03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Visiting Grand Rapids

At first blush, my Arts in Crisis tour stop in Grand Rapids seemed ill-timed.

After all, I am touring all 50 states to discuss approaches for dealing with the current economic crisis; to discuss the mistakes arts organizations make when they reduce programming or play it safe in this environment.

Yet I arrived at the first week of ArtPrize, an innovative new arts project that has electrified the city and the region.

For those few who have not heard of ArtPrize, any artist was invited to create a work of art and show it at indoor and outdoor venues across downtown Grand Rapids. 1,262 artists installed works--from simple drawings to huge, elaborate sculptures. I was particularly taken with a series of portraits, silk-screened on perfectly formed mounds of salt. The public was invited to see the works and to vote on their favorites. More than 334,000 votes were cast and the winner received prize money of $250,000, an extraordinary sum.

To say that the region was consumed by ArtPrize is an understatement. Every person I met asked if I had seen many works, which were my favorites and whether I was voting. Venues were packed at noon on a Wednesday. Buses filled with school children were touring the city. Thousands of people turned out for a performance art event: 100,000 paper airplanes flown from the roof of a building. To those of us who believe that art has the power to inspire and enliven our communities, this was a glorious example.

ArtPrize is the brainchild of Rick DeVos. (For complete disclosure, Rick's mother Betsy is a Trustee of the Kennedy Center.) Rick has created an innovative, successful, energizing, arts project that was conceived of and staged during this great economic crisis. And not in New York or Los Angeles or Chicago, but in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a state that has felt this recession as much as any and where the state government slashed the budget of the state arts council by 71 percent the day before I arrived.

ArtPrize is the perfect example of what I discuss on my tour: arts organizations that do great work and market it well can thrive at any time - even during a major recession in a depressed state. There is a tremendous hunger for innovation and inspiration at this time. How else to explain the thousands of creative submissions, the hundreds of thousands of people registering to vote, and the many, many more who simply came to observe?

The mistake arts organizations make is to pull in their horns, limit creativity, reduce important programming, and play it safe. The public sees through this approach; they do not have money to waste on boring programming.

And arts organizations that become less interesting to their audiences also become less interesting to their donors. It is simple to blame 'the economy' for a lack of ticket sales or contributions but it invariably results in larger measure from a lack of quality programming and marketing.

The people running ArtPrize talk happily about prospects for the future and working to cope with increased demand in future years. Who would have guessed that the perfect lesson for coping successfully with a failing economy would come from Grand Rapids?