Crowdfunding creatives: House Opera begins buildout after successful fundraising campaign

Detroit is a city that has, among other things, Kickstarted a yet-to-be-erected statue of RoboCop, saw residents earn production credits for funding a film and regularly crowdfunds whims across the entrepreneurial spectrum, from brewpubs to cold-brew coffee carts. It's not lost on folks that if you want something done, and something done quickly, you turn to the public for a boost.

Crowdfunding certainly isn't unique to Detroit, but it's definitely useful in a city where banks, still reeling from economic woes of years past, can be reluctant to dole out loans if there's no foreseeable return. That includes purchasing housing; rates for mortgages are notoriously low in the city limits. (For more, check out Model D's story on Detroit's many crowdfunding options)

So when creatives seek to restore one of the many vacant structures in Detroit, crowdfunding can fill in crucial gaps. Look no further than House Opera, a house in Detroit's southwest area once abandoned, but now evolving into what its owners call an "architecture gallery" for hosting events, performances both musical and theatrical, and exploring questions of architecture and abandonment.

"We’re doing a lot of interesting thinking with urbanism and landscape, and different ways of approaching and designing property relationships," says Mitch McEwen, House Opera project leader and assistant professor of architecture at the University of Michigan.

Exterior of House Opera - Photo by A(n) Office / McEwen StudioThe house was bought for $1,200 and initially envisioned as an artists' residency, particularly for traveling African-American artists. As renovation went on, House Opera took its name from the need to create a stage.

That was the easy part. McEwen and her team then turned to crowdfunding and grants from the Michigan State Housing Development Authority to complete the project. They raised funds to wrap the house in custom-patterned Tyvek, as well as repairing the roof and replacing the exterior sheathing.

It took strategic planning. "By engaging the contractors at the beginning of the summer, we could get them the funds in six weeks instead of trying to get a grant," says McEwen.

"People are pretty generous. It's not really my favorite thing to do," she admits. "I think in the future I will be able to focus more on building partnerships than fundraising."

McEwen used Patronicity, which is similar to fundraising sites like Kickstarter, but also helps projects get matching funds from larger organizations.

"It’s very feasible," she says. The downside, she cautions, is being aware of your potential pool of donors and how much they're willing to contribute. "If you already have a network, it's going to work for you really well. If you don't, it's hard, and the money doesn't appear out of nowhere."

House Opera managed to reach their fundraising goal, but just barely.

"Ours we did it on a smaller, more local platform," she adds. "I have experience doing fundraising, and I would not recommend a local platform for people that don’t have a network of people with disposable income."

That said, the campaign funds will allow McEwen to tackle necessary renovations like working on the enclosure for the stage. "This summer as we'll be adding things physically for first time," says McEwen.

Everything else up to this point has been "strategic subtraction": cleaning the house and yard of garbage, removing dead trees, and knocking down walls.

While McEwen expects a four to five year timeline for the project, House Opera hopes to have parts its programming and residency running this summer, including an Afrofuturism workshop on June 30.
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Aaron Foley is a Detroit-based writer and the editor of BLAC magazine. Follow him on twitter @aaronkfoley.