Exporting diplomacy: What one Mitten-centric house hopes to do at SXSW

Imagine you're inside a house where, as much as possible, everything you see was made in Michigan: the chair you're sitting in, the art on the wall, the beer in your hand, and the live music coming from the band set up on the lawn. Now imagine that house in Austin, Texas during next month's SXSW, and you have a glimpse of the innovative space being created and exported by a creative group of collaborative partners in West Michigan and beyond. Read on for all the Michigan-made details.
Imagine you're inside a house where, as much as possible, everything you see was made in Michigan: the chair you're sitting in, the art on the wall, the beer in your hand, and the live music coming from the band set up on the lawn. Now imagine that house in Austin, Texas during next month's SXSW, and you have a glimpse of the innovative space being created and exported by a creative group of collaborative partners in West Michigan and beyond.
"It's a house. It's a hub. It's a venue. It's a declaration," declares the website. No matter what you call it, the Creative Many Michigan House is being curated by a dizzying array of players whose common goal is to surprise and delight attendees at the large annual SXSW festival that caters to film, tech, and music aficianados – while also promoting the good things happening (and being made) in Michigan.
"We see it as an amazing opportunity to be able to bring an incredible level of awareness to the power of Michigan's creative economy on that national stage," says Jennifer Goulet, president and CEO of Creative Many Michigan (formerly ArtServe). "With musicians and filmmakers and tech experts gathering at SXSW, the timing just really seemed ideal to be able to work with this great set of partners in Grand Rapids and Detroit, to be able to connect designers and creatives and businesses in Michigan to opportunities."
The house idea was sparked, says Goulet, after CMM board member Joe Voss returned from last year's SXSW, having spent time at this particular mid-century modern home just outside the chaos of the official programming. Voss, who was privy to some informal talks happening between organizations like StartGarden and ArtPrize in Grand Rapids and "being a very good strategic-thinking board member, came to us and said, 'What do you think about positioning this on a statewide platform to really bring visibility to the creative economy?'" Goulet explains. Since then, Creative Many has served as the house host and convener, bringing in Grand Rapids-based partner Middle West to select the made-in-Michigan items that will showcase the state's talent.
More than serving as a backdrop for a sweet little story, Goulet says the house will also communicate some hard numbers that came out of Creative Many's most recent annual report. "The creative economy generated nearly $3.6 billion in wages to the Michigan economy in 2011," says Goulet. "It's definitely a growth sector, and a sector that has not really been positioned as a strategic priority to the degree that it should be."
That's something the partners involved are hoping to change. The (still-growing) list of statewide partners reads like a who's who of key creatives and organizations that attract talent to the Mitten: The Right Place, Masco Corporation Foundation, Michigan Film Office, We Know Detroit, AMI, Start Garden, Clark Hill PLC, CWD, Meijer, Square One Design, Blackbird, Founders Brewing, Cusack Music, Detroit Wallpaper, Proper Soda, Appropos and ArtPrize, to name a few. And their involvement in the scene at "south by" – the term those in the know use to describe the infamous festival – is changing the feel of the house, which will host everything from panel discussions to live music to informal networking happy hours over the course of the four-day event March 16-19.
"Each of the organizations involved gets a chance to have a piece of the programming," says Ted Velie, a member of the Middle West team handling the logistics. "For some of them, they just want a place to invite people to talk, and others wanted a more substantial piece of programming. For example, we're doing a panel discussion having to do with technology and design in the state of Michigan with Herman Miller designer Chris Hoyt. And ArtPrize is going to invite 15-20 bands to record songs that will then become ArtPrize entries. We'll have dizzybird records do a showcase of the bands who are on their label, so there will be live concerts. And there's going to be a lot of food and drink; Founders came in as a sponsor, so we'll be bringing down a fair amount of Michigan beer."
The goal, says another Middle West member, Jamie Kirby, is that "the house will really feel like a Michigan house," a feat the team hopes to accomplish by offering Proper Soda, an AMI jukebox, and a whole range of design-forward Michigan-made products as they foster a hospitable haven that will function as a respite from the very busy official SXSW programming.
"What we're most excited to do is to tell a Michigan story to people there," says Middle West member Peter Jacob. "What Middle West is really inclined to do is to tell a story through hosting and entertaining. We'll really be able to engage people on behalf of the companies who are stakeholders, and we'll also be able to supply people with familiar things that you don't always know are made in Michigan."
Jacob says ArtPrize, Creative Many, and other organizations involved are attracted to the value of in-person experiences to enhance networking and business opportunities. "At the Creative Many Michigan house they'll have an environment and a hosting situation where they can invite their collaborators into a place where the environment tells the story for them," he says.
He clarifies that the house, billed as a place to touch down and connect in both formal and informal ways, isn't about seeking validation. "It's not 'Let's see if we can get more cool things to happen in Michigan' but more 'Cool things are already happening, and here's a vast amount,'" Jacob says. "People could say, 'Oh, here's the polite Midwesterners telling their story.' Instead, there's a confidence with this project I've seen since day one. It's not a high-roller suite; it's a down-home Midwestern welcome."
Sharing that story is a goal Paul Moore, communications director at Start Garden, says his organization shares. "Sometimes the default assumption is there isn't going to be anything interesting in Michigan," he says. "We want to surprise people; there's some really great stuff, from Herman Miller to Founders to even the kinds of unusual things we do at Start Garden, and as much as we can carry that surprise out of the area, it's great cross-cultural diplomacy."
Despite the geographic distance, Moore says Grand Rapids is actually quite similar to Austin when it comes to startup culture, and it's that compelling startup scene at SXSW that draws Start Garden to this project.
"The Michigan house for us is really just a way to show off how our community and region is changing pretty dramatically," Moore says. "We were joking but it's true: If you want to catch a meeting with someone in the startup community, it's actually easier to have it at south by than to schedule it here."
Even before the house welcomes its first SXSW visitor next month, Velie says its pop-up, authentic aesthetic is already serving as a connecting force between both sides of the Mitten state, just due to the collaborative nature of the planning process.
"We see there's so much excitement around the state – things being created, people trying new things – and taken on the whole, it's sort of the best face forward for the state of Michigan," he says. "Especially when we're in a place like Austin, people have some preconceived notions of what's going on here. They think about the car industry. But with all these groups together, it's a way to show a broader picture of things going on in and around the state."
Jacob concurs. "SXSW has become a cultural touchpoint; it's a place for film, interactive design and music, and those are all things Michigan exports on a really regular basis but doesn't get the attention it deserves. So we're providing this environment as a place for people to touch down and connect," he says.
And that's why, come March 16-19, you'll find him – along with lots of Michigan's other creatives – listening to a little live music in the sunshine, Proper Soda in hand, on Garden St. in Austin.

Stephanie Doublestein is the managing editor of Rapid Growth Media. She also writes at Reclaiming Sunday Supper, a project that explores rest and connection around the table.

Photos courtesy of Shutter Sam.
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