A Republican Congressional Candidate Cancelled an ArtPrize Showcase of Drag Performers With Down Syndrome, Saying He Fears a ‘Spectacle’

Peter Meijer owns Tanglefoot, the venue for the Project 1 performance.

Peter Meijer in a video he produced announcing his candidacy for Michigan's third congressional district. Courtesy of Peter Meijer for Congress.

A Michigan Republican running for Congress has found himself at the center of controversy after barring a collective of drag performers with Down syndrome from performing in a new arts and culture center he owns. 

Drag Syndrome, a London-based troupe that includes members with disabilities, was scheduled to perform next week on the opening night of Project 1, a series of public art commissions in Grand Rapids, Michigan, connected to the city’s much-attended ArtPrize festival (the latter used to be held every year, but has shifted to a biannual format, with curated programs of public art in the off years). The event was canceled after Peter Meijer, the owner of the building where the event was scheduled, learned of Drag Syndrome’s inclusion. 

“The differently abled are among the most special souls in our community, and I believe they, like children and other vulnerable populations, should be protected,” Meijer wrote in a letter to ArtPrize’s executive director. 

The performance was organized by DisArt, a local production company that promotes art made by artists with disabilities.

Members of Drag Syndrome, 2019. Courtesy of Drag Syndrome.

Members of Drag Syndrome, 2019. Courtesy of Drag Syndrome.

“It didn’t matter that these Artists have long-standing, successful, internationally acclaimed careers,” DisArt said in a collective statement decrying the cancellation. “It didn’t matter that the artists are also accomplished actors and filmmakers, painters, dancers, singers and most important of all, human beings. None of that mattered in the decision to exclude their performance. All that mattered was their disability…. Exclusion is discrimination, it is self-preservation, it is exploitation for political gain.  It is not protection.”

Meijer is the son of a billionaire businessman who runs the supermarket chain boasting the family’s surname. The company, estimated to be worth over $8 billion, operates more than 200 branches across the Midwest. Meijer, who claims to have no association with the business other than having stocked shelves as a teen, announced his candidacy for congress in a YouTube video last month

“It has been a frustrating week—I’ve been called a bigot, an ableist, a homophobe, a transphobe, and more,” Meijer told artnet News in an email, explaining that he believes that the “underlying ethical concern […] regarding the confluence of charged cultural performance and developmental disability and the potential for exploitation in actuality or perception” has largely gone unaddressed by opponents. 

Meijer initially approved the event, but did not learn of Drag Syndrome’s involvement in it until last week. He says he consulted with “parents of the differently-abled” and “members of the LGBTQ and artist community” before making his decision. 

“The overwhelming view of members of the local disability advocacy community and parents of children—adult and minor—with Down syndrome was that this performance did not further their goals for greater inclusion and belonging, and risked harkening back to spectacles that put individuals with disability on display,” he added.

There has been support for Drag Syndrome from other acts scheduled for the lineup at Meijer’s Tanglefoot venue. The Curiosity Theatre was supposed to perform its play Tiny Beautiful Things as part of the event, but has now pulled out. “We didn’t want to perform on the same stage where someone else had the mic taken away from them,” Jessie Congleton, a member of the theater, told WZZM.

Despite being barred from Meijer’s building, DisArt still plans to mount Drag Syndrome’s performance on the 7th. The organization is in the process of securing a new venue. 

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