Could Betsy DeVos help art education?

One of the latest disappointments from the Trump administration has been the appointment of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education. 

Many criticize the pick due to DeVos’ lack of experience and harsh criticism of the public school system, having never attended or worked in a public school. She even stated recently that she’d be happy to abolish the Department of Education altogether—but DeVos may surprise us, as she has the potential to be a positive force for the future of art education. 

DeVos has a “lifelong interest in art and design” and has the credentials to back it up, according to her own website. She served on the Board of Trustees for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts under former President George W. Bush, funded the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland with her husband Dick and served on the board of ArtPrize. 

In addition, she and her husband founded the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation, which supports causes in five areas, two of which are education and art. 

ArtPrize—which is credited as being “the most-attended public art event on the planet”—is an art competition that takes place in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan, over the course of 19 days. ArtPrize proudly describes itself as being an “unorthodox, highly disruptive and undeniably intriguing” event where “anyone can find a voice in the conversation about what is art and why it matters.” It boasts attendees and artists from all over the world who travel to see “every inch of downtown” covered in art. 

DeVos’ association with such a seemingly progressive, modern and inclusive event is interesting considering her history of using her vast funds to support only private Christian schools, which are, for better or worse, notoriously conservative. While DeVos herself is not the mastermind behind the formation of the event, her son Rick is its founder and current chairman.

This, however, has not kept the arts community from criticizing DeVos and her recent appointment. In fact, senior editor at Hyperallergic Jillian Steinhauer suggests that we should be wary of DeVos’ enthusiastic involvement of the arts, saying that it is “a form of soft power—a means to look benevolent and enlightened while being pretty nefarious.” 

Steinhauer also states that although we must acknowledge DeVos’ alignment with the arts, it should not discourage creators from criticizing our new secretary of education. 

There is also, of course, the crucial fact that DeVos has remained largely silent when it comes to the arts and the future of art in the public education system. Instead, she focuses on her proposed installment of school choice and charter programs, which she had previously begun in her home state of Michigan. 

Furthermore, DeVos’ apparent view of the arts certainly does not align with that of President Donald Trump, who has threatened to defund the National Endowment for the Arts. Would DeVos turn her back on the arts to stay in the good graces of the man who gave her the power to turn her education dreams into a reality? 

While DeVos’ past support of the arts may shed a more flattering light on the secretary, the best that art teachers and enthusiasts can do right now is keep their fingers crossed and hope that the arts remain a priority for DeVos.