The Rapidian

Invisible Curators and Ready Partners

Art Prize logo over public space in front of Civic Auditorium facade.

Art Prize logo over public space in front of Civic Auditorium facade. /John Eisenschenk for the Rapidian Flickr pool

Underwriting support from:


Logos and products in public space.

Logos and products in public space. /paul wittenbraker

Live co-branding in public space by the street team engaging visitors as they arrive at the hub for the Speaker Series.

Live co-branding in public space by the street team engaging visitors as they arrive at the hub for the Speaker Series. /paul wittenbraker

"As long as art is the beauty parlor of civilization, neither art nor civilization is secure." - John Dewey “Art as Experience” 1934

This quote by the American philosopher John Dewey calls upon us to recognize the inherently political nature of art: To recognize that how we think about art and how we go about structuring it has consequences. How should we institute art so that we maximize what it can do to make our civilization vital? How do we structure it so that we can experience art as public discourse? This kind of thinking can contribute to broadening and deepening the conversation about art.

Below, I focus on two areas of concern for how we are structuring art in ArtPrize and point out how they can be assessed through observation and inquiry in this year's event. An accurate assessment of ArtPrize should be based on a broad sampling of art and a variety of venues.

The Invisible Curators

Who decides what art the public should see? What criteria are used to make those decisions? Who decides how it will be displayed?

Part of the ArtPrize image is that it gives the public direct access to art. ArtPrize is careful to not take on the role of arbiter of taste. Instead, this difficult and consequential task is passed on to the venues that determine their own criteria in selecting and excluding artists. For the process to be transparent, the people who make the decisions and the criteria that were used should be more public. This would be a constructive step in thickening the conversation.

The low visibility of curators hides an important part of the process and the hard work these people do to make the event accessible and powerful for viewers. Curators should be visible as important cultural figures and should be well known and accountable for the decisions that they make on behalf of the public.

If the title “curator” sounds elitist, then lets find another word, but someone is making these decisions. Why not work on the reinvention of curating? Grand Rapids could become known as a hotbed of innovative curators who are particularly connected to their publics. Not elite arbiters of taste, but fellow citizens: a Citizen Curator Corps. They could develop new collaborative methods of generating artworks and displays that grow from diverse ideas and tastes. New ways of presenting art could be forged that are useful and awesome.

Strong competencies in curating and criticism among our citizenry could provide essential leadership in the emergence of a new kind of provincialism: one that takes full advantage of the freedoms of art to make it unique to our context but is careful not to be provincially isolated. A new provincialism would seek out awareness and critical contact outside the region and confidently contribute to those dialogs. Such a development would draw both popular and critical attention from media far and wide, and be good for business.

Making curators visible is an easy structural change to ArtPrize and would be an important step in shifting the structure to one with more potential.

At each venue, notice the curating and ask who the curators are and what their criteria were for selection.


Art, the ready co-branding partner

ArtPrize expands on an innovation that has been developed locally on an organized level for many years: Artists partnering with property owners to publicly display art. We all get to re-imagine the city because of these partnerships.

And don't forget the atmospherics of style. In a marketplace driven by style, there is much to be gained from co-branding with art. The right kind of art is the perfect co-branding partner - attractive and cool but mysterious and abstract, a silent partner whose powers are moldable to enhance a brand or build celebrity cred. Art attracts attention, and that attention can be used.

Look closely at the nature of the affiliations that are made between art and commerce. Is the art used to serve the sponsor's message? Is an artwork’s readiness for co-branding a good criterion for the selection of art for the public? What kinds of art get left out of this conversation?

Keep Dewey's "beauty parlor" in mind when evaluating these venues as viable sites for public discourse. The space of commerce is not fully public space, and public space that is dominated by a logo is a compromised public space.

In traditional cultural institutions, curators and administrators control the balance between the art and sponsor messages. They negotiate the details that acknowledge the sponsor support while supporting the art in fully doing its thing. Curators recognize that they are not only protecting the autonomy of the art, but also securing the space for public discourse. We can innovate, but the responsibilities don’t go away. If art is important then its development and presentation should not be left in such a precarious position.

Look for venues that support their artist partners in fully doing their thing even if it does not fit with the business’s style or marketing goals.

ArtPrize’s has demonstrated a powerful ability to attract and inspire the people to come out and engage the open possibilities of art. What is unclear is where the support will emerge for a thickening of a critical public dialogue necessary to convert that investment into cultural capital that accrues to the public. To be viable, such a dialogue needs to exist outside of the ArtPrize brand and have a comparably visible public image.


I first saw the Dewey quote painted in large type on a public art project made by Siah Armajani in the early '80s. His work is part of a shift on the part of artists to directly address art in public through innovations in the use of public space and, more recently, through open interactive and social projects. Thinkers from disciplines ranging from sociology, geography, philosophy and many other fields have engaged issues of public life, public space, and democracy and have developed dynamic and useful ideas. These histories and innovations could be drawn on more directly in the development and analysis of ArtPrize and our broader structuring of art.

There is much for the society to gain through a robust public culture. Inquiring about the invisible curators, and the problems with co-branding are good places to start.

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  Is Rick Devos's self proclaimed "social experiment" to replace knowledge with populist opinion?  Curating isn't a bad word. It's a word that is used to show knowledge and expertise. We look to experts in the field all the time to give us information about science, medicine, books and movies. Visual art isn't any different.

ArtPrize doesn't tell the applicants nor the public who is curating or what those peoples qualifications are to be able to curate. It doesn't want to. It doesn't fit the ArtPrize model that you don't need to know anything about art to be able to come to Grand Rapids, stay in it's hotels, eat at it's restaurants and vote. That is a major problem for ArtPrize if it ever wants to truly show up on the professional  art radar. 

ArtPrize itself has a built in brand problem. It's brought to you and paid for by the Dick and Betsy Devos Foundation an evangelical christian foundation that wants abortion to go way for good and gay and lesbian people not to have the same rights as everyone else. The money people behind ArtPrize believe  intelligent design is good and global warming is a hoax. The professional art world is mostly made of liberal minded, forward thinking individuals. Once this ideological fact about the people behind ArtPrize becomes more known the interest in ArtPrize could wain more to a locally sponsored event, not the international event it would like to be.

If you expect me to listen to your opinion about ArtPrize and how it can be improved, give me some positive examples of how that change can occur.  Attacking the Devos family isn't going to win me over even though I may not agree with them on religion or politics.  Last time I checked the city was willing to take money from anyone who wants to invest.

 Great point Kari. Thanks for asking. Let me try to clarify my comments.

If there could be one thing that ArtPrize could do to be better I would say they need to be more honest about what ArtPrize actually is. I believe this is important because you are dealing with artists lives (it's a big commitment money wise and time wise ) and because truth matters. We all want things to be what they say they are.

ArtPrize is not a "radically open" art competition. It's not open to just anyone who can find a spot. Artists need to be juried into venues just as if they were jurying into any other type of art competition. Why make it sound otherwise?  In ArtPrize all artists are juried into venues by someone. Who are the people who are jurying each venue? What are their qualifications?   Why doesn't ArtPrize tell the applicants?  ArtPrize sells this aspect of the competition as if it's a relationship between the artists and the venue. They even call it "matching". The word jurying (which denotes that someone has the power to decide yes or no) is never used by ArtPrize when in fact jurying is exactly what is happening. ArtPrize prefers to have the image that it's a open competition and that the people are the jury. Most people probably have no idea that the work they are seeing has been preselected for them by standards and qualifications that no one is privy to.There may not even be any standards for some venues.

In the big picture if ArtPrize isn't really what it says it is how can it be expected to be taken seriously by the art world? And contrary to what the Grand Rapids Press says ArtPrize is not being taken seriously by the big art world. They are watching, cautiously.

Why doesn't ArtPrize be more clear about what they are?  I believe Rick Devos doesn't want to. If they did it would make ArtPrize technically the same as any other art competition. It becomes problematic for them in the sense that how do you explain to anyone applying or anyone viewing the event that all the art was actually  pre juried by people but we can't tell you who did the pre jurying or what their qualifications were for being able to jury the work? What professional artists is going to apply to that?  You can already begin to see what is happening, good artists are trying to get into the GRAM and the UICA because those venues are juried by more qualified people( who we still don't know who they are). The rest of the venues seem to be  hodge podge.

And now your second point concerning what you see as my attacks against the Devos Foundation, the financial sponsor of ArtPrize. In my many years as an artists I almost never have met a fellow artist who wasn't forward thinking and progressive. Artists by nature tend to be open to new ideas, new ways of seeing the world and accepting of all kinds of possibilities and ways of life. It is, in fact, what makes most of us artists. The social and political activist agenda of the Dick and Betsy Devos Foundation seems completely contrary to those artists ideals I've mentioned. They are homophobic, narrow in scope of peoples rights, lifestyle and religion.

Why is this important for my fellow artists to know about? We make choices all the time based on social and political and moral standards that we feel are important. Would anyone one of use buy a condo from Bernard Madoff or attend a lecture series sponsored by the Taliban or put our money in a bank owned by the Mafia? Why when it comes to art should we be any different? I a suggest  you  rent the great documentary by Don Argott called "The Art of the Steal". It is the story of the control of the Barnes Foundation In Philadelphia. The main point of the film explains that who ever controls the context by which art is shown controls the content. Who is controlling the context of ArtPrize?

Thank you....the first 3 paragraphs of your response makes a lot of sense.  This year in particular I am finding myself concerned that I won't make it to all the art and is it "fair" to vote on any if I don't consider it all.  Clarity on what ArtPrize is and isn't is important for both artists and voters.  I will watch the movie you recommended.

I have made it a point to engage as many strangers as I can in conversations about art and have found the experience to be very positive.  One artist from Houston was so positive about her experience even though she isn't in the top 100;  I was very encouraged.

I am simply not educated enough about the Devos Foundation to address your specific issues with their support of the event.  That said, I think liberal artists often get a bad rap from more moderate to conservative thinkers because they use strong language attacking conservatives without clear points.  The experiences I have had with the Devos family are all positive inspite of having a very different belief system from my family.  I admit this surprised me at first given all the negative I had heard from my friends.  Many of those friends are just as judgemental and stuck in their liberal mind set.  Do you have any specific examples to support your opinion? 



You can Google Dick or Betsy Devos or the Dick and Besty Devos Foundation and find all kinds or pertinent information.  Here are a few links..

This is a link to the Dick and Betsy Devos Foundation Mission Statement, the funding behind ArtPrize. The mission statement details what the activities of the foundation are geared toward.

In the document it states...Guidelines for Funding 

The mission of the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation 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. 



When Dick Devos ran for Governor he clearly spelled out his Republican idealogies on government, abortion, gay rights, and the environment. Here is a link to a article the late Metro Times wrote about him

in 2004 Dick Devos gave $20,000 to support Prop 2 Michigan anti gay marriage legislation. His father gave over $800,000 to opposed gay marriage around the country.

Betsy Devos is on or was on a board of the Council for National Policy (  a Christian Political action Organization

This isn't about arguing liberal verse conservative politics. It's about trying to discover what the funding organization behind ArtPrize believes or wants.  




Did you happen to see the art at the Women's City Center?  At least one of the ArtPrize enteries was clearly not part of a conservative manifesto since it depicted both female and male genitalia.  There was another very anti-Christian piece showcased at the BOB.  The artist spoke last night at the Center for Inquiry event and clearly felt he was able to excercise his right to free speach.  I guess I am just not clear how the Devos "agenda" directly impacts ArtPrize?  They don't have control of all the venues and what art the venues choose.  Sure they put boundaries on how far out the venues can be but anyone would have to do that.  Anyone within that boundary can sign up.  I am pretty sure venue owners from multiple belief systems are part of the event.  You aren't actually suggesting that out of 1711 works of art that not one was created by a homosexual....don't you think the Devos's know that.  Why create an event where people from all over the world from any religion has an opportunity to express themselves through art if they only want to further the agenda you suggest?


My point focuses on what the Devo's have done on the other end of the contest. The vote. Though I still contend if you have a conservative town with conservative venues you are going to get for the most part...conservative selections.  There are always going to exceptions.

The Devos's  have devised a contest where the winner is picked, not by knowledge but by populist opinion. Let me be clear, I'm am NOT saying GR doesn't have a lot of people who are knowledgeable about art. I know they do. But there are not 44,000 plus(what ever the number of votes cast)  people walking around  SW Michigan knowledgeable about art. You and I could probably agree that 7 out of every ten people polled would say they don't know much about art but they know what they like.

So why devise a competition and a forum where discussion about the art takes place like this? Well I can only think of two reasons. The first would be that the Devos's believe that most people are poorly educated about good contemporary art and so they devised a system where discussion and dialog and education about what is good art can take place so ArtPrize can educated the masses to be more knowledgeable about real contemporary art. The other reason would be that they feel the average American knows what good art should be and no one should tell them what good art should be because common sense and public opinion is more important that knowledge and if given the power to decide they can help direct the type of art that "the People" want.

It seems to me you either believe one reason for ArtPrize or you believe the other. Which one do you believe?


 When has art, as career, ever been completely separated from it's patrons? Perhaps this event could be the thresh hold from which staunch skepticism unfolds into the acceptance of a polarized reality that is inclusive to all? 

Here is an interview with a curator in the Grand Rapids Press that asks the questions I suggest above. The curator Scott Lafontsee is quoted in the article identifying criteria he used in selecting artists. One of the primary criteria cited, "The goal is to draw attention to The Press" is relevant to the questions I raise about co-branding.

What I aimed to focus attention on in the original article were the powers at play in art and the responsibilities we have for how we structure and value art in public life. In particular the ways in which these things are evident (or not) in the immediate experience of art in the exciting and largely affirming dynamic of public space.

Art richly engages imagination and perception. People and groups act based on how they imagine and percieve the world to be. So art has power. This is operative in the realm of cold analytical fact and realms of style and desire. So when we're dealing with art, even when it is fun - especially when it is fun - it is important to take note of the details of how that power is played out in the actual experience and insist that the presentation is structured in ways that maximize the independent and public functions of art. Who shaped the experience this way and why? What ideas and interests are tagging along for the ride? And who is benefitting? The imaginative is more interesting and its powers more useful when its constructedness is critically analyzed.


Absolutely. How does atmosphere lend to the perception of a piece? There's a boutique across from Viceroy on Commerce that hosts a piece on white canvas, with only eyes, brow, nose and red candied lips (scintillation painded in) that I would not give any consideration except for how well it amplifies the boutique's mood: urban chic. Doesn't do much for the piece, but the piece does a lot for the store.

Even when putting together my piece for Eat & Drink ArtPrize, the owner's reason for one of the pieces at Bar Divani had to do with the French name complementing Bar Divani's mostly French fare.

 There was a time once when Charles Mingus played outside  the Newport Jazz Festival, as I recall, for the same sort of reasons you bring up Richard. 

 For free I must add.