Making the Art Fair Happen
Take more than 1,000 artists, add hundreds of thousands of visitors: a four-day spectacle.
by Jan Schlain
From the July, 2019 issue
Greg Lawler has been tracking art fairs since 1993, but there are still things about Ann Arbor's that puzzle him. "It's usually held on the hottest week of the summer," he writes on ArtFairSourcebook.com. "This is a very grueling event, characterized by very long hours over 4 chaotic, often hot/humid days on the street ... mystifying as to why they would choose these dates!"
Vic Gutman, the first director of what's now the Guild of Artists and Artisans' Summer Art Fair, knows why: "In the 1950s, that's when downtown stores held their summer sales," Gutman explains by phone from Omaha, where he now runs his own event company. "It started as promotion for South U merchants." That's also, he adds, why up until a few years ago, it ran from Wednesday through Saturday, sacrificing Sunday sales--"because the businesses were closed on Sunday."
"We started in 1950 as the South University Businessman's Association," says Maggie Ladd, executive director of the South University Area Association. To draw more shoppers across campus, in 1959 the merchants teamed up with the Ann Arbor Art Association to hold the first Ann Arbor Street Art Fair. It was so successful that soon every business district wanted one: State St. launched its own show, and Main St. recruited a branch of the Guild fair.
In 2001, the South U association reclaimed its streets under the banner of Ann Arbor's South University Art Fair. The renamed Ann Arbor Street Art Fair, the Original, moved across campus to regroup around Burton Tower, That four-fair template has endured ever since.
West Michigan watercolorist Catherine McClung witnessed the proliferation: she's making her thirty-ninth appearance this year in the Ann Arbor State Street Art Fair. One of more than 1,000 artists selling on the street from July 18 through July 21, she wouldn't mind if there were fewer. "When you have too much competition," she says, "it makes it less attractive to be there."
There's a little
less competition this year, because the city has shut down several mini-fairs on private property (see Up Front, p. 11). And McClung points out that "artists are still coming from all over the country ... which says a lot when you think of the expense of driving, especially with additional night stays on the road."
They come because, despite the competition, the weather, and the long days, business is good. Last year, Lawler reported average net sales (after expenses) of $7,782 on South University; $6,534 at the Original; $5,177 at the Guild fairs; and $4,645 at State Street.
Lawler has 1,400 fairs in his database, and tracks sales at 600. Among those, the South U fair was the third most lucrative for sales of fine art last year. The Original was twenty-sixth, State Street forty-eighth, and the Guild ninety-first. In Lawler's separate ranking for fine crafts, the four fairs were thirty-second, nineteenth, twenty-eighth, and fifty-seventh, respectively.
Each fair has its own footprint, mission, and brand (see map, p. 36). And because most of their budgets come from artists' booth fees, they're to some extent direct competitors.
In the early 1970s, when Gutman was a U-M work-study student assigned to move an impromptu "free fair" off the Diag, "no one worked together," he recalls. "No one communicated with each other."
Now the fairs' executive directors collaborate. "It was important that we looked to see what was in our mutual benefit," recalls Shary Brown, a past director of both the Original and Guild fairs.
The four directors work together on things like coordination with the city, booth numbering, mapping, sponsorships, and marketing. Most dramatically, in 2016 they synchronized on a new Thursday-to-Sunday schedule.
It was a rare moment when their work behind the curtain became visible. But without their backstage efforts, this nationally respected citywide event would never happen--nor appear as seamless as it does.
In late May, Karen Delhey was working on merchandising. The Guild of Artists and Artisans had just released the poster for its 2019 Ann Arbor Summer Art Fair--the fiftieth since that spontaneous "free fair" on the Diag.
Merchandising is the least of the changes. Delhey heads a staff of four full- and two part-time employees, plus summer interns, working out of the Guild's building on N. Fourth Ave. They also have fairs in Birmingham, Royal Oak, and Perrysburg, Ohio, but with 375 artists and an annual budget of $300,000, Ann Arbor's is still the biggest by far.
"Back in the day, art on the street was enough," Delhey says. Now her marketing director, Allison Buck, sells combined sponsorships for all four fairs--about fifty of them this year. The fairs also work collectively on services that range from the city water department's temporary drinking fountains to the shuttles that bring in shoppers from remote parking lots and the "Art-Go-Round" bus that circles the fair (see map, p. 36).
The Guild fair is open only to its members, who pay $700 for a booth. Getting ready for them will include everything from marking layouts on the pavement to arranging electrical hookups. "The DDA allows us to use the parking structure next to Palio on Main St.," Delhey says. "We have lots of porta-potties."
Delhey is the only current art fair director who thought of becoming an artist herself. "I wanted to go to the Center for Creative Studies," she says by phone. Instead, she went to U-M Dearborn for a business degree but stopped short of graduating.
She says what makes her such a perfect fit for the job is "being ready for anything. Thinking on your feet. Collaboration is huge. We partner with so many groups. And being able to work closely with others well--thinking about the good of all."
In May, upstairs in the Michigan Theater Building, State Street District executive director Frances Todoro-Hargreaves and director of operations Carissa Petty were finalizing booth assignments for the Ann Arbor State Street Art Fair.
Booth assignments changed more than usual this year, because they're moving some people to the fair's new "hand-crafted marketplace." Todoro-Hargreaves explains that although State Street has always seen itself as a fine-art fair, crafters making everything from furniture to soap to mittens also take part. This year, they'll be clustered at the fair's southwest corner on E. William and Maynard. The fine artists have E. Liberty and the adjacent blocks of Maynard, Thompson, and William, plus North University, where the State Street District meets the fine-art-oriented Original fair.
They were also "going through at least twenty emails a day from artists asking things like 'how do I get parking' or 'I need to rent a tent' or 'something's come up,'" Todoro-Hargreaves says.
State Street's fine-art booths start at $675 for all four days; crafters pay $800. As at all the fairs, artist fees for their 350 booths are the biggest source of income; the annual budget runs about $215,000.
The State Street fair's mission, says Todoro-Hargreaves, is "based on downtown and its role in the economic development of downtown Ann Arbor." It's their premier event, when "the artists become part of the neighborhood and become businesspeople in the neighborhood.
"The artists think of themselves as business owners," she explains. "I'd be nervous if one of them didn't."
Like South U, State Street is an IRS 501(c)6 nonprofit, a "business league" working for its members' mutual benefit. The Original and Guild fairs' educational missions entitle them to 501(c)3 status. On a practical level, that means that their donors can get tax deductions, but donors to State Street and South U can't.
State Street contracts with the Arts Alliance to jury its applicants for quality. Participating artists must handcraft everything they sell--they aren't allowed to use the assistants some call "elves."
Todoro-Hargreaves understands that role--she says her uncle sewed for Donna Karan--but "that isn't what the art fairs are about," she says.
"The art fair makes a huge difference to the local businesses when the students aren't here," says Maureen Riley, executive director of the Ann Arbor Street Art Fair, the Original. "We're pleased that we are the facilitators of that." Yet among the four Ann Arbor fairs, the Original is the only one without business neighbors.
"I think the main difference for us, is [our fair] is almost all about the art and the artists and the customers," says board member Tony Zambelli. "We don't have an affiliation with retailers. Our focus is on art and consumers of art."
The city charges all the fairs for the services it provides, but not for the use of the streets themselves. Because the core of the Original fair is on Ingalls Mall, however, Riley confirms that it pays rent to the U-M. She won't say how much, but emphasizes that "the university is generous with the art fair." Zambelli says the location was chosen in part because "it matched up well" with the fair's mission, which is "to educate people about art."
The Original's 205 professional artists pay $650, Riley says, plus add-ons for electricity and corner booths. That hasn't changed for a couple of decades, and keeping ahead of rising costs is tough. So they're expanding fundraising efforts, including the Dart for Art race and the Terrace for VIPs at the Townie Street Party (see Events, July 15). Race fees benefit the fair, and while the party is free--Zambelli says they hold it "to reward the residents and those impacted by the fairs"--a table for six on the Terrace is $300 (T-shirt included).
Maggie Ladd is justifiably proud of the growth of Ann Arbor's South University Art Fair since it launched as a fair-within-the-original-fair in 2000. "We started with fifty artists ... and now we are the third-best fair in the nation," she says, citing Greg Lawler's fine-art sales figure.
Ladd has been the association's executive director for twenty-one years, but she's been on South U for thirty-two. In the 1980s, she and her then-husband had a jewelry store on the street. Then she, her daughter, and her son had a jewelry store there from 2000 to 2005.
When the South U fair expanded in 2001, she says, she put together a group of artists "to help me understand what would make them keep coming back. I spent a year thinking, reflecting, talking to people. I learned a lot about what the artists wanted, how they wanted to be treated ... the art comes first, and they make a living at it. But [to succeed] you have to have some business acumen."
Including her salary and that of a part-time helper, the fair's budget comes to about $135,000. Artists pay $725 for a typical booth, and crafters $500. While South U seems to perpetually have a new student high-rise under construction, Ladd says, "the city is very good, and the developers are very good, at understanding how important the art fair is to the community" and making accommodations.
In planning her fair, Ladd draws on her twenty years as a buyer and merchandiser for her own stores. "When I am doing booth allocations," she says, "I am designing the look of the fair as if it were a store. I'm arranging the booths so that my visitors' eyes don't get tired ... "I want people to come and be completely amazed by the artwork."
The South U fair has 190 booths divided into five sections, each with its own site manager. The managers "get to know those artists in their sections individually," says Ladd. "It's very physical work," she adds.
This year, two or three site managers will be her family members--her son, her daughter, and maybe her son-in-law. They'll help her make sure the fair runs smoothly and the artists are happy.
She's been working on this year's fair since September, when she started taking deposits from artists. The pace picks up through the spring and will peak as the fair approaches in July.
"It's always a relief when the fair starts," she says.
[Originally published in July, 2019.]
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