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ArtPrize: A Study In Free Markets, Private Wealth and Public Opinion

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Here in Grand Rapids, we are awaiting the beginning of ArtPrize (Sept. 24-Oct. 12.) For those of us who live or work in the city, we are seeing signs of it: posters hung in coffee shop windows, artists installing pieces, restaurants adding waitstaff, and venues getting spit-shined. It’s a big deal: in 2013, ArtPrize brought in 400,000+ visitors to this city, an estimated $22 million in net growth and hundreds of jobs. Not too shabby for an event that didn’t even exist a few short years ago.

The genesis of ArtPrize was the mind of Rick DeVos, a man focused on entrepreneurship and starting conversations. DeVos started ArtPrize not as a way to bring money to his hometown (“a happy accident“), but because:

…his forays into tech startups had made him love the democracy of the Internet and the possibilities afforded by crowdsourcing. Why not a contest with an open call for artists and an open vote? “I was always intrigued with the X-Prize model,” he said, referring to the $10 million prize offered for private-sector space flight. “This whole idea of putting a big prize out there and then putting as few rules around it as possible, not trying to dictate what the outcome should look like.” The idea expanded from there, and in 2009, five months after he first announced it, ArtPrize opened to the public.

The first ArtPrize was seeded with money from the DeVos family. The budget, in 2013,  included about 2% government grants; the majority of funding comes from corporate sponsorship and matching grants from private foundations.

Not everyone is a fan, of course. In 2013, writer Matthew Power skewered ArtPrize in a lengthy GQ piece entitlted, “So You Think You Can Paint.” Power distastefully reported about the carnival-like atmosphere, with artists acting as promoters, trying to get passerbys to look and vote. Calling Grand Rapids relentlessly cheerful, Powers firmly suggests that ordinary people don’t have any taste:

The general critical consensus was that Rick DeVos’s grand experiment in letting public opinion determine the outcome had yielded up a torrent of kitsch—the “crazy crap” he’d asked for. Twitter was not kind. “Looks like the DeVos family is going to be seriously overpaying for some bad art. #artprize.” “Before announcing the #ArtPrize Top 10, Rick DeVos said it is not about the Top 10. I now understand why he said that.”

That’s the narrow view, and not one DeVos himself takes. To him, ArtPrize is about creating cultural capital, getting people engaged in something they may never have entered into otherwise, and a democratic view of discussion and opinion. For DeVos, ArtPrize is about the process: “exciting, and terrifying.” This process brings to mind Friedrich Hayek:

Our faith in freedom does not rest on the foreseeable results in particular circumstances but on the belief that it will, on balance, release more forces for the good than for the bad.

The paintings, sculptures, weavings, quilts, woodwork and wonderment of ArtPrize 2014 will be on full display soon, in bars and museums, diners and dress-shops. People will comment, shake their heads in disbelief and disgust, sigh in contentment and be in awe. The boundaries are loose and the voting is open. The good will outweigh the bad, and the buzz will flow over social media and cups of coffee. Not a bad investment for Rick DeVos. Not a bad profit for Grand Rapids and those who enjoy art.

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Elise Hilton Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.

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