Rick DeVos knew he wanted to bring the arts to his hometown. He also knew he wanted to do it in a big way. For a while, the then-28-year-old played with the idea of starting a film festival. But film festivals were already pretty widespread, and the concept struck him as a little tired. He wanted to do something new, something different, something fresh. It took a while, but eventually DeVos figured out how he was going to bring the arts to Grand Rapids, Michigan. His goal was simple. He would turn the entire city into an art gallery.
On a brisk April day in 2009, DeVos announced his plans to launch a “social experiment” in the fall: ArtPrize. DeVos intended to create a revolutionary art contest. First, it would be lucrative. DeVos offered a $250,000 prize for first place, placing it among the art world’s single largest purses, as well as $199,000 for several runners-up prizes. Second, the contest would be radically open. Any artist in the world could compete; any property owner in downtown Grand Rapids could host exhibitions. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the winners of ArtPrize would be decided by the public. DeVos wasn’t interested in selection committees or juries. Instead, he wanted all the visitors to be able to vote “yes” or “no” for ArtPrize entries.
Technology allows votes to be cast from mobile devices while the art is being viewed. Although actual vote counts are not disclosed, trending entries and the “top 25” are shown in real time.
DeVos wasn’t sure what would happen when the contest kicked off in September 2009. Nobody was. Over 18 days, 159 venues exhibited the work of 1,262 artists from 41 states and 14 countries. Some 200,000 visitors descended on Grand Rapids, casting 334,219 votes. The contest opened on a Wednesday. By Sunday, restaurants in the city had run out of food. By the last day of the contest, visitors waited in a line stretching over two city blocks to view the winning artwork.
A Family of Entrepreneurs
Rick DeVos is a grandson of Richard DeVos, a co-founder of Amway. (The name is short for “American Way.”) The company was founded by the elder DeVos and his boyhood friend, the late Jay Van Andel, just outside Grand Rapids, in the town of Ada. DeVos and Van Andel got started right after serving in the Second World War. They knew they wanted to work together, but their early business collaborations failed to take off. They tried founding an air-charter business and running a hamburger stand.
During this period of trial-and-error, they were introduced to the health-supplement brand Nutrilite, which they sold door-to-door—where they learned a lesson in the benefits of person-to-person marketing. Within a few years, they formed a distribution network comprised of thousands of Nutrilite vendors. In 1959, they broke with Nutrilite, having more faith in their method of selling than in the product they were peddling. They took their distribution chain with them, using it to move goods that they produced. Thus was born Amway.
In more than half a century since then, the company has done almost nothing but expand. DeVos and Van Andel even purchased Nutrilite, making it an Amway product. Today, Amway is a global enterprise that manufactures and sells products through direct marketing. It’s probably best known for Nutrilite, but it sells everything from beauty products to water purifiers. In 2010, Amway’s revenues topped $9 billion, an all-time high for the company.
In 2010, ArtPrize awarded $474,000 to the contest’s top 10 vote-getters.
According to Forbes, Richard DeVos is the 62nd wealthiest person in the United States and the 254th wealthiest person in the world, with a fortune of more than $4 billion. This incredible success has allowed him to branch into other areas. He owned the Orlando Magic professional basketball team, which plays its home games at the Amway Center. The family has dabbled in politics, too: Dick DeVos, Richard’s son and ArtPrize creator Rick’s father, ran for Governor of Michigan as a Republican in 2006. His wife, Betsy, once chaired the state Republican party.
But the family is at least as well known for its philanthropy. The DeVos name is prominent in Grand Rapids. There’s the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, the DeVos Urban Leadership Initiative, and the DeVos Communication Center at Calvin College. The family also has invested heavily in hundreds of projects that don’t carry its name, such as the recently begun L. William Siedman Center at Grand Valley State University, which enrolls about 25,000 students.
Most of the DeVos family’s giving takes place through individual family foundations, starting with the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation. It also includes foundations attached to each of their children. Rick DeVos pursues his charitable projects with his parents and siblings through the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation—which he’s using to bring his family’s tradition of entrepreneurship to the field of philanthropy.
Birth of an Idea
The art world certainly doesn’t lack for high-profile contests. The most prestigious may be the Turner Prize, named for English landscape painter J. M. W. Turner and hosted by the Tate Britain, an art museum in London. It’s worth over $60,000—enough to feed a starving artist for a long time. Other sponsors offer even bigger paydays. The Guggenheim hands out its Hugo Boss Prize, the Victor Pinchuk Foundation presents its Future Generation Art Prize, and the Bravo channel airs its reality-television show Work of Art. The winners of these competitions receive $100,000.
That’s plenty of cash—but it’s what ArtPrize gives away to its runner-up. The winner takes home a lot more: $250,000. In 2010, ArtPrize awarded $474,000 to the contest’s top 10 vote-getters.
Rick DeVos isn’t an obvious candidate for launching a project that has the potential to revolutionize art-world philanthropy. Growing up, he became interested in the arts primarily through music and movies. He played guitar in Christian rock bands with names like Fixture and Shephelah and attended Calvin College in Grand Rapids and Pepperdine in California. An appreciation for film inspired him to start Spout.com, a social-media website for movie buffs. Last year, DeVos sold the venture to SnagFilms, a video-on-demand website started by Ted Leonsis, one of the original AOL investors.
DeVos’ passion for movies also gave birth to the idea that would evolve into ArtPrize: a big film festival for Grand Rapids. The more he looked into sponsoring a film festival, however, the more he appreciated the challenges. “There’s a film festival every weekend,” he says. The major ones include the Sundance Film Festival in Utah as well as the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado and the Toronto International Film Festival in Canada. Michigan also has its own event, the up-and-coming Traverse City Film Festival, founded by Michael Moore, the left-wing moviemaker. “With all of this activity, it’s hard to differentiate yourself,” says DeVos. “We asked if there was anything we could add and the answer was no.”
Around the same time, DeVos became intrigued by the Ansari X Prize, the competition to promote private investment in space technology. Started by Peter H. Diamandis, it offered $10 million to the first non-governmental organization to launch a reusable vehicle into space, and to do so twice within a period of two weeks. (Please see Philanthropy, July/August 2005.) “For the price of $10 million, they were able to generate investments worth $100 million in an area they cared about,” notes DeVos. “I began to wonder if the same incentives could produce similar results in the field of creative expression.”
The winner of this contest, he decided, would be determined by a public vote that encourages ordinary people to engage with art and each other.
The X Prize succeeded, according to DeVos, because it set a clear goal, imposed few rules on how contestants could achieve it, and offered a large cash prize. For his own prize amount, DeVos kicked around figures ranging from $50,000 to $1 million. DeVos settled on $250,000 for first place and lesser amounts for others—sums that would capture the attention of just about everyone who struggles to make and promote art.
One important difference, DeVos realized, would be the criteria for evaluating winners. Whereas the X Prize established unambiguous engineering objectives, ArtPrize would have to deal with matters of extreme subjectivity. Most art contests solve this problem by turning to the judgment of critics. DeVos wanted to try a different approach. “A jury seemed boring—cloistered, institutionalized, with esteemed experts telling everyone what they should like within four walls,” says DeVos. So he went in the opposite direction. The winner of this contest, he decided, would be determined by a public vote that encourages ordinary people to engage with art and each other.
DeVos took as the logo of ArtPrize a stylized image of La Grand Vitesse, a 42-ton stabile that has stood in a Grand Rapids city plaza since 1969. A lot of locals call this orange-red behemoth “the Calder,” after its creator, the American artist Alexander Calder. Although it has no moving parts, La Grand Vitesse possesses a fluid look and its name, in French, means “the great swiftness.” Long ago, it was controversial: When the plans for it were first unveiled, a number of city residents complained loudly, saying they preferred representational art to abstract art. The design nevertheless went forward and now it’s a beloved piece of public art—the best-known in the city. So ArtPrize, in its symbolism, tips its hat to this modernist work.
In virtually every other way, however, ArtPrize is different. For one thing, it’s a product of private philanthropy. La Grand Vitesse was paid for in large part with federal tax dollars, by means of one of the first grants ever issued by the National Endowment for the Arts. The funding for ArtPrize, by contrast, is entirely private.
Yet ArtPrize’s real innovation is the way it involves artists, venues, and the public. The concept is simple. Artists create their work, venues agree to host it, and members of the public vote on what they like best. ArtPrize describes itself this way: “ArtPrize is a radically open competition which has no formal jury, curator, or judges, and asks the public to vote and decide the winners using mobile devices and the web.”
In the spring, artists and venues sign up to participate through separate registration processes. Then they look to each other during a one-month matching period, when they work out their terms of collaboration. A number of agendas may be at work. Some artists, for example, want to win a cash award. Others want to have their work displayed in public for the first time. Still others are trying to raise awareness for a cause.
Venues have their own incentives. They can be anything from big public institutions to small businesses with downtown storefronts. Some want to draw crowds. Others see participation as a commercial opportunity that brings in foot traffic and increases revenues. A few charge artists to use their space. The organizers of ArtPrize don’t try to micromanage any of it. “It’s very libertarian,” says DeVos. “We realized that the more rules we had, the more nightmares we’d have to deal with. We don’t want to police artists and venues. Our notion of the event is that everything will work itself out through all of these markets.”
In fact, one of DeVos’ most important early decisions was not to spend any resources on traditional marketing. “By putting all of that money into the prize, we could let its size, uniqueness, and word of mouth do all of the marketing for us,” he says. In many ways, ArtPrize’s grassroots, no-intermediary approach owes something to Richard DeVos’ innovation with Amway: the power of direct marketing.
On one level, ArtPrize is a popularity contest—and DeVos recognizes that popularity isn’t the same thing as high culture. “I’m the first to admit that we have a lot of crap that shows up,” he says of the contest. Professional art critics are trying to make sense of the spectacle. “I think it’s terrifying and thrilling,” said Jerry Saltz, a New York critic, in the Wall Street Journal. “Art is not democratic. It isn’t about the biggest market share. If that were true then Thomas Kinkade would be the greatest artist who ever lived.” (Kinkade, a painter who mass markets his work through QVC and other outlets, is sometimes described as America’s most collected living artist, but critics like Saltz tend to regard him as irredeemably kitschy.)
For DeVos, these debates are beside the point. “We don’t care who wins,” he says. “This is not about validating any creative outlook. It’s about getting people engaged with art, talking about it and learning about it. Art world purists say we have no filter for quality. Certain parties relentlessly patrol the borders of what is and what is not art. I don’t care what shows up here. It could be highly offensive. I want it all.” He’s even reluctant to make value judgments about “the wisdom of crowds” and the types of art it produces: “I don’t want to say the winner chosen by the public is better than what a jury would choose. We’re not trying to say we’re an alternative to the Turner Prize.”
DeVos says that he wouldn’t even mind the inclusion of a piece of art in the vein of Piss Christ, the 1987 crucifix-in-urine photograph by Andres Serrano that continues to fuel a controversy about government-funded art projects. “The whole conversation would be fascinating,” he says. He may yet get what he wishes: it’s probably only a matter of time before ArtPrize confronts this kind of hullabaloo.
The Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation makes ArtPrize possible. “The foundation provided the venture capital,” says Rick. Last year, the contest cost $2.8 million, with the cash awards making up only a fraction of this price. The organization had to underwrite everything from its own staff time to developing a web infrastructure that can handle public voting. The physical event also carried substantial costs, such as providing shuttle buses, printing maps and guidebooks, and producing colorful silicone gel wristbands. In keeping with DeVos’ original conception, ArtPrize spent no money on advertising. The DeVos Foundation put up the prize money and made up the difference between the event’s receipts and expenses with a loan. Community sponsors also chipped in, providing $500,000 in 2009 and $1 million in 2010. Volunteers made a significant contribution as well. Last year, 980 people worked for 11,000 hours as guides and at information booths.
This isn’t the DeVos family’s only recent foray into art philanthropy. Last year, Dick and Betsy DeVos promised a gift of $22.5 million to educate arts professionals in fundraising, marketing, and financial management through the DeVos Institute for Arts Management at the John F. Kennedy Center. “In this country, billions of dollars are spent to train musicians, dancers, and actors, but very little is spent training the people who employ them,” said Michael Kaiser, Kennedy Center president, at the institute’s public announcement. It remains to be seen whether ArtPrize becomes a larger investment for the DeVos family. It is clearly the more visible of the two.
A Massive Citywide Conversation
ArtPrize isn’t just about the art—it’s also about the audience that responds to the art. In its first year, ArtPrize drew about 200,000 people. Last year, during the second contest, this figure doubled. “The crowds were enormous,” says Gleaves Whitney, who runs the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies at Grand Valley State University. “It was like being outside Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor on a football Saturday. And remember, this is Michigan during the Great Recession.” Throngs of people descended on Grand Rapids for the purpose of looking at art, thinking about art, and talking about art. This was precisely DeVos’ objective. “We’re throwing a big happening,” says DeVos. “Our goal is to start a massive city-wide conversation.”
If the sponsors of ArtPrize made a mistake in their first year, it was that they didn’t really know their audience. “We assumed it would be a bunch of 20- and 30-somethings,” says DeVos. “The demographics were a lot wider than that.” Young hipsters showed up, but so did senior citizens. Nursing homes coordinated bus trips to Grand Rapids. Families with children showed up in droves. “Our funniest mistake,” says DeVos, “was not having t-shirts and gear for kids.”
From the start, it was clear that ArtPrize would generate astonishing works of creativity. In 2010, more than 1,700 artists participated. Most were American, but they came from all over, even Brazil, Israel, and Taiwan. Nearly 200 venues hosted their work. The Grand Rapids Public Museum reported 241,000 visitors. The Grand Rapids Art Museum boasted 162,000, the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts brought in 100,000, and Meijer Gardens drew 52,700. In two rounds of balloting, almost 45,000 people cast more than 465,000 online votes. “It’s almost physically impossible to see everything and that’s fine with us,” says DeVos. Even larger crowds are expected at the 2011 ArtPrize, which will take place from September 21 to October 9.
Yet some of the work is hard to miss. On the side of an office building, Chicago artist Jeff Zimmermann painted a seven-story mural. In the flowing waters of the Grand River, just a stone’s throw from the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum, four artists erected a massive red-eyed sculpture that looks like the Loch Ness monster. On the trestles of a bridge above the river, Des Moines artist Sarah Grant and Grand Rapids architect Stephen Fry built a 15-ton wood and steel sculpture of a colorful table and a pair of chairs. It took a crane to lift the pieces into place. The object’s title, The Furniture City Sets the Table for the World of Art, refers to a popular nickname for Grand Rapids, which became the first center of mass-produced furniture in the United States.
Although visual artwork dominates ArtPrize, almost anything that calls itself art can participate, including musical performances and movies. In 2009, Rob Bliss of Grand Rapids staged an event: From the rooftops of six buildings, he launched 100,000 paper airplanes onto the streets below. “This once-in-a-lifetime event will be an event of brotherhood, a celebration of life, and a reminder that we are all in this together,” he said at the time. Although a paper-airplane show stretches the definition of “art,” about 20,000 people showed up to watch the stunt. Bliss didn’t take home a prize—one lesson of his experience may be that temporal events suffer a severe disadvantage against tangible artifacts—but his exploit survives on YouTube.
The voting for ArtPrize takes place in two stages. During the first week, every contestant is eligible and registered voters can give a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” to as many works of art as they please. “At this point, it’s all about gut reactions,” says DeVos. Then ArtPrize makes a big cut: Out of all the entrants, 10 works of art advance to the second round. The voting slate is wiped clean and each member of the viewing public may vote once for a single piece of art. “This is when the evaluation shifts to relative merit,” says DeVos. “The nature of the city’s conversation about art changes.”
In 2009, Ran Ortner of Brooklyn, New York, won the $250,000 prize for Open Water No. 24, a 19-foot by 6-foot painting of blue-green waves. Many viewers probably assumed it was a scene from Lake Michigan, about 40 miles west of Grand Rapids, but the waves are too frothy for this fresh-water sea. It is in fact an image of salt water. One condition of ArtPrize is that the top winner grant ownership of his work to ArtPrize—a feature of the contest that the IRS approved, following ArtPrize’s petition. “Our purpose in owning the art is to keep it accessible to the public,” says DeVos. Open Water No. 24 currently hangs in Reserve, a Grand Rapids restaurant. There’s talk that ArtPrize eventually will want its own facility. “We have no immediate plans to open a gallery, but as the ArtPrize collection grows over the years we will remain open to exploring the most effective way to make the collection accessible,” says DeVos.
In 2010, Chris LaPorte won the first place award of $250,000 for Cavalry, American Officers, 1921, a massive pencil drawing of 63 men, based on an old photograph. They stand or sit in three rows, as in a football team photo, wearing broad-brimmed hats, dark neckties, and knee-high boots. “I found the photo in an antique shop and immediately thought it was unique,” says LaPorte. “Each man is trying to assert his individuality in the context of uniformity.” The black-and-white drawing measures 8 feet high and 28 feet in length. At the height of ArtPrize, visitors waited in line an hour or more to see it. LaPorte invested plenty of his own time: about 800 hours over 9 months, he estimates.
While LaPorte toiled, the native of Bay City, Michigan, made ends meet by teaching part time at Aquinas College and drawing caricatures at a local mall. Now potential clients are seeking him out for fine-art projects. Although LaPorte hasn’t abandoned teaching or whipping off caricatures of kids in three-minute sittings, he’s also accepting commissions for portraits and other jobs. “I’ve never missed a meal, but now I have a lot more opportunities,” he says. “I can choose to pursue more ambitious projects and take more risks.” LaPorte plans to participate in the 2011 ArtPrize, but he’s not gunning for a back-to-back victory. Instead he’s going to display a modest piece in a low-traffic venue. “I hope people search it out and see some of that other art that will be near it,” he says.
Second place in 2010 went to Mia Tavonatti of Santa Ana, California, for a colorful stained-glass mosaic called Svelata. She won $100,000. Beili Liu of Austin, Texas, came in third, for a prize of $50,000. Her work, Lure/Wave Grand Rapids, was a large display of red thread and needles, inspired by a Chinese legend. One area man liked it so much that he brought his girlfriend to the venue and proposed marriage. The other finalists rounded out the top 10 and won $7,000 apiece.
Although ArtPrize is a temporary event, it’s having a lasting effect on the appearance of Grand Rapids. Two years ago, a mural on an exterior wall of the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum took the second-place prize of $100,000. Later, when the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital wanted to commission an original work of art, it knew where to go. “The art committee wanted something in the size, scale, and spirit of Tracy VanDuinen and Todd Osborne’s Grand Rapids Children’s Museum mosaic,” says Bob Connors, president of the hospital. “Their work and ArtPrize entry is an inspiration to us.”
Last year, researchers at Grand Valley State University, working with local agencies, estimated that ArtPrize contributed $7 million to the area economy.
Several ArtPrize entrants have become a permanent part of the Grand Rapids landscape. Rain, a bronze sculpture by artist Anna Donahue, now stands outside the Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital. The big table and chairs sculpture that once sat atop a city bridge was moved to the Salvation Army’s new Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center in Grand Rapids. “It is the mission of the Kroc Center to enrich the mind, body, and soul of our community,” says Maj. Roger Ross, the center’s administrator. “One of the best ways we can accomplish that goal is through the visual arts.”
Last year, researchers at Grand Valley State University, working with local agencies, estimated that ArtPrize contributed $7 million to the area economy. “ArtPrize is the best event downtown has ever had,” said Doug Bickel, manager of Groskopf’s Luggage and Gifts, in the Grand Rapids Business Journal. During last fall’s ArtPrize, his store set a new record for sales. This pleases DeVos, but he prefers not to think of ArtPrize as a kind of economic stimulus package. His ambitions are much larger in scope. “Here in Michigan and all around the Midwest, the industrial mode was good for us for a while,” he says. “But we’ve lost the appetite for the free sharing of ideas. I want the entire community to become more creative. This is crucial for our competitiveness and the livability of the region.”
There’s no way Rick DeVos could have anticipated all of these results when he conceived of ArtPrize, and there’s no telling what the future holds for his new event. Perhaps this contest will discover the Picasso of the 21st century. In the meantime, this young philanthropist is content to have realized one of his motivations, which he describes with a grin: “I just want to make Grand Rapids a more interesting place.”
Contributing editor John J. Miller is the author of The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football. In August, he will become director of the Herbert H. Dow II Journalism Program at Hillsdale College.