GRAND RAPIDS, MICH. -- One entry in America’s richest art competition is an installation that reimagines a football locker room as a theater dressing area and the athletes’ helmets as rainbow-colored KKK hoods.
Another is a luminous photo essay of gay Midwesterners doing such mundane things as riding a bicycle and posing in an embrace on a sofa. And more than one entrant features drawings that depict transgender people in states of undress, including one gender-vague subject holding a banana where a penis might dangle.
These pieces and many others y and about LGBTQ people are part of an annual contest called ArtPrize that was founded and is substantially funded by members of the billionaire DeVos family.
That is, as in Betsy DeVos, the education secretary who told Congress this spring that she does not oppose federal money going to schools that exclude queer students. And as in the family that spent more than $2 million fighting marriage equality—including $400,000 to the campaign to pass Proposition 8 in California. And as in Amway founder Richard DeVos, the tycoon patriarch who concluded after sitting on President Reagan’s first AIDS commission that one solution to the problem would be if people would just “conduct yourself properly.”
None of that has kept away the many queer artists whose work appears around this city along with some 1,350 other entries from 47 countries during the three-week event that culminates Oct. 6 with the awarding of $500,000 in prize money.
The fact that their work is welcome at ArtPrize—along with many other entries addressing political and social issues that are at odds with the DeVos family’s views—is a sign of progress and a chance to provoke dialogue, they insist.
“As someone who lived in New York for a while, there’s so much of that kind of money involved in the arts,” said artist Jeffrey Augustine Songco, noting a theater at Manhattan’s Lincoln Center is named for one of the conservative Koch brothers, a major donor. “So, what happens? Do you just stop going to the ballet? ArtPrize is an opportunity to send a message that counters their message.”
ArtPrize is one of America’s most peculiar annual cultural events. The competition allows any business in downtown Grand Rapids to declare itself a venue and display whatever form of artwork it chooses as entries.
The votes of the hundreds of thousands of people who flood the city for the event determine what pieces win the $200,000 grand prize as well as $12,500 to winners of four categories. At the same time, a panel of art experts also decide on their own set of winners and give out the same amount of money in the same configuration.
The “America’s Got Talent”-style design and eye-popping prizes are the brainchild of Rick DeVos, the tech entrepreneur son of Betsy, who launched ArtPrize in 2009 as an economic development tool for Grand Rapids.
At first all of the money was handed out by popular vote, but the public’s choices tended to veer towards spectacle and kitsch, so in 2013 the expert jury was added to counter that and, hopefully, earn some much-elusive art-world respect.
ArtPrize officials insist the event’s decentralized, crowd-sourced nature minimizes the influence of the DeVoses, even as Rick remains the chair of the ArtPrize board and the family’s foundations provide about 16 percent of the non-profit’s $3.5 million annual budget. (None of the DeVoses were available to comment for this report.)
Some LGBTQ artists avoid ArtPrize because of the DeVos family’s politics. The most notable is Steve Lambert, who had a piece entered on his behalf in 2014 before, he said, he understood what ArtPrize was or who the DeVoses were.
When he was named a finalist by the expert jury, he wrote a blog post stating his objections to the family’s politics and asserting he’d be giving any winnings to a local LGBT group.
ArtPrize Exhibitions Director Kevin Buist responded quickly by encouraging him to do so, Executive Director Christian Gaines followed up a week later with a post noting the ArtPrize board had unanimously passed a resolution earlier that year to foster LGBT participation in the contest.
Still, Lambert continues to oppose LGBT involvement. In an interview this week, he listed several DeVos anti-LGBT donations and statements and asked queer ArtPrize participants: “Do you know they have never walked any of that back? Are you OK with being a part of an event that cleans up that image? … Are you OK helping them make even more money to put back into conservative politics?”
The DeVos family profits indirectly from ArtPrize because they own hotels and other businesses in Grand Rapids that are patronized during the event, he said.
Yet others see ArtPrize as a separate entity from the family. Derek Call, ArtPrize’s director of exhibitions, moved with his partner to Grand Rapids from Los Angeles in 2015 for the job because he was impressed by “the amazing open nature” of the event.
“It allows people to come and express themselves,” Call said. “I strongly oppose anyone who would take rights away from anyone, but my personal experience has been nothing but lovely and professional and welcoming.”
One gay ArtPrize 2017 entrant, Daniel Vander Ley, grew up in the Grand Rapids area and socialized with Rick DeVos and his siblings whom he called, “lovely people who always treated me really well.” What’s more, Ley credited the family and their generous donations to the arts in Grand Rapids for making the city more tolerant of LGBTQ people.
“We have become a great arts and cultural center because of them,” said Ley, whose entry, “ESC,” is a commentary on corporal punishment in public schools. “Let me tell you, the conservative issues in the farmland around here is much worse. Grand Rapids is a beautiful thriving city that I feel very comfortable in.”
Another queer artist who objected to Lambert’s take is Ti-Rock Moore, who was unaware of the DeVos ties to ArtPrize until she arrived in September from New Orleans with “Flint,” an installation commenting on that city’s lead contamination crisis by featuring a drinking fountain that spews brown water and sits under the ubiquitous segregation-era sign “Colored.” Learning about the contest’s origins, she said, redoubled her determination to participate.
“Art typically exists within white privilege and in exclusive spaces like galleries and museums, so this is much more open to the general public than where art typically is shown,” Moore said. “I am certainly not here sticking up for ArtPrize or the DeVoses. But I’m from the Deep South. I do my work despite being surrounded by completely red cities, parishes, states, counties. In fact, that type of conservative thinking is almost a motivation to keep on pushing through.”
A few pieces made by queer artists are in serious contention this year. Songco’s “Society of 23’s Locker Dressing Room,” a 30-by-20-foot room bedecked in silver tinsel that he says is a commentary on masculinity and sexuality, is one of five finalists in the installations category as picked by the art-critic jury.
Moore’s “Flint” is an art-jury finalist in the three-dimensional category. And “You Belong To Me,” a trippy video installation in which the lesbian artist Liss LaFleur is seen lip-synching a Doo-Wop song on five 8-foot pink fringe curtains, was, as of Friday, among the voting public’s top 25 in the time-based category. Voting closes Oct. 5 and all winners are announced Oct. 6.
Still, Songco said, the conservative nature of western Michigan is in evidence in the results of the popular voting, pointing to the failure of a collection of pictures of gay men by openly gay photographer Hwa-Jeen Ma to crack the top 25, despite being shown in one of the highest-trafficked of ArtPrize’s more than 120 venues.
Many of the most popular pieces are, indeed, gimmicky or have religious or classic Americana topics. One Top 25 piece with a gay-suggestive title, “Stone Thrones of PTown,” turned out to be a pair of chairs made of large rocks found not in the Massachusetts LGBTQ mecca of Provincetown but, alas, the stereotypically average city of Peoria.
“The public vote usually goes to things that draw the sympathy of the public at large,” Ley agreed. “These topics aren’t hard-hitting topics. But artists come to ArtPrize to either make a statement or try to win. Often the two are not compatible. I chose to make a statement but not to win. If you want to confront culture, then ArtPrize is a venue, is a vehicle for conversation.”