A Conversation with Mickey Davis

Des Moines is cool, but you already knew that, right?

Thanks to 80/35, a couple of James Beard Award nominated restaurants, and the recent celebrity sightings due to the Iowa caucuses, community pride about living here has never been higher. 

But not including music festivals, there's another reason to visit the City: Des Moines Social Club. But what is it? People are always asking me about its purpose, so I reached out to its program director to learn more.

Mickey was cool enough to sit down with me and share the vision of the Social Club and also share a bit about why he's here, too. As he spoke, I had the feeling I was talking to a guy who wasn't interested in being in the spotlight, but who was willing to stand in its glare if it meant creating change for the city. Isn't that the kind of person you want working to help make this a better place? 

How would you describe Des Moines to someone who has never been here before?

Des Moines is a city that every day feels a little less sleepy. I think people are waking up to the cultural opportunities available to them here - we're in a cool place right now because there seem to be people willing to fund the Arts and if you know who to interact with here, you can really make Des Moines what you want it to be.

Growing up here in Iowa, did you ever expect would you end up living in Des Moines?

The day I turned eighteen, I got a tattoo of the Traveler’s Insurance umbrella on my arm because I never thought I would live in Des Moines again. It was supposed to be like my homage to Des Moines - and now I live two blocks from that building. (laughing)

I went to school up in Minneapolis and I would come home every summer and do some work with 80/35 and Des Moines Social Club when it was in its other location. When I came back, I always noticed it felt like an interesting time to be in Des Moines. There was this sense that everyone involved in the Arts and culture scene was in on the ground floor of something and I realized that was special. It was also not something you could easily find in places like Minneapolis or Chicago.

I'm a very career-driven person and the idea of coming back here and harnessing my drive within an arts capacity was really attractive to me. My folks moved away from Des Moines last year, but there's nothing compelling me to leave what I have here. I feel like I do my best to show myself as someone who can get things done within the community and I try to make sure that’s actually the case as much as I can.

For those of us reading who do not know what Des Moines Social Club is and what it is about - give us a little background.

How I describe Des Moines Social Club to someone who is unfamiliar with it is that it is an “art-based community center.”

We inhabit a 1930′s Art Deco fire station and we received a lot of historic tax credits in redoing the building, so many rooms had to stay as they were. As a result, a lot of what we do is very site-specific - from a restaurant in what used to be the fire engine bay to teaching aerial acrobatics in what used to be a racquetball court.

The whole idea behind the Social Club was to create a space where you have different types of events that are drawing different kinds of crowds that wouldn't normally be at the same place at the same time. Because there are so many events occurring congruently, we have different crowds routinely bump into each other on the way to the bathroom or on the way to the bar. 

It sounds like there is a lot of networking that occurs here. Would say so?

Very much so! But I would like for us to stray away from the word “networking”. I think we get so wrapped up in the idea of networking that we forget that it is just two people talking to each other. What brings people together here at the Club is not that an particular event is going to further a career or something of that nature. It's about that shared passion.

Tell me about some of the activities and classes that occur here on a weekly basis.

Yesterday there was yoga class during the lunch hour, aerial acrobatics and break-dancing classes in the afternoon, and there was also a rehearsal down at the Kum N Go theater.

Tonight there's New Orleans jazz and a poetry slam called “Haiku Death Match.” Looking ahead to tomorrow, there's a wedding rehearsal and an open-mic comedy night. In a big nutshell, that's what's going on down here. 

Do you think that living in the Midwest has made it easier for you to succeed at what you do?  

People are really stoked about Des Moines right now because they can feel this energy and they want to help out and tap into it. If you bring an idea to someone their first thought isn't that they could do that better, it's that your idea is inherently awesome. Instead of getting in your way, people will give you the tools you need to succeed. 

What do you think our cultural renaissance means for us on a national level?

If you're an artist who isn't from New York City, where you grew up is the first line of your bio. If three of four different people made a splash on a national level and each one said that they were from Des Moines, people would take notice and start to ask themselves what is going here.

You hear people say “Des Moines is cool” and that sort of thing does work regionally, but I don't think it works on a national level. We would need someone to make a splash who's from here and who's loudly from here. For Des Moines to be on the map, what needs to happen is for a couple of bands or visual artists to make a big splash - even if it is just for a second.

In the midst of tremendous growth, I worry that people (like myself) who grew up watching the City gain attention will be pushed out into the margins. What are your thoughts on that?

I don't think we'll ever hit a point where we wake up and say we've filled our quota for new ideas. Maybe a certain endeavor will over saturate, but as long as one is open to new concepts and willing to work, I think one can find a niche to fill.

I've also found that you have to a certain level of frontierism to live here, you know? If you live in a bigger metropolis, you take comfort knowing that there a bunch of other people doing the same thing that you are do. 

But in Des Moines there is no pack and you have to create your own environment of support. For some people, that can be very hard but that being said, as long as your expectations are somewhat realistic I think you will always find people in this town who are hungry to collaborate and make cool stuff happen.

Thanks for hanging out, Mickey. We appreciate you and everyone else at the Club and what they're doing for our city.