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RapidChat: Ted Velie on Michigan House at SXSW, supporting our state's growing art scene & more

As Grand Rapids continues to grow and mature, conversations surrounding the arts community within our city are becoming increasingly relevant -- most notably when it comes to talent retention. Creator of Middle West Creative Ted Velie and a handful of his partners around town saw an opportunity to take Michigan and its culture on the road.  From that, Michigan House emerged.
Ted Velie

As Grand Rapids continues to grow and mature, conversations surrounding the arts community within our city are becoming increasingly relevant -- most notably when it comes to talent retention. Creator of Middle West Creative Ted Velie and a handful of his partners around town saw an opportunity to take Michigan and its culture on the road.  From that, Michigan House emerged.
Rapid Growth: Yesterday your team announced some pretty big news regarding Michigan House.
 
Ted Velie: Yes. The big news this year is that this year we’re hosting official SXSW events this year. When we first did this we were kind of off the grid and completely unofficial. This year we are hosting six-panel discussions that are filled up with Michigan people. One of the panels will be around Seamless and why the Midwest, in particular, can be a good place for the internet of things to take off. Mayor Bliss will also be featured on one of the panels. Another focuses Michigan’s design heritage, another on equity and place-making, another on education…it’s just a lot of really great Michigan minds talking about some really important issues.
 
Other big news is that we are doing a Michigan music showcase while we are down there, as well. We will be having five bands who will be recording a mixtape before they go down to Austin and they will all be performing in one night.
 
RG: What was the creative concept behind Michigan House?
 
TV: The basic concept (external facing) is that it is a pop-up activation space. The main idea is that we capture the energy in Michigan, pick it up, and put it in another location. We want to change the narrative of what people think goes on in Michigan. If I can sit someone down in a Leap Chair, put an All Day IPA in their hand, and have them listen to the band Flint Eastwood… it changes their whole opinion of what Michigan is all about.

Internally it’s a collaboration between my team at Middle West, who designs and executes the House and Creative Many Michigan, who is a statewide economic development and advocacy organization that supports Michigan’s creative industries.
But there are all these other partners who are collaborating under the banner of Michigan House. So you get Meijer next to Founders next to Whirlpool next to an AMI Jukebox. Because of that we get a lot of interesting, passionate people in the room. And it doesn’t feel like a marketing push; it’s just people that are excited about what they do and where they come from.

RG: How do you incentivize people to visit the space?
 
TV: General awareness, social media, free Founders beer definitely helps… as well as other free drinks. One thing we notice is that there are a lot of people who are from Michigan or lived in Michigan at one point, and they want to check it out. People have a certain level of brand loyalty to Michigan.  One year we brought Sandy the penny pony from Meijer and there was a guy that was 50 who knew exactly what it was. He hasn’t lived in Michigan in the last 30 years. Though with that being said… even if people aren’t from Michigan, people want to be a part of these conversations. Our panel is a big pull this year.

Most importantly, I would say is that we never shoot for the largest crowd or biggest room. We want to have the right crowd and the right room. We want to give these people an authentic experience and have the capacity to have a conversation in a room. It’s a much more achievable goal and much more fruitful.
 
RG: How do you go about choosing musicians to highlight?
 
TV: A call to action was put out to musicians to find out who is going down to SXSW. We were also given various recommendations and tried to make our selection somewhat statewide. Flint Eastwood will be down there with us. As well as The Go Rounds, who are from Kalamazoo, and an artist from Midland named Michigander.

The nice thing about this year is that we can financially help them get to Austin. If we are going to do our job well and sell Michigan, we need to pay our artists. It’s important to us to start attracting interesting, creative people to the area, and its artists and musicians and creatives that give the state its vibrancy. We are showing people outside of Grand Rapids that there's a music and art scene here. In order for that to work, they need to make a decent living in order to eat, pay rent, and so forth.
 
RG: Do you believe there is untapped potential for musicians here in Grand Rapids?
 
TV: I really do. As the city grows and matures. As we get more and more venue options, I think we’re really going to see a music scene that truly can blossom. But this has to remain a place where artists can develop while living and working. That means we need to support local music and give them opportunities to spread their audience. We hope Michigan House kind of does that both by actually providing some support at an event like SXSW and also by connecting different scenes from around the state.
 
RG: Why SXSW?
 
TV: We go to SXSW is because it’s a festival that draws from all parts of the country, as well as a lot of individuals from different industries. It’s not only essential for people in Michigan to know that these things are going on, but it’s important to get out of the bubble a little bit. We think the things that are going on here can stand up against what is going on in Seattle, Portland, and so forth; the quality of work being done here can stand up. But with that being said... nobody is ever going to know that unless we go out and show off. At some point you need to be willing to go and be proud of what is going on here. We need to be aspirational. Part of Michigan House is not who we are now; it’s who we want to be.

Jenna Morton is the RapidChat correspondent for Rapid Growth Media.
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