September 27, 2017

Michigan Art Festival Scrutinized for Ties to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos

GRAND RAPIDS, MICHIGAN—For the New York Times, Steve Freiss reports on the increase in political works at this year’s edition of ArtPrize, the annual festival sponsored in part by the family foundations of secretary of education Betsy DeVos. Established in 2009 by DeVos’s son Rick, ArtPrize exhibits more than one thousand works for three weeks in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and allocates $500,000 in prize money to participants, including two $200,000 top prizes. The DeVos family foundations contribute approximately sixteen percent of the $3.5 million ArtPrize budget.

Despite the DeVoses’ financial support, organizers insist that the family does not determine which works are displayed and awarded prize money. ArtPrize is open to any artist willing to pay the $50 participation fee and any Grand Rapids business can serve as an exhibition space. “People try to pin ideologies onto ArtPrize but it’s really about open access to public space and free expression. There’s this persistent myth that anyone involved is in ideological lock step with one another. That’s completely untrue,” said ArtPrize co-founder Kevin Buist.

Artist and ArtPrize participant Eric Millikin said, “Any artwork put into ArtPrize is going to be about ArtPrize, the DeVoses, and Trump. I’ve always been conflicted about participating because of the DeVoses, but this year with Betsy DeVos in the federal government, it was a conflict I had to address.”

The DeVos family owns the multibillion-dollar multilevel marketing firm Amway. Betsy DeVos is the daughter of Edgar Prince, founder of the automobile parts manufacturing firm Prince Corporation, and sister of Erik Prince, founder of the private military company Academi. Prior to serving as secretary of education, DeVos donated to numerous Michigan arts organizations, including the DeVos Art Museum at Northern Michigan University.

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