Small business lessons from an open source art exhibit

September 28, 2011, 5:39 PM UTC

FORTUNE — With a small staff, cell phones’ growing reach, and the convenience of his family’s foundation money, Amway heir Rick DeVos launched a novel, open-source art competition and festival called ArtPrize in Grand Rapids, Mich. in 2009. The event attracted more than 200,000 visitors in its inaugural year, and the group expects that to grow to some 500,000 this year.

What makes ArtPrize a standout? Instead of using a traditional jury to decide which art to accept for exhibition, ArtPrize has opened up the selection process. It offers businesses and artists a website to match up with each other. The result: Art in homeless shelters, bars, shops, on the streets, even sitting in the middle the Grand River. Almost all the prize money is awarded by public vote; after registering at an ArtPrize location, people can choose their favorites by text message or on ArtPrize’s website. Last year, 465,538 votes were cast.

The notion of opening up traditionally closed organizations continues to gain relevance, to the point that it has almost become an expectation among consumers. So why not apply it to an art festival?

DeVos discusses how ArtPrize — which runs through Oct. 9 — and its model could be useful to businesses and business leaders. An edited version of the interview follows.

Fortune: What lessons have you learned from ArtPrize that corporations also could find useful?

Rick DeVos: Really great things happen when you create a light-weight framework and let people go. A lot of individuals making small bets is better than a centrally planned effort.

We created as few rules as possible…. The more I can help empower people to create their own creative endeavors, the better off the system will be. An artist will see the side of a building and see the potential that would never occur to me.

What has surprised you about launching ArtPrize?

We expected 20 to 30-year olds to show up with their smartphones. Who actually showed up [at ArtPrize] was so much wider than that –older couples and families with toddlers. We didn’t even think about kids coming to ArtPrize. We didn’t even have kids’ T-shirts.

Was there a moment in which you thought you were onto something?

Grand Rapids has a river running through the edge of downtown with a pedestrian bridge that most days is really quite dead. Only one or two people at a time go across. Then during ArtPrize, suddenly, we hear hundreds if not thousands of people are streaming across it. [The river had art installed all along it.] They’re talking about what they want to see, where to go. When people are going out to dinner — every single conversation is what they wanted to see, what they had to see, what they had already seen.

The notion of “letting go” can be incredibly difficult to stomach, especially for business managers. Can you describe why you believe it’s essential to your project?

The less we do, the better for the event overall. The more we can create a framework that empowers people and connects people, they’re going to create things of … much more value than we could without building some huge team and process. That allows all sorts of relationships between artists and business owners, venues and sponsors to spring up. I struggle to even catalog everything that happens in these two and a half weeks.

How do you think managers can develop more of an appreciation, or at least an acceptance, of letting loose some controls?

Just encourage folks to try small scale experiments, not bet the future of the firm on open source. Find ways to open up their process around a particular product or service on a small scale and see how it works. You’re going to be really invigorated by the response you get. Dive into something small and see what you get.

What would you say stands in ArtPrize’s path to becoming a financially sustainable project with an operating budget of close to $3 million?

We’re on track to become a sustainable organization. We’ve created a new model for an art event. We could make some bad decisions on how we run it, and set up the rules. We need to put as few organizational blocks in front of them. You need to have humility about your own ability to plan things.

Have you seen any effects so far from ArtPrize?

The overall goal of ArtPrize is to shift the culture of west Michigan to one that embraces creativity. We’ve already seen other events pop up in Grand Rapids — a comedy festival informed by ArtPrize, and a hub where various businesses bring their creative teams together to rub shoulders. Anecdotally, we hear people who are more excited about art and creativity and design then they ever have been before. I see entrepreneurs and artists and ArtPrize existing in a similar realm — it’s about trying things. They both think they’re crazy. Then they try it – and it works.