Funding, Politics, and ArtPrize: Key Reactions

Just hours to go until ArtPrize reveals its winners for 2014, and there's been a flurry of response to news that finalist Steve Lambert will be donating his winnings to a Grand Rapids–based LGBT organization. The most noteworthy:

Hrag Vartanian, an ArtPrize judge in Lambert's category and Hyperallergic founder/editor, applauds the move, but cautions against generalizing about an entire organization's character based on the actions of a funder. He also sees this as a moment for ArtPrize to "prove it deserves an art world spotlight":
[I]f Grand Rapids is serious about embracing art and about the art world embracing them, they will have to prove that they’re committed to helping create an environment where art can flourish — one where all types of people, ideas, and identities are welcome to play, work, and live together. Until that happens, they shouldn’t be surprised if ArtPrize’s mission to be a “radically open” art community is never fully realized. Rick DeVos and ArtPrize, make a statement to demonstrate that your mission isn’t only an idea, but a commitment to something more.
Likewise, ArtFCity's Paddy Johnson, who was part of an ArtPrize panel on Grand Rapids TV, both celebrated Lambert's decision and expressed some discomfort over Lambert's "assumption that Rick DeVos necessarily holds all the views of his family or spends his money on the same causes." But she concludes: "He’s not just asking his audience to think seriously about capitalism, he’s demanding that of himself. And that just makes me want to see Lambert’s piece win even more."

ArtPrize, too, responded, with a blog post by Kevin Buist: "In short, we think it’s great." He includes this fact:
...Another reason we welcome this development is Lambert’s choice of where he’ll donate the money. First of all, an artist who is not from West Michigan pledging to use potential winnings to give back to our community is a wonderful and generous thing. But it’s even better than that. The Grand Rapids Community Foundation, the organization behind the Our LGBT Fund, is an ArtPrize sponsor. Earlier this year we were proud to announce the that Community Foundation awarded ArtPrize a $50,000 gift to work to ensure that everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, ability, or socioeconomic status, can join the conversation and have their voices heard at the world’s largest art competition.
ArtPrize winners will be announced tonight, with a live broadcast of the ceremony beginning at 7:45 Grand Rapids time. 

Steve Lambert: Why I'll Give Away My ArtPrize Winnings

ArtPrize 2014 finalist Steve Lambert, as I reported yesterday, has vowed to give away his prize money—either $20,000 or $200,000—should he win at tonight's awards ceremony. His interactive mobile billboard Capitalism Works For Me! True/False is shortlisted in the "time-based" category (along with Mel Chin and others). His designated beneficiary: the LGBT Fund of the Grand Rapids Foundation. Here, in an email interview, he shares his rationale.

Paul Schmelzer: Congratulations on being an ArtPrize finalist. Your artwork/billboard/voting booth Capitalism Works for Me could, well, work for you: you might take home anywhere from $20,000 to $200,000. It seems like the perfect venue for the work, as ArtPrize is largely based on a popular vote among attendees. But with 24 hours to go until the winner is revealed, you decided not to keep the money if you win. Why?

Steve Lambert: Thanks. It has not been easy.

The chance to win a prize was not what compelled me to show at ArtPrize. I was curated into a show at the Kendall Museum during ArtPrize which I figured would make for a larger audience of everyday people. I'm excited to have Capitalism Works For Me! True/False shown around the world, especially when seen by non-art audiences—and especially to so many people in Grand Rapids. I believe in the work. And it turns out most of the people at ArtPrize liked the work also. That was great.

Last week I was in Grand Rapids and learned I was on the juror's shortlist, then shortly after, I was also in the top 25 for the popular vote. While I appreciated the nod, as winning the prize became more real, I started to feel this knot in my stomach. I manage myself well, and I am far from a starving artist, but I still have bills to pay, new pieces I'm working to get funding for, I don't own a home, etc. In short, I could definitely use the money. Yet, at the same time, I couldn't imagine accepting the money.

I see a lot of ways I can use the prize to help people in Western Michigan. You know, there's a lot of hostility in Western Michigan toward LGBTQ rights. Millions of dollars come from that area to fund homophobic campaigns around the country. That money could be helping foster an environment of love, compassion, growth, and support, but instead they fund homophobia, campaigns that hurt working people, and attack public schools.

I won't have millions of dollars, but I have more than money. With the Center for Artistic Activism, Stephen Duncombe and I have have helped those fighting for equal rights in Russia and the former Yugoslavia – some of the most homophobic places in the world – so we're prepared for Western Michigan. In that realm, I have something else I can offer.

This award, even if it is the grand sum of $200,000, won't give me the same platform as any billionaire or millionaire funder, but it gives me another chance to join others and fight back.

PS: A few days ago in an email to supporters you shared that you were "conflicted" about accepting the prize money, should you win.

"The DeVos family, who is behind ArtPrize, are the founders of Amway, have put
millions into anti-gay marriage efforts, attacking public schools and teachers unions (I am a member of a teachers union), and support the ultraconservative Calvinist Christian Reformed Church," you wrote. "ArtPrize is basically the least offensive thing they do and it buffers some of the criticism of the rest of the work the family does." This reminds me of questions about sponsorship in the arts: are artists sullied when they show at venues supported by corporations they may detest? (Liberate Tate, for instance, opposes BP's sponsorship of the Tate.)

SL: This is a messy area and there are no clear-cut rules. Because of the lack of public funding for the arts, individual artists have to make these judgement calls every step of the way. It is not easy.

My parents were in the church, but religion for them is teaching of love and acceptance. I was also raised to stand up for what you believe in and help those you see in need. I had to ask myself, how much worse would this have to be for me to say "no thank you." And the answer was "it's already pretty bad."

Great art shifts our perspective on the world. Shows us another way to perceive things, broadens our thinking, and reveals other ways the world can be. It makes us more understanding and empathetic. This is why I am an artist. I want to use the prize money towards this end, and the DeVos's seem to use their money for the opposite.

I hope I don't regret it, but right now I already feel better. As an artist, I am confident I will continue to be supported by people who believe in what I do, as long as I continue to believe in what I do.

PS: Some say Rick DeVos's politics aren't as divisive as those of his parents.

SL: I agree, it seems Rick DeVos's views are not as extreme as his parents', and especially his grandfather. However, if that's true, I wish him the courage to be just as outspoken as his family, but on the side of love and acceptance, fighting for working people, ending militarism, and the value of publicly funded education for all. It would be nice to hear from him on that.

In the meantime, when these backward ideas about civil rights and unrestrained capital are over-funded and allowed to go unquestioned and unchallenged, within a family or within our society, it's unhealthy for our culture and our democracy. So again, if Rick DeVos is really so different, I hope he says something soon.

PS:  You tweeted that not only would you be donating your winnings, should you win, to the LGBT Fund, but you'll also be returning with colleagues from your Center for Artistic Activism to volunteer with them. Is this a critique of modern political "activism" in which we often allow money to stand in for action?

SL: Ha! I didn't think about it that way, but just giving money didn't feel right, so I suppose so.

PS: What are your thoughts on your decision in light of the themes of the work itself? Capitalism, we're often told, is amoral: money is morally neutral. But, for you, this money has context.

SL: It certainly does.

Update: On his website, Lambert offers further explanation, writing (in part): "What bothers me the most is the DeVos family has, for generations, been on the wrong side of the fight for civil rights for LGBT people. And they back their opinions with millions in political money against civil rights. It’s a long story, but the end is: they haven’t changed."

Update: Lambert was not a prizewinner at ArtPrize. Here's who was


Does Capitalism Work for Steve? Lambert Vows to Give Away ArtPrize Winnings

ArtPrize seems like an apt venue for artist Steve Lambert's Capitalism Works for Me project. Arguably the art world's most populist high-profile event, the annual Grand Rapids–based festival allows visitors to vote on their favorites works, with winners in both juried and public-vote categories taking home anywhere from $20,000 to $200,000. Lambert's project, a mobile billboard/voting machine that invites passersby to weigh in—true or false—on the artwork's eponymous statement, is a finalist in both the juried and popular vote contests. And tomorrow could be Lambert's payday.

But today—the day before ArtPrize winners are revealed—Lambert took to Twitter to make a four-tweet announcement:

To those who know Lambert, the agonizing shouldn't come as a surprise. Co-founder of the Center for Artistic Activism (with Stephen Duncombe), he's more interested in art's role in making change than in making money.

Lambert hasn't publicly elaborated on his decision yet—although he's agreed to answer my questions about it later tonight—but a clue to his rationale might reside in his choice of the Grand Rapids Foundation's LGBT Fund as recipient of his potential winnings: ArtPrize is the brainchild of Rick DeVos, the grandson of Amway co-founder Rich DeVos, the multibillionare whose family has funded an array of political causes, and son of Amway former president (and Orlando Magic CEO) Dick DeVos and former Michigan Republican Party chair Betsy DeVos. As Matthew Power wrote for GQ in 2012, "the DeVoses have for decades quietly underwritten a mind-boggling array of free-market and evangelical-Christian causes. Pull back the curtain on a hot-button conservative issue, from anti-gay-marriage statutes to privatizing public education to the Citizens United case, and you'll find the extended DeVos family."

It's unclear, as Power states, to what degree the younger DeVos shares his family's conservative values on social issues, and ArtPrize staffers I've discussed the issue with over the past few years say his politics are far milder. His parent's family foundation is listed an as ArtPrize sponsor, and news reports state that ArtPrize finalist prize money has come from the foundation as well. Only Lambert can state whether this link is the key factor in his decision to give away his potential ArtPrize winnings.

Update: Here's my Q&A with Lambert about his decision.