From casual beginnings, the Art Fairs have put Ann Arbor on the national visual arts map
The first Ann Arbor Art Fair was a casual, two-block event in 1960. It was initiated by South University Avenue merchants to draw attention to their summer bargain days. They teamed up with the Ann Arbor Art Association, which saw the event as a way to further its goal of art education for townsfolk.
"We did it to draw attention that there was such a thing as art," recalls Milt Kemnitz, a participant in that first fair. "We tied clotheslines between parking meters to hang pictures. When it rained we would take them down and take them into a store close by and wait for the rain to stop."
The organizers included the chamber of commerce, the potters' and hand weavers' guilds, and the public schools' adult education program. They put out a general call for artists to display their wares in an "arts and crafts market." For the first few years, the only requirement was that all art had to be original and sold directly by the artist. By 1965, though, there were so many artists seeking to participate that the organizers switched to a jury system to ensure quality and variety. That same year they renamed their event the Ann Arbor Street Art Fair.
"It was run by wonderful ladies who poured their heart into it," recalls Dick Brunvand, who was the fair's only paid staffer from 1971 to 1985. The women from the art association were supported by the South U merchants, who helped with costs, materials, and publicity. The merchants assembled the fair's first booths in parking lots behind their stores. "Everyone helped--the merchants, the merchants' children," recalls Paul Schlanderer, a South University jewelry store owner.
Carol Furtado, who participated in the Street Art Fair for seventeen years, usually was placed in front of the Village Apothecary. "The owner was very helpful," she recalls. "He would let me and others with booths nearby bring our stuff in at night."
The fair did so well that soon other artists and other retail areas wanted to create their own fairs. The State Street Area Art Fair started in 1968. It was a juried fair from the beginning, and run directly by the merchants' association. "You see more of the merchants. They are right on the street," explains Kathy Krick, the fair's director. In fact, the merchants take up all the available space on State Street itself, leaving display space for the artists on nearby blocks of Liberty, Maynard, and William.
The Summer Art Fair's origins date to 1970. The counterculture was in full swing, and some younger people were calling the established fairs elitist. "I remember a meeting in the basement of the bank at South U and East U when a young man came and asked that they let students in," Brunvand recalls. "The little old ladies answered, 'This is our art fair, and we're not going to let students in.' "
The students responded by starting their own alternative fair on the Diag. Called the Free Fair, it was a very laid-back affair with no space assignments. Furtado, who displayed in the Free Fair before joining the Street Art Fair, recalls, "We'd just set up our paintings against the trees. Once a dog peed on one of them."
The university soon decided it didn't want anything sold on the Diag, and the fair moved to South University between State and East University. But the participants' attitudes didn't change. "We'd sit on the grass and talk," Furtado recalls. "If anyone looked interested [in our art], we'd glare at them. Later in the day, one of us would watch about six booths and the rest would go to Dominick's for the afternoon."
Gradually the Free Fair became more organized. In 1973 the fair's sponsors organized into the University Artists and Craftsmen Guild, opening an office on the fourth floor of the Michigan Union. In the early 1980s the Guild left the U-M to become the nonprofit Michigan Guild of Artists and Artisans. The fair moved around the corner to State Street in front of the Michigan Union, and a downtown section was added after the Main Street merchants invited Guild members to display there as well.
As soon as the fairs began drawing big crowds, political activists and street performers began showing up. They added to the ambience but also to the space crunch, and eventually were limited to certain locations. The university helped by letting nonprofit groups use the space in front of the Engineering Arch. "Every cause was there, sometimes opposing ones right next to each other," laughs Brunvand. In 1989 the nonprofits moved to the block of Liberty between Division and Fifth, linking all three fairs in a continuous pathway.
A little farther north on East U (which today is a mall), the Graceful Arch tent in front of the Physics and Astronomy Building provided a dramatic setting for a performance stage. Designed by Kent Hubbell's U-M architecture class, the arch sheltered such popular local talent as the Chenille Sisters and the Cadillac Cowboys.
"The Art Fairs were supportive, but they were also always afraid the music would overwhelm the Art Fairs," recalls local music impresario Joe Tiboni. "But it's part of the Art Fair, an oasis, a hangout, a place to recuperate."
In 2001 a fourth fair, Art Fair Village, was set up on Church Street. It was sponsored by South University merchants, who for several years had been engaged in a financial and philosophical spat with the Street Art Fair. This year the new fair, now called Ann Arbor's South University Art Fair, will take over the South University area, while the original Street Art Fair will take over Ingalls Mall and surrounding streets, circling Burton Memorial Tower on Washington, Thayer, and North University.
Most visitors don't realize that what appears to be one seamless fair is actually four separate ones, each with its own history and flavor. Despite disagreements along the way, the organizers have kept the same hours and operate in adjacent (and even overlapping) locations. They've also agreed on keeping high artistic standards. "We walked a tightrope to satisfy what was wanted, to not be too restrictive, but to say no when necessary to keep the sense of it," Brunvand recalls.
The result is a unique, popular, and prestigious event. It attracts more than 1,000 artists from around the nation and hordes of visitors from all over the Midwest. The fairs are consistently ranked among the best in North America. "This is a small town to provide an event like this," says Shary Brown, longtime director of the Street Art Fair.
It may have started out as a lark, but Ann Arbor's July arts gathering has become a juggernaut.
[Photo caption from original print edition]: In the early years, it was a radical concept to put art on the streets. Like many fruits of the 1960s, the fairs soon became commercialized.
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