As soon as I stepped off the plane in Austin and saw the colorful banners hanging in the terminal, welcoming the world to South by Southwest (SXSW), I knew I was in for a wild ride.
SXSW is an annual festival at which music, film, and interactive media converge for 10 days of performances and conference sessions throughout downtown Austin, TX.
But this isn’t just any conference. At SXSW, you can attend a Digital Media session in a JW Marriott ballroom in the morning and see a concert in a laundromat in the evening. Representing Detroit Experience Factory (DXF) in Austin, I was able to participate in Michigan House, a venue and experience curated by Creative Many Michigan. Creative Many is “a statewide organization focused on developing creative people, creative places, and the creative economy for a competitive Michigan.” This innovative team approaches development through a variety of efforts including advocacy, research, and professional practice programs.
Joined by a multitude of Michigan based sponsors, small businesses, large organizations , governmental entities, non-profits, artists, and creatives, we spent five days participating in panels, round-table discussions, and beautifully facilitated conversation. With the exception of Sunday brunch at the original Michigan House location in residential Austin, and a stellar Michigan Music showcase at Stay Gold on E. Caesar Chavez, Michigan House programming took place in the gymnasium and courtyard of St. David’s Episcopal Church on Trinity and 7th Street. Thanks to the MiddleWest team, it was easy to forget you were spending your days attending sessions in a gym, due to decorative design touches that would make any Michigander feel at home. Bouquets of ivory tulips, daily brews from Grand Rapids’ Rowster Coffee, beer from Founders Brewery, sparkling wine from Mawby Winery, chips and pickles from McClure’s, and more.
It is hard to convey the level of vast experience and intelligently articulated passion contained in that gym over the course of our time there. You could sit in on the ‘Michigan Modern: Design that Shaped America’ panel and hear from design luminaries Amy Arnold (State Historic Preservation Office), Jeff DeBoer (Sundberg-Ferar), and Susan Skarsgaard (GM Design Center), and then chat over a cup of coffee with Christian Overland, Executive Vice President of The Henry Ford. We discussed everything from Education and Cultural Tourism, to Talent Retention in creative industries in Michigan.
Arguably, the most dynamic panel at Michigan House was titled ‘Making a Place for Equity’ hosted by the Director of New Economy Initiative, Pam Lewis, and featuring James Chapman (Rock Ventures), April Jones-Boyle (BUILD Institute), Derel Ross (Startgarden), and Mayor Rosalyn Bliss (City of Grand Rapids). Discussing what healthy growth for all should look like, Mr. Ross shared “You can’t do case level work and expect system level change....[Specifically for minority creatives and entrepreneurs] It’s about the network, and it isn’t for lack of ideas. It’s for lack of opportunity.” In turn, Mayor Bliss imparted the importance of one’s administration culturally representing its constituents, stating: “True equity equals an actual shift in power. You can’t be what you can’t see.”
The running joke during Michigan House was that: “It took traveling 1,400 miles to engage in life changing conversations with colleagues and friends who all live in the same state?!”
The truth is, it was incredibly inspiring to mingle and learn alongside great minds from Detroit, Grand Rapids, Lansing, Kalamazoo, and cities all across our state. We were all gathered as a community of artists, venture capitalists, small business owners, engineers, and designers, united for one common goal: the healthy and sustainable growth of Michigan as a center for creativity. The community cultivated through Michigan House was living proof that the growth we are searching for may not be as far off as you might think.
Kaylan Waterman is a Lead Experience Coordinator at DXF