentions.

I can’t justify or defend the actions of the funders of ArtPrize, and I don’t need to, that’s not my job. People can defend their own actions. What I will defend is my choice to work with people, despite difference and disagreement, to support artists and bring contemporary art to hundreds of thousands of people.