Blog: Rick DeVos

Rick DeVos is the creator behind ArtPrize and other ventures that have a common theme of empowering, expanding, and enlightening conversation. His interest in using social media to decentralize control of the event, an international art competition, has excited some and rankled others. Whichever side you fall on, one thing is certain: This inaugural year represents a huge social experiment. Rick's here to talk about it this week.

Post 1: Votes for Art

Beginning September 23rd, Grand Rapids, Michigan will be host to 1,262 artists in 159 venues scattered throughout 3 square miles of downtown, and so will begin an exciting social event and experiment that I am privileged to have been a part of founding. ArtPrize, intentionally simple in its name, is the world's largest art prize, awarding $250,000 for first, $100,000 for second, $50,000 for third, and $7,000 for fourth through tenth places. That is the first unique element. The second unique element is that those awards will be decided by a public vote, facilitated by the web and mobile phones.

Since we announced ArtPrize in April of this year, the first question I usually get asked is "How did you get the idea?"

Over the last few years in particular, I've had the privilege of many great cultural events like the Sundance Film Festival, the Telluride Film Festival, and SxSW. Because of this exploration, for some time I have thought that Grand Rapids would be ripe for putting on a large cultural event. Grand Rapids has a great history of design and public art, a walkable downtown, a surprisingly large student population, and strong cultural institutions like the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts, the Grand Rapids Art Museum and the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park. All of these seemed like, and have proven to be, a strong foundation to build on.

Initially, due to all of my engagement with film festivals, I thought seriously about putting one on in Grand Rapids. However, the nature of film festivals (due very much to the nature of the medium) is that they are highly centralized and controlled. You have a small committee that reviews films and accepts them, highly specific kinds of venues, and a very rigid screening schedule with capacity and limitations, adding even more layers of complexity and centralized decision-making.

Thinking about how film festivals work, my team and I started to wonder what the opposite would look like. What could we do that was extremely open, decentralized, and allowing of a wide variety of media and expressions, not just film? How could it be a catalyst and let innovation and creativity happen on the edges instead of trying to plan and control all of it at the center? What sort of relationships would form between artists collaborating with other artists and their host venues?

I started to think about how to get a large group of artists interested in showing their work, and a large swath of the public interested in looking at that work, but at the same time go beyond the traditional artist-public relationship of buying and selling that a standard art fair is built around. I thought that models like X-Prize were particularly interesting as a catalyst and organizational model because they create a large incentive for attaining a particular goal, which in turn entices a large group of individuals and teams to go after that goal.

It seemed like a pretty straightforward idea to create a very large art prize to gain the attention of a broad cross-section of artists, but the question then became how to get the larger public interested and invested in the process beyond passively shuffling through. Very quickly, the idea emerged of having a public vote--tangible public feedback--as an incredibly powerful tool of getting people looking, engaging, and debating. We then decided to go even one step further, and we opened up who could host a venue--and thereby opened up curation for the event-- by just setting a border, minimum open hours, and a couple of other basic things. Our role as ArtPrize (the organization) focused on becoming a facilitator of relationships between artists, the venues hosting them, and the people physically in the city and taking part in the event rather than trying to plan every detail for all of those parties.

With just over a week until the opening evening, the entire ArtPrize team and I are in awe of the response we've received. The number of artists, the number of venues, the number of collaborations, the variety and quality of the work, and the buzz that we feel happening in the city are all-amazing. We are honored to be a part of it. We would love to have you join us. Come and see.