When longtime friends and collaborators Ryan McKee and Ryan Ransom set out to start a new festival, they were committed to breaking free from the ordinary.
“I’ve been to Coachella, and we’re trying to be the complete opposite of that,” Ransom explains. “We’re trying to create a space where it doesn’t matter if you know the music or the artist, but you are so in awe of what you are standing in front of, and the experience of the unknown just around the corner.”
Now in its second year, McGee and Ransom’s creation, What? Music and Arts Festival, packs the ambience of a large-scale festival into a curated, inclusive event combining interactive experiences, live music, and thought-provoking visual art exhibits. Opposed to similar events that emphasize music above all, the What? Fest organizers have made an effort to showcase visual artists as a cornerstone of their festival’s approach.
“The idea of doing an interactive art gallery has been in our minds for quite a while,” says McKee. We came up with the idea of doing an art gallery like something you’d see in other cities, but that wasn’t really happening here—yet. There are lots of art galleries, and lots of music events, but not really a true combination of the two.”
With the spotlight on visual components, it’s no wonder that McKee and Ransom host their events in art spaces. The inaugural What? Festival was held last year at 934 Gallery. This year, the event will encompass the spaces at the arts community at 400 Square in Franklinton on July 27 and 28.
All of the artists who occupy studio spaces at 400 Square and were invited to contribute work to the fest, and another 71 artists from other sources, have been confirmed as contributors. McKee and Ransom hope to attract even more.
While the What? Fest co-founders prefer to keep most of the visual surprises in store for attendees under wraps; they say that the event will have a “visionary art” theme (see: the paintings of Alex Grey), including an infinity mirror room.
The two have also commissioned two visually-dazzling new stages which have been purpose-built for the event, reinforcing the fest’s high production values in spite of its intimate nature.
“I think you can be both a spectator and a participant at the same time,” McKee says of what What? Fest attendees can expect. “Having a space that’s curated and designed around it is what separates a true experience from just a music event. We made this event because I don’t necessarily think there’s anything going on like that right now in Columbus.”
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Its organizer’s dedication to the festival’s visual aspects should not suggest that the musical components su er from a lack of attention. Just like the art, McKee and Ransom have brought serious intent and forethought to the curation of two days worth of music.
“What we really want to do is get artists who are emerging,” says McKee. “Whether they have 20 followers on Instagram or 50,000, we want to treat everyone the same and give a platform to the whole breadth of the scene, as opposed to just the biggest acts.”
The two looked first to their native Ohio, seeking some of the state’s most prominent emerging artists.
“On the national scene, some of these artists might still be considered underground, but in our scene these are some of the biggest available,” McGee says of such performers as Columbus indie rockers Cousin Simple, and Yeti, the experimental EDM artist who will perform as the festival’s headliner.
In all, the acts booked to handle music duties for the weekend span every genre from hip-hop to psychedelic rock. The unifying factor among all of them is what Mckee describes as “a dance-y, positive vibe.”
As carefully as their festival’s visual and musical offerings have been considered, its founders are also deeply invested in ensuring attendees have the best possible experience at What? Fest.
“With a lot of other events in the city, there are too many people to truly experience the things you want to,” McKee explains. At all of our events, we cap our ticket sales at a point where people can get the full experience. We want people to come to our events and be able to be comfortable and experience the whole thing.”
If all goes as planned, McKee and Ransom hope that What? Fest can serve as a launching-off point for seasonal events of a similar nature – everything from smaller gallery shows to large-scale fests.
For now, the duo hope to build upon their success with What? Fest, proving that there is an audience in Central Ohio for curated art experiences on this scale.
“I think a lot of people look outside of Columbus just assuming that something is better, or something else has a reputation, so they plan to attend ahead of time,” says Ransom of similar festivals elsewhere. “For us, we need to convince everybody that we’re building something here. You don’t have to look outside of Columbus—you can stay here.”
For more information on What? Music and Arts Festival, visit whatmusicandartsfestival.com.