“I don’t know that we’ve always played well together,” says Mo Riley, the newly hired director of the Ann Arbor Street Art Fair, the Original. Though the fairs have often cooperated in the past, relations were badly strained during a turf war early in the new millennium. A conflict between the Street Art Fair and the South University Area Association culminated in the street fair’s move to Ingalls Mall in 2003 (and the addition of “the Original” to its title) to make way for the association’s own South University Art Fair.

South U association executive director Maggie Ladd acknowledges “some unease between the two organizations in the past, and the only way to resolve that was for the Street Fair to move. Once that took place,” she insists, “the whole thing blew over. There were times when tempers were hot, but we worked together through five fairs while all this was going on.”

Art Fair directors have been meeting sporadically since the 1960s as a marketing subcommittee of the mayor’s art fair committee. But this year, meetings have been much more frequent, yielding plenty of tangible results. “My presence,” Riley says, “may have helped to bring folks together.”

The four directors–Riley and Ladd, along with Summer Art Fair executive director Debra “Max” Clayton and State Street Art Fair director Kathy Krick–have been meeting weekly since Riley was hired in January, initially to help bring her up to speed.

Riley’s lack of history with past conflicts was important. Equally helpful: her experience in garnering corporate sponsorship in her previous work as events manager for Palace Sports & Entertainment, and then as director of the Detroit Festival of the Arts.

For 2010 the art fairs have their first joint sponsorship: Fruit20, a flavored water, and the Ann Arbor Area Convention and Visitors Bureau (AAACVB). Tellingly, Fruit20 contacted Riley about its desire to have a wide presence at the art fairs, and Riley contacted her three partners to work out the details. Though they have not been successful in landing another joint corporate sponsorship this year, they have worked out how to divide the money–a four-way split after expenses.

Though working so closely together is new, it reflects a longstanding public perception. In 2008, the fairs jointly commissioned a survey of attendees at the four fairs. One of the most significant conclusions was that most people see one unified “Ann Arbor Art Fair,” not four separate art fairs happening next to one another at the same time. “The survey confirmed what some people thought,” says Clayton, “and it opened some eyes.”

“It was a catalyst,” Ladd adds, “that helped move us toward more collaboration.”

The survey also indicated that many attendees at the fairs–more than half of whom drove from more than fifty miles away–just wander around or park at the same spot and go to the same places every year. They do this, Riley says, because they have no information on different destinations or on how to get from point A to point B. Those survey results helped spur two innovations for this year: an easy-to-spot “trolley” and an iPhone application. Each is designed to help people find and get to where they want to go.

For years, AATA shuttle buses have brought in visitors from south side parking lots at Briarwood and Pioneer High, while a separate “circulator” helped visitors move between fairs. The AATA shuttles will run again this year, along with a new one, operated by Golden Limousine, that will pick up visitors at Maple Village on the west side. But this year, the AATA circulator will be replaced by distinctive “trolleys,” small buses decorated to resemble historic streetcars. Hired from Golden Limousine with a grant from the AAACVB, the natural gas-powered trolleys will circle the fairs at ten-to-fifteen-minute intervals.

The AAACVB, which has long helped the fairs with office and marketing assistance, this year will have a more public presence. To make fair visitors more aware of what is going on in Ann Arbor throughout the year, the bureau will promote its website, visitannarbor.org, on the trolley and have “ambassadors” passing out information at trolley stops. “I appreciate the new spirit of cooperation” among the fairs, says AAACVB president Mary Kerr. “It makes sense. And we are pleased to be a partner.”

The second major innovation designed to help visitors move from fair to fair and to restaurants and stores is a free art fairs app for the iPhone. Developed for the fairs at a greatly reduced price by Southfield’s Jacobs Media, the free app will list all artists by name, booth number, medium, and street. While the technology this year will not use GPS to pinpoint individual artists’ booths, this function is planned for next year, as is a Droid application. Along with locations of transportation, parking, restrooms and information booths, the app will answer that perennial Art Fair question: “How do I get to Zingerman’s?”

Both ideas had been percolating within individual fairs for some time, but Riley’s arrival and the new collaborative spirit brought them to fruition. “I’ve been coming to the Ann Arbor art fairs for several years,” Riley explains. “I bring the perspective of someone who comes as a visitor from outside Ann Arbor.”

While Riley inherits the worldwide reputation of the fairs, she also has to improve on her fair’s operating loss. Last year, a drop in corporate sponsorship combined with U-M construction that reduced the Original’s footprint. That meant fewer booths and thus less income from fees, forcing the fair to dig into its reserves. “But we are back this year,” Riley says, and she hopes the restored size–196 artists, including twenty-two members of the Potters Guild, along with some behind-the-scenes efficiencies–will rebalance the budget.

A new source of revenue for 2010 is the Townie Friend of the Fair program. For a tax-deductible donation of $50, “Friends” receive access to “The Terrace,” a private bar and lounge area, during the Townie Street Party on July 19 (see Events). The townie party itself brings in revenue for the Original Fair, primarily from concessions.

The directors are hesitant to discuss each fair’s “brand.” When pressed, Ladd says that her South U fair is known for recruiting younger artists. “Perhaps we are more edgy,” she reluctantly admits. “We are the youngest art fair.”

Riley is similarly reluctant to highlight differences, but she does state, “The Original is the granddaddy of art fairs. It has a reputation for excellence, and it’s the only one that features only original art. The guidelines stipulate no reproductions.” But she is very cautious not to be negative about the other art fairs. “What’s great about the four fairs is that each is different. At some you can purchase art for $25,” she said, pointing to the earrings she bought years ago at the Guild fair, “where others cater to serious collectors who are willing to spend $2,500.”

Clayton agrees, noting that while her fair allows reproductions–a term hotly debated in the art world and hard to define–they must be marked as such. “Artists have to make a living,” she says, “and it makes economic sense to offer a range of prices.” She also sees the importance of allowing people to start collecting art and exploring their tastes. Still, she adds, “reproductions represent a small part of our business.” And Krick points out that at her State Street fair the work sold in artists’ booths is all original–reproductions are confined to a separate print tent located at State and William.

Geography also plays a part in defining the different brands–all the fair directors mention their distinctive locations. Krick notes that her fair has the biggest footprint with the most pronounced merchant presence, and the South U fair picks up some of the campus shopping vibe. And Riley, ignoring the sticky question of the street art fair’s forced relocation, notes that Ingalls Mall gives it a “parklike” feeling. Main Street also contributes to the Summer Art Fair’s brand–it’s situated among downtown’s shops and restaurants.

The four directors each bring distinctive skills, strengths, and experience to their collaboration. Krick takes the lead in design, putting together a joint poster, map, print ads, and shirts for the AAACVB “ambassadors.” Clayton is the writer, composing the print ads, contracts, promotional copy, and proposals, while Ladd, through her position, has “city connections” that help get things done politically. The directors cite Riley’s expertise in insurance liability. More importantly, they see her as, in Ladd’s words, “a breath of fresh air.”

Thanks to the new spirit of collaboration, the art fairs now present a more unified public face. The fairs now share a website, artfairs.visitannarbor.com, through the AAACVB site, facilitating connections with restaurants and merchants. Also, for the first time, they will publish a joint poster along with their individual ones, and they’re working with AAACVB to increase cooperative marketing.

So why not take the next step and merge the four fairs into one?

The reasons are mainly historical. The present setup evolved with independent administrative structures as different segments of the city saw an art fair as a way to turn the “students are gone” dead time in the summer into a vibrant event.

“There is no real advantage to making it one big fair,” Clayton states, pointing out this year’s joint sponsorships and anticipating more in the future. As far as the continuing administrative separation, she says, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

The directors use a number of analogies to describe the four-in-one nature of the fairs. “It’s like a four-layer cake,” says Riley, “but to the outside all people see is the frosting, so it’s seen as one cake.” What the fairs have in common, the directors agree, are three things.

The most important factor, they say, is the quality of the artwork. They attribute this to strict and high-caliber jurying, along with the fairs’ reputation as a moneymaker for artists. “Artists know that they sell a lot here,” Riley says, “so the best people apply.” This, Ladd adds, attracts “quality patrons,” which in turn attracts better artists. The event also generates sales after the fair–to galleries, museums, and corporations, and through commissions.

A second factor is the opportunity to discuss art with the artist who created it. “Art fairs work,” Clayton says, “because the intense ‘conversation’ between the individual artwork and the viewer is deepened by an additional conversation with the artist. This is especially noticeable in photography, where you see people with cameras eager to talk technique with professionals showing their work.”

Each fair requires that the artists spend a certain percentage of time in their booths. “Though some artists are shy,” Clayton notes, “the public generally is not. If they like your work, they will not hesitate to tell you.” Occasionally this close relationship leads artists to go to a customer’s home to install a work, and often artists will stay in the home of a patron during the fairs.

The third factor is the distinctive Ann Arbor ambience. Locals may become immune to it or even cynical about it, but visiting artists, patrons, and sightseers come because the art fairs give them an excuse to experience Ann Arbor.

Seeing the art fair directors together is like watching The View: high energy, laughter, and frequent nodding of heads as the women finish each other’s sentences. They work from an agenda, but the conversation is free-flowing as they bounce ideas off one another.

While it’s encouraging to see all this upbeat collaboration and agreement, only time will tell how long the four art fairs can continue to play well together. As residents know, that distinctive Ann Arbor ambience typically includes an element of conflict and rivalry.