Sh*tload of (Family) Money Awarded to Winners of the Inaugural “ArtPrize”

October 9, 2009 · Print This Article

The winner of the first annual edition of ArtPrize has been announced, and it’s Ran Ortner from Brooklyn, New York. The Prize is a contemporary art competition based in Grand Rapids, Michigan that has eschewed traditional expert juries in favor of a public vote on the winners. Ortner, 50, won the top prize of $250,000 for a painting titled “Open Water No. 24,” a dramatic, 6 x 19 foot oil painting depicting ocean waves in a realistic fashion.

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Taking the second prize and its $100,000 award was Chicago artist Tracy Van Duinen for his tile mural titled “Imagine That!” on the façade of the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum.

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The $50,000 third prize went to artist Eric Daigh of Traverse City for his portraits made entirely from colored pushpins.

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The other artists in the Top Ten each received $7,500 prizes. All winners of the ArtPrize were determined by votes cast on the ArtPrize Web site or via text messages sent from cell phones. The winners were announced last night.

$449,000 — the total amount of prize money in the contest–is, as they say, a shitload of cash. This alone has made ArtPrize the most monetarily rewarding contemporary art competition in the world right now. Where did contest organizer and social media entrepreneur Rick de Vos (who established the website Spout.com, a social-networking site for film buffs) get it from? The Dick and Betsy De Vos Family Foundation (Rick De Vos’ parents), who is listed as ArtPrize’s primary sponsor (Rick De Vos is the grandson of Amway’s cofounder). Numerous other De Vos family relations were also top contributors to the contest funds (see here for the full list of ArtPrize sponsors). The Dick and Betsy De Vos Family Foundation’s mission, according to its 2006 funding guidelines, is

“to serve as faithful stewards of God’s blessings through a focus on 1) Christian Evangelism through church building, family building, and youth programming; 2) Education through programs that provide support for parental choices in determining where their elementary and secondary school-aged children attend school; 3) Public Policy that results in a freer, more virtuous, more prosperous society. The Foundation does not allocate funds to individuals, for-profit organizations, or candidates for political office.”

(If you’re interested, you can learn more about which groups and projects fall into the categories listed above by reading about the Foundation’s funding choices here and here).

Clearly, the material benefits to artists gained from winning the three top prizes and even the lesser amounts are tremendous. In terms of its financial benefits, winning a contest like this one far is better than winning a grant–at least in terms of how profitable it is. Rick De Vos told the Detroit Free Press that his goals in establishing the contest were to promote conversations about art and to create a hip cultural event for Grand Rapids, Michigan. And the contest succeeded in creating lots of buzz and tons of entries–1,262 artists entered the contest, and nearly 14,000 votes were counted in the final round (334,000 votes were cast for the initial pool of entrants). So not only did the contest offer the biggest monetary prize, it promised a democratization of the means of selection. Everyone who took the time to register in person at the ArtPrize event got to vote on the works of art hanging before them. And the results of their votes mattered – a lot.

But does ArtPrize offer a viable model for others to follow? Not really, as I see it. For one thing, it’s hardly a replicable format. If de Vos had rustled up that much cash in any other way other than tapping family money, I’d be more apt to sit up and pay attention. But the fact remains that this contest with its enormous prize would not have been possible without primary support from a single Foundation that, at least in its other funding efforts, has shown itself to have very specific social and political agendas.

Yes, the Grand Rapids audience was given the empowering opportunity to circumvent the critics and the curators and the other so-called gatekeepers to make their own statement about which artists are most deserving of recognition.  Lucky for everyone involved, it appears that none of the artists selected for voted the top three winners make the type of work that would prove to be embarrassing to the contest’s sponsors – no poop photographs, no naked ladies, no same-sex coupling. What would have happened, I wonder, if an unknown artist making photographs with subject matter similar to that of Catherine Opie’s “Domestic” series had won? Nothing, I’m sure – but it’s a good bet that if that happened, next year’s ArtPrize wouldn’t have mom and dad’s big money behind it. And probably not nearly the number of artists entering the contest. And audiences/voters caring about it.

Art21 contributor Nicole Carruth was asked by the ArtPrize organizers to reflect on the significance of the contest through a series of written essays that included an interview with Mary Jane Jacob, Professor and Executive Director of Exhibitions and Exhibition Studies at School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In the interview, Jacob offers a pointed critique of the contest, which in part centers around her misgivings about the competition’s huge prize award. Notes Jacob:

“My real misgiving strategically, long-term, with the project is the huge disparity in the prize money in an art world where artists need a lot of support — art always does.

We’re at the 48th anniversary of the Calder, which was a high point of public motivation of art, and the NEA’s flowering, and so forth. We’ve seen the demise of the individual artist grant program and we’re still suffering from that. Some grant programs were out there already, some ramped up further, like Pew in Philadelphia or Bush in Minneapolis. But then other ones with a lot less resources and smaller amounts have done volumes of work, like Creative Capital and Artadia. And nobody in any of those is getting $250,000. I think we’re not looking at $250,000 artists here. I have a problem with the division it creates when that amount of money, $500,000, could be spread in equal or on more egalitarian ways.  That could support 10 or more artists.

… That confrontation, that nexus between the aspiring artist, emerging artist, overlooked artist and the broader public is a great conversation. We see it enacted here and it’s a great success, I think, on that level. But then when the final result becomes something that then shifts to a paradigm that is more like American Idol or winning the lottery, it doesn’t necessarily sustain either that individual or this system or the art world. I even find it problematic with colleagues from those institutions that I’ve named who are struggling to have something that doesn’t join the conversation of [artist] development, sustainability and support…To see that supporting artists is a positive and necessary endeavor has a great ripple effect.”

Jacob’s critique offers us an invaluable framework for considering the true value of big-money contests such as this one and, even more importantly in my mind, for putting the “generosity” of sponsors like the de Vos Family into its proper context. Many people from various points on the political spectrum are troubled by government funding of artists, and to be sure there are a  number of valid reasons for their discomfort. But we should think twice about investing too heavily in the contest model offered by ArtPrize.

To my mind, the “democracy” of choice promised by ArtPrize masks a more distrubing desire on the part of its major sponsors to do away with government support of the arts advocated by those who they imply are “cultural elites.” But as Jacob points out, not everyone can win the lottery, and not all artists will win an ArtPrize. ArtPrize makes for some razzle-dazzle regional publicity, sure–but it doesn’t present any real alternatives that the rest of us can run with.

One Response to “Sh*tload of (Family) Money Awarded to Winners of the Inaugural “ArtPrize””

  1. [...] the ArtPrize, which for a number of reasons seems like an ineffective and somewhat suspiciously motivated model, I don’t see much that’s problematic in what the city of Denver and the BECA Foundation [...]

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