'The big vision for the art was you won't be able to escape it. It's going to be everywhere.'

Before last year’s inaugural What? Music and Arts Festival at 934 Gallery in Milo-Grogan, co-founders Ryan McKee and Kyle Dineen didn’t know what to expect.

“We were thinking it'd be really cool if 400 people came,” McKee said. “We had close to 1,000 people.”

“Had we known we were going to have that many people, we would have got a couple of porta-potties,” Dineen said. 

The free event (with free beer) featured bands performing on a 15-by-15-foot stage alongside the work of about a dozen artists, most of whom sold pieces at the event. “I had people message me, like, ‘I didn't even know people would buy my art,’” Dineen said. 

About a month after the festival, McKee and Dineen, along with fellow co-founders Ryan Ransom and Kristen McKee, began to imagine what the festival could become. “We started realizing that there were a couple of people that came to our festival who got inspired by what we did and went out and decided to do the thing that they had been wanting to do,” Dineen said. “We were realizing what it actually was, and what we could do with it in the future.” 

This year the What? founders, along with a group of more than 30 volunteers, are making the festival bigger in every conceivable way, with even more of an emphasis on art. The fest, the bulk of which takes place from 1 p.m. till late in the evening on Saturday, July 27, at 400 W. Rich in Franklinton (tickets $35), will open with a kick-off show at 7 p.m. on Friday, July 26, at Campus club Trism (tickets $15-$25) and include a free community event from noon-10 p.m. on Sunday, July 28, at Land Grant in Franklinton.

McKee said he was heavily inspired by Independents’ Day, the annual, hyper-local music and arts fest that held its final event in 2017. “We talked to a lot of people from Independents’ Day. [We liked] their idea of doing something that was more about the community focus and less about getting the biggest, baddest act you can,” McKee said. “We’re kind of trying to capitalize on what they started. … Their goal was to really inspire events like ours.”

This year, What? will take over a roughly 100,000-square-foot space at 400 W. Rich, with art installations, live painting and hundreds of artists displaying their work. (Volunteers Andy Meyer and Sarah Field are the fest’s art directors.)

“The big vision for the art was you won't be able to escape it,” Dineen said. “It's going to be everywhere, ranging from artists that might not have been in very many shows to people that are literally traveling around the world and doing murals in very large spaces.”

“We're trying to give everyone a somewhat equal platform. We've given everyone the same chance to have work on display,” McKee said. 

Dineen will have his own art on display, primarily in the form of the main stage, where musicians ranging from EDM acts (Yheti) and DJs (Chris Karns) to rock acts (Barefuzz, Cousin Simple) and jam bands (Electric Orange Peel) will perform. 

“I’d always had a dream of designing stages for music events since my first Bassnectar show. I was like, ‘Whatever this is, this is what I need to do,’” said Dineen, who built two four-feet-by-four-feet diamond sculptures with 500 LED lights, which ran symmetric animations. This year, Dineen used the diamonds as a jumping-off point for a 23-foot stage sculpture made of insulation foam. 

“It’ll be projection mapped, with visuals that are mapped onto the surfaces,” Dineen said. “A lot of what I want to do are things that I see happening in places like Denver, where you have a massive arts community that's going out and building these backyard stages. Here, I've never seen a single projection-mapped stage that was an art piece. … And it's modular. So we can ideally put this other places or take it around.”

“My ultimate goal for this stage is to kind of start a little bit of friendly competition,” Dineen continued. “I'd love to see someone [else] come out and just build an awesome, crazy stage, because then other people will see that, and it's a chain reaction.”

“It's easy to get stagnant within an industry when you don't have people pushing the boundaries a little bit,” McKee said.

The founders’ eventually want to make What? a three-day festival, and this year’s pre-show and post-fest community event will give everyone involved a taste of what executing a multi-day festival entails. Part of the fest’s proceeds will also go to community partners such as the Gladden Community House. 

McKee hopes that, at the very least, fest-goers will mingle with each other and with the artists. “You'll end up talking to strangers, and ideally you'll make meaningful connections,” he said. “The people who are making [the art] are going to be there, and so the idea is that you have festival attendees talking to artists and designers, and you don't necessarily know who's who, but it can kind of take down the barrier to having conversations that might exist at other events or museums or galleries.”