July is one of the most exciting months of the year for Ann Arbor, because it’s Art Fair month! The Ann Arbor Art Fair, which is actually composed of four separate fairs that collaborate to create one cohesive event, is one of the largest art fairs in the country. Each year, Ann Arbor residents, visitors, and business owners look forward to the several days when a new city seems to emerge on the streets of Ann Arbor, packed with tents full of world-class artwork. The DDA had the privilege of speaking with the people behind the art fair for a behind-the-scenes look.
Karen Delhey is the Executive Director of the Guild of Artists and Artisans, which produces the Summer Art Fair. Maureen Riley is the Executive Director of the Ann Arbor Street Art Fair, which produces the Original Fair and the Townie Street Party. Frances Todoro is the Executive Director of the State Street Art Fair. Maggie Ladd is the Executive Director of the South University Art Fair.
How did the Art Fair originate?
Riley: The first fair was in 1960. It was the idea of a merchant in the South University area, to invite artists out on the street. It was immediately successful. By the second year, it was named the Street Art Fair. Then the State Street Area Association started their fair, building on the success of the Street Art Fair.
Delhey: in 1970, a group of artists, mainly students who couldn’t get into the Street Art Fair, decided to create their own fair. They brought out their blankets, set up on the university diag, and became the Free Fair. The university jumped in in 1971 and put them on East University and helped establish the Guild [of Artists and Artisans]. Now, that’s the Ann Arbor Summer Art Fair. We’re on Main Street and State Street, and the Guild is one of the largest artist membership organizations in the country. We have close to 1000 artist members from all over the country who are part of our organization.
Riley: [Around the year 2000], the Street Art Fair relocated to our current location in Ingalls Mall on North University and Washington, and the South University area association started their own fair. So then there were four.
What exactly does it mean that there are four Art Fairs?
Riley: There are four fairs because they’re produced by four separate organizations. Each of the four organizations has a different mission. Each fair has its own character and does things differently to fulfill the mission of that organization. Karen and I are both nonprofit arts organizations, while Maggie and Frances are both neighborhood associations.
Delhey: We actually collaborate on a lot. We work together on city services like trash and recycling. All of the marketing is done jointly, sponsorships are done jointly. Marketing, PR, city services, our guide…We have a joint website, we have a joint Facebook page, and social media presence. We also have pages for our individual fairs.
Frances: We do a lot of logistics together because otherwise it would just be work.
How do you put on an Art Fair? What’s the process?
Delhey: It’s a year-round process. Applications, for most of us, open in the late fall. In August and September, there’s a lot of wrap-up meetings, and then we start going for the next year with artist applications. Some of us re-invite artists at that time. We start meeting pretty regularly and planning for the next year. Some things actually start the year before, even before that fair, for the following fair. For example, the 2019 fair hasn’t happened yet and we’re already talking to sponsors for 2020.
Riley: We even announce our 2020 featured artist at the 2019 fair.
How do you select the artists for Art Fair?
Delhey: Each of us juries separately, and applications go to the individual Art Fair. Artists can apply to as many of the Art Fairs as they’d like. I love seeing the applications come in. I always joke with my staff that, in the art world, it’s our Christmas. You get to see all the new stuff, and for me, that’s always very exciting. Our jury process is multi-tier. When artists apply, they go through a standards review, which is a “yes or no” jury of whether they meet our standards or not. We do that first, then they go through a scoring juy, and then they get invited based on that score.
Riley: Mine is somewhat similar. It’s based on score and factors. There’s probably twenty jurors that are professionals in the art world that view all of the images, and only about 20% of the applicants are actually chosen.
Why is Ann Arbor a good place to have an Art Fair?
Delhey: So many communities have art fairs now. When we started, it was the new thing, it was different. So what differentiates us from all these other art fairs is the City of Ann Arbor. I feel like the city has really grown up around this event.
Todoro: The economic development that the Art Fair brings to the downtown isn’t necessarily recognized. People don’t understand that a lot of our merchants survive here year round because of the Art Fair. We have one gelato and two ice cream stores in our district. They’re within three blocks of each other; two of them are right next door to each other. They survive because one day of Art Fair is equivalent to their costs for the entire month of January. So if we didn’t have Art Fair, we wouldn’t have those businesses.
What’s your favorite thing about Art Fair?
Riley: My favorite thing is the Art Fair itself. It’s being out on the streets when everybody comes, the excitement, seeing people, all the artists that return every year, and meeting new ones. That’s my joy, seeing it all to fruition.
Todoro: I always take time to shop. I have my favorite artists, and then each year I buy something from someone I never bought from before. My husband always has a bottle of Bourbon waiting for me when I get home the last night. My Sunday starts with a photograph of my 5:30 am interview, and it ends with a picture of the bottle my husband bought for me and all of the things I bought. It’s my reward.