ArtPrize proves civil discourse isn’t dead

Betsy DeVos

As Grand Rapids bids farewell to 1,453 artists who contributed their creative perspectives to ArtPrize Eight and challenged thousands of visitors to lend their voices to the discussion, our community reflects on what we’ve learned.

A guiding principal of ArtPrize is to serve as a catalyst for critical discourse. It does. From street-corner conversations to expert-led lectures, there is no shortage of discourse about art, its inspiration, and its impact.

But at a time in history when many of us question our collective capacity for civility in the public square, I was struck by the role this radically open competition plays in inspiring civil discourse.

Art has the power to inspire, elevate and engage conversation. But it requires inclusion for civil discourse to thrive.

When all are invited to be inspired, step outside their comfort zone, challenge their own thinking, and engage in the conversation, art becomes the great equalizer. No single opinion holds power over another. No difference of opinion diminishes the importance of expression. There is no right or wrong answer and, therefore, no need to dominate the discussion. Civility and respect become possible.

When you demonstrate to people that their opinions matter — when you set out to inspire and elevate thoughtful conversation in an inclusive environment and empower people with the tools to express themselves — they will rise to the challenge.

That was evident in the throngs of school children who participated in 17 distinct ArtPrize Education Days programs over the course of the 19-day event, with each program posing an essential question for kids to consider as they observed, discussed and created art.

It was evident in SmartArt, an art and literacy project for Grand Rapids Public School students who created art and wrote essays about environmental stewardship and sustainability. ArtPrize event-goers were invited to vote on the top 10 student entries, further validating these young and diverse voices.

It was evident in the 1,453 entries from 44 countries and 40 U.S. states that allowed novices to stand side-by-side with professionals and be judged by their peers, the public and an expert jury.

It was evident in the diversity of faces on the streets of Grand Rapids, encouraged by another ArtPrize guiding principal — to be intentionally inclusive. Organizers have worked to remove barriers to engagement through artist and venue grants, community and educational partnerships, school transportation grants, free transit passes, free wheelchair rentals, pathways curated with mobility in mind and disability awareness training.

And it was evident in 2009, the year ArtPrize launched, when young people incarcerated at an area juvenile detention facility exhibited a mural at God’s Kitchen, a local food pantry. The kids chose God’s Kitchen because they wanted to raise awareness of the organization and the challenges of homelessness. Their piece, entitled “Crossroads,” symbolized that everyone — regardless of sex, race, religion or socioeconomic status — will at some time in life come to a crossroads.

That single entry demonstrates the power of ArtPrize to engage, unite, uplift, cut across barriers and empower the marginalized to speak into issues of the day.

ArtPrize had the highest daily attendance of any public art event on the planet in 2014 and 2015 — and numbers were up in 2016. Over 23,000 visitors per day made their voices heard through nearly 400,000 votes. If precedent holds, these visitors will have driven over $27 million in net-new economic output in Grand Rapids in only 19 days.

Our son Rick DeVos, the founder and chairman of ArtPrize and the innovative spirit behind this incredible event, has called it an experiment. He said when it launched that he didn’t know exactly how it would work and where it would lead, but he and the ArtPrize team trusted the public and the art community to pioneer with them.

And on that inaugural day in September 2009, when he stepped away from the podium, handed over the microphone and empowered everyone to lend their voice, ArtPrize became an important stage for civil discourse.

Betsy DeVos is chairman of The Windquest Group.