- Written by Roger Green
Rick DeVos continues a family tradition of giving with an unexpected twist. His billionaire grandfather, Richard DeVos, Sr.—co-founder of Amway Corporation, today Alticor—is nationally known for supporting religious organizations, health groups and social services through the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation. Rick, 27, has, by contrast, channeled DeVos largess into the visual arts, organizing an inventively conceived competition, ArtPrize, which took place at disparate Grand Rapids, Michigan sites from September 23rd through October 10th of last year.
ArtPrize was unique in two respects. For one, it offered extravagant cash awards: $250,000 first place; $100,000 second place; $50,000 third place; and $7,000 each, fourth through tenth place. For another, ArtPrize was vengefully populist and technologically 2009. Any artist could enter and every attendee over age 16 could vote electronically, using mobile phones, iPhones, mobile and standard browsers.
The winner of the competition, announced on October 8th, was Ran Ortner of Brooklyn, New York, who took home honors for his oil-on-canvas Open Water no. 24. His quarter-million-dollar cash prize is the largest ever awarded in an art competition, say event organizers.
Rick DeVos is himself a photographer whose works have appeared in Grand Rapids galleries. For a local art festival, his original idea was to mount a film festival. “What we liked about film festivals is their conversational nature, the fact that people talk to each other while standing in line,” he says. Conversational engagement fosters learning, the point of art, he believes.
Yet DeVos also saw drawbacks. “A film festival is a centralized and rigid kind of event,” he says. “You have very specific venues that only can be used according to a fixed schedule. You have a small group of screenings making selections from hundreds if not thousands of entries.”
So an open, citywide art competition seemed a better plan. Multiple, often unorthodox exhibition sites ensured that attendees would discover overlooked parts of Grand Rapids. At the same time, the competition’s online voting system facilitated engagement, not least by creating real-time feedback loops to the community, identifying popular or controversial works and where to find them.
DeVos has advanced a family tradition of giving unconventionally, but with his parents’ and others’ blessing. “They were incredibly supportive of this idea, which admittedly is out of the box,” he says. “It’s just a bit of a different focus.”