It’s not very often that I’m proud of my hometown. That may sound harsh, but announcing that I was born and raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan isn’t the kind of thing that draws a lot of excitement. But this sleepy, conservative city in western Michigan has recently drawn excitement for something other than being sleepy and conservative. ArtPrize — a two and a half week art competition in Grand Rapids — has returned to downtown for its second year.

For those who may be unfamiliar, Grand Rapids is about 150 miles west of Ann Arbor, has a population of just over 190,000 people and is where I grew up — not that you probably care about that last part. I’m specifically from a small, affluent suburb called Ada, but if you went to my high school you probably referred to it as “the bubble.” It’s the kind of place that’s out of touch with the rest of the world and society at large. It’s neither fashionable nor trendy, neither edgy nor exciting. But ArtPrize is seeking to change all that — at least as far as the art world is concerned.

ArtPrize is a unique competition in the sense that it’s open to any artist in the world that can find a physical space. Anyone in downtown Grand Rapids can create a venue to display the art. And anyone who attends the event is able to vote for his or her favorite piece. This event is a model of what Michigan should strive to be.

The inspiring thought behind ArtPrize is that “art is important,” as quoted by Art Showcase magazine in its September/October 2010 issue. This is the basic premise that drove Rick DeVos, a Grand Rapids social entrepreneur, to start ArtPrize in 2009. The goal is to create a dialogue about something important and relevant to society, and that is what is going on between September 22 and October 10 in downtown Grand Rapids.

Arguably, Michigan has been in a well-recognized slump for decades. Events and trends like ArtPrize are what will help to get us out of it. The state should pursue similar ideas to bring innovative and progressive minds to Michigan. This event has brought thousands of people into Grand Rapids. They’re talking to local people, eating at local restaurants and taking in a side of Michigan that hasn’t been seen lately. Instead of headlines about job losses and a failing automotive industry, the news is only positive because of the constructive impact ArtPrize is having on the area.

The influx of people into the area is a huge boost for the economy. A USA Today article about the event highlights the ability of ArtPrize and similar events to revitalize urban economies. Grand Rapids, and the state as a whole, needs to capitalize on this positive contribution and allow other sectors of our economy to benefit.

It must be noted that ArtPrize wouldn’t be possible without the generosity and philanthropy of Grand Rapids families and leaders. These are the types of things that Michigan philanthropic organizations need to be contributing to — events that will help to revitalize our state’s economy and the livelihood of our citizens. If nothing else, ArtPrize has brought so much of the city together in enormous support of the event, because aside from all of its societal benefits, ArtPrize is actually a lot of fun.

I would encourage anyone looking to head out of Ann Arbor for a little bit (The football game is in Indiana this weekend. Just saying.) to venture over to Grand Rapids and support this local event. An emphasis on the strength of our communities is important now more than ever.

Michelle DeWitt is a senior editorial page editor.

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