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Posted on Sat, Jul 20, 2013 : 5:58 a.m.

Michigan Memories: A retrospective of the Ann Arbor Art Fair

By Kellie Woodhouse

Fifty-three years ago, Ann Arbor's first-ever mid-July Art Fair attracted a reported 132 artists.

This year, crowds are expected to reach half a million and an estimated 1,000 artists have set up camp in the city for four days. They're selling their art and competing in juried art competitions. Since 1960, the event has grown from one art fair to four and from spanning two blocks to spanning 30 blocks of downtown.

Here's a look at the Ann Arbor Art Fair's first two decades. Please share your memories in the comments section below.


University of Michigan Bentley Historical Library

The first Ann Arbor Street Art Fair took place in 1960 and is pictured in the image above. According to an Ann Arbor News article from that year, the fair spanned South University from East University to Forrest Avenue. It included 132 artists, The artists, according to an Ann Arbor District Library online gallery of Art Fair history, made $4,500 total.

The idea for Art Fair was sparked by a local merchant, who thought an art sale would pair well with the town's Summer Bargain Days, during which businesses throughout the city had yard sales and clearences. By 1960 there were 32 annual summer bargain events, according to the News article. Even today, local retailers —including Bivouac, Downtown Home and Garden and Running Fit— run merchandise clearances during Art Fair. According to the AADL archive, the weather during the first Art Fair was sunny and in the 80s.

1965 Art Fair.JPG

Ann Arbor News

This image is from the 1965 Art Fair. According to an University of Michigan Bentley Historical Library archive, more than 400 artists participated in the Art Fair a year later, in 1966. That year a jury process was instituted. By 1968, sales during the fair reached $150,000, according to Bentley records. By 1968 the State Street Art Fair joined the original Street Art Fair.


A map of the 1975 Art Fair.

Ann Arbor District Library

This map is from the 1975 Art Fair. According to the Ann Arbor Street Art Fair's website, by 1970 crowds visiting the event had grown larger than 70,000. In 1970, the Summer Art Fair joined the Art Fairs ranks. By the end of the decade, the Street Art Fair hired a paid director. According to the AADL archive, by 1974 Art Fair organizers erected portable bathrooms and artist booths were equipped with credit card readers.


Ann Arbor Art Fair

This image is from the State Street Art Fair in the early 1980s. In 1980 a bad storm struck Ann Arbor during what would have been Art Fair week, but the fair had been positioned a week earlier because the Republican National Convention took place in Detroit during Art Fair's usual mid-July time slot. Severe weather is no stranger to Art Fair. According to the AADL archives, an Ann Arbor News headlined, “Summer Storm Can’t Wash Out Art Fairs,” and in 1987, “Heat!” and the following year.

According to the Ann Arbor Street Art Fair website, Art Fair organizers began selling T-shirts in the early 1980s. By then the event had spread to three separate fairs. In 2000, Art Fair Village was set up on Church Street, later becoming the South University Art Fair when the original Street Fair relocated to the Burton Carillon Tower area.

Kellie Woodhouse covers higher education for Reach her at or 734-623-4602 and follow her on twitter.


Dr. Rob Borer

Mon, Jul 22, 2013 : 4:57 p.m.

I remember being on the crew that would set up the pre-fab structures that served as the artists "booths". Very fun summer job when I was in high school (Huron High 1984 grad). In fact I was part of the crew that set up the booths in the last pick in this article showing the fair in the early 1980's. Definitely a insider "townie" job - had to know someone to get this job. The booth walls were entirely made out of sheets of plastic. They even had lighting wired into them. The booths were simple wood 2x4 squares that were just bolted together to form the rows of booths. Would get pizza at the end of a long day's work - we thought that was amazing for a job in high school. All organized by the local business owners. Good memories. I think I even got in a photo one year showing the pre-art fair set-up activities ... in the Ann Arbor News (RIP). :) I wonder if I still have a copy of that somewhere....


Mon, Jul 22, 2013 : 12:15 a.m.

I checked out the U of M Bentley Historical Library archive page that was linked to in the article, and as it turns out, their summary of the fairs' history does shed some light on this. "In late 1997, the primary body representing South University area merchants reorganized as the South University Area Association (SUAA), and contention between the AASAF Committee and SUAA escalated. Issues at stake were the sharing of fair revenues, the number of SUAA representatives who should serve as AASAF board members (with SUAA stipulating that two-thirds of the board must be chosen by SUAA), and ultimately, control of the art fair itself. In 2001 some resolution was reached. The AASAF Committee agreed to a temporary revenue-sharing and payment plan with SUAA. AASAF also made plans to move, in 2003, to an as-yet unspecified location, at which point it would not be required to make payments to any other entities other than the 'standard city permit fees.' SUAA would then be free to use the South University area for its own promotions and events."


Mon, Jul 22, 2013 : 12:16 a.m.

Sorry, posted this in the wrong location. I was referring to the above discussion about the controversy surrounding the relocation of the original Street Art Fair.


Mon, Jul 22, 2013 : midnight

That 1975 map is great. "Renowned mecca for artists, runaways, thieves and dope smugglers." It's really difficult to see much in that picture, but I was able to read a little bit more by zooming in. Commenter LA mentioned the "free fair," and that's on that map. Main Street is shown as having a lot of street art, and the comment says "The western portion of the U of M Artist & Craftsman Guild Free Fair on Main Street." Wow, if only there were a better copy of this.

Local Yocal

Sun, Jul 21, 2013 : 3:16 p.m.

My memories are of riding my bike down S.U. in 67 or so and a artist asking " hey kid, want a job". I was in Jr high and had a sears big tire bike w/baskets ( for my paper route). This artist was making and selling sandals. My job was to take the sandals down to the shoe repair shop next to Whites market and dropped them off to have them stitched. It was great fun to hang out and ride back and forth. I also had to occasionally go get big rolls of leather from his unlocked car in the Forest St parking structure. Yep, as they say, the good old days.

Sam S Smith

Sun, Jul 21, 2013 : 12:55 p.m.

I remember as kids my younger brother and I would seek out artist Jon Lockhart each year and watch him paint portraits. We would be very quiet and stay back so as not to disturb him, watch in awe and wonder as he worked. One year we came up to him and talked with him and he was smiling and so nice to us when he answered our questions. We were on cloud nine! To us the Art Fair hasn't been the same after he left! Thank you Mr. Lockhart for the fond memories and your magnificent art and inspiration!

The Picker

Sun, Jul 21, 2013 : 12:47 p.m.

Was the first fair a women only event, check out the picture !


Sun, Jul 21, 2013 : 6:31 a.m.

i can't recall if i was at the first one or not but i do remember it was only on South U and only on a very few blocks of it.


Sun, Jul 21, 2013 : 2:32 a.m.

Thanks for the pictures.....

Pam S.

Sun, Jul 21, 2013 : 1:49 a.m.

When I was 11, I remember riding along w/our next-door neighbor Bill Barrett and his wife Judy in their repurposed AT&T van, to help keep an eye on their two kids while they unloaded his large metal sculptures for the S. University Art Fair in 1964. His area was next to Ulrich's Bookstore that year. (He also later made the "Tooth Fairy" sculpture that's in front of the Dental School!).


Sat, Jul 20, 2013 : 11:39 p.m.

I wish the original fair had never moved off South U. It's just not the same and never will be. Greed takes over and ruins a good thing.

Wystan Stevens

Sat, Jul 20, 2013 : 7:29 p.m.

All three photos show the "Original" Art Fair on South University, all three were taken at the corner of South U and East U, and all three look EAST, not west. (Yes, the first photo was taken before Purchase Camera moved to bigger digs across the street -- and a U.S. Post Office substation, formerly on East U, was relocated to their store as well.) Incidentally, the third photo is from a commercial post card that was used for many years to advertise the wonders of Ann Arbor and its Art Fair . . . .


Sun, Jul 21, 2013 : 11:39 p.m.

I certainly trust your observations here as well, Mr. Stevens. I think the most surprising thing to me is in that last picture. To the right of Ulrich's in the picture, there is nothing permanent, only a tent. Currently, that is the site of an Espresso Royale that is housed in what always looked to be a rather old stone building. But if the building isn't there then, it can't really be the vintage structure that I always assumed it was... or it's a building that was moved from another location.


Sun, Jul 21, 2013 : 3:59 a.m.

I certainly trust your observations here. For me, the most shocking sight is in the first picture, where you see the DETOUR sign pointing to the left. That means that they were detouring cars onto northbound East U, up to North U. I bet the vast majority of people living in the area cannot remember East U running all the way to North U. Even before it was the plaza it is now, I remember it only went about 3/4 of the way before it ended. It was really just a parking lot.

Michael Alexander

Sat, Jul 20, 2013 : 4:24 p.m.

I remember the 1965 Art Fair too, I was living at Church and Willard that year. By the way, the last picture is really the South U Art Fair, not State Street

Cathy Foster Brown

Sun, Jul 21, 2013 : 2:14 a.m.

What you refer to as the south U Art Fair is The Original Ann Arbor Street Art Fair. That's its name.

Ann English

Sun, Jul 21, 2013 : 12:05 a.m.

You're right about South University Street in the last picture; I remember that Ulrich's sign and store on South University, across from the Village Apothecary.


Sat, Jul 20, 2013 : 3:47 p.m.

132 artists. All the proof I need that MORE isn't necessarily BETTER.

vicki honeyman

Sat, Jul 20, 2013 : 3:42 p.m.

I miss the performance artists . . . tightrope walkers, jugglers, mimes, dancers, musicians . . . who set up throughout the diag. The spirit of the fairs in the 1970's was nowhere near as commercial as they've become. My friends would get dressed up in costume and have impromptu parades through the fair. As the fairs became bigger, all the performers were forced to leave or be ticketed and could only perform on stage if they were selected by a committee to be part of scheduled performances. Those were incredibly fun four days of free spirited energy and expression on the streets.


Mon, Jul 22, 2013 : 9:39 p.m.

This is bang on the dot. The fairs were so much fun when they were a little more ad hoc and a little less corporate. I also remember the fire juggling tightrope walkers in the Diag and a street performer or group on every corner. These days they are too quiet and a little antiseptic. ....too bad.

vicki honeyman

Sat, Jul 20, 2013 : 3:34 p.m.

I attended my first ann arbor art fair in 1965 . . . a neighbor took me and her daughter on an excursion from detroit to ann arbor when we were kids. I purchased my first art fair piece at that time and have been supporting the a2 art fair artists ever since! I remember how small and manageable the show was and that it was not hot. Now the art fairs and merchants have turned ann arbor into a four-day carnival. And now I participate as a local merchant and begin my store sidewalk sale the week before the art fair, adding my own part to the carnival.


Sat, Jul 20, 2013 : 3:34 p.m.

I remember the first photo. I worked for a glass blower around 1962. The breeze came through; you could walk around; the U of M booth was very cool. Somewhere around 1970 people spread blankets on the diag and sold macrame and candles. I guess the city felt it was getting out of control. After the State Street section started, one needed permits for selling anything and the hippie party was over. Sigh.


Sat, Jul 20, 2013 : 2:42 p.m.

Remember the "Free Fair"? Artists set up on blankets all along the sidewalks?


Sat, Jul 20, 2013 : 3:45 p.m.

I do!! but the money-grubbers didn't like that....


Sat, Jul 20, 2013 : 1:18 p.m.

was the 1965 art fair held in the summer? in the photo, women are wearing sweaters and ponchos. people would have died in this week's heat wearing sweaters or ponchos.

John M

Sat, Jul 20, 2013 : 1:15 p.m.

The Art School was invited to participate early on. I, with other art students got involve in 61 and 62. Didn't sell much but traded with others and had fun. With its growth I don't recognize it anymore.

Kyle Mattson

Sat, Jul 20, 2013 : 1:08 p.m.

Interesting to see these photos Kellie, I was just wondering this week what it looked like before portable pop-up tents became the default solution for shade.

Linda Peck

Sat, Jul 20, 2013 : 12:59 p.m.

Take me back to then.


Sun, Jul 21, 2013 : 6:58 p.m.

@Ric, some of my best friends are obese. it is sadly typical for some people to judge others by the shortest of standards, i.e. how they look. It's all well and good to be slim, pretty, handsome, whatever, but, as hokey as it sounds, the REAL beauty comes from inside and never goes away. It's far more important to be beautiful on the inside. Just sayin'.


Sat, Jul 20, 2013 : 8:24 p.m.

...and with so little obesity polluting the visual environment. I loved it then.


Sat, Jul 20, 2013 : 3:44 p.m.

Me too!!

Michigan Man

Sat, Jul 20, 2013 : 12:42 p.m.

Like the 1965 image - I was a sophomore at University High School and worked for Irwin C. Overbeck the owner of Overbeck Bookstore on South U next to the Campus Theatre - loved the entire atmosphere and had private parking behind Overbecks - so it was pretty easy to get in and out.


Sat, Jul 20, 2013 : 11:54 a.m.

The last paragraph makes it sound like the original Street Fair decided to move and a replacement was then found. Sounds all very simple. I seem to recall it as a very contentious thing, and that a better summary might have been 'when the original Street Fair was kicked out of its traditional location'. Is my memory bad and the summary above simplistic? Or is my version overly dramatic? Does anyone recall with more certainty?


Sun, Jul 21, 2013 : 4:08 a.m.

Obviously, *without any prompt from me ... not with.


Sun, Jul 21, 2013 : 4:06 a.m.

Indymama, Cathy & LA Thanks for answering. That is pretty much the memory I had, but I was hoping someone would have some info on it with any prompt from me. The memory I had was that the store owners had created the Art Fair originally to boost sales, but it had become so popular and crowded (and high priced) that it was actually detrimental to sales. The little art fair on Church was started in an attempt to lure back a different clientele. Eventually they wanted that art fair on South U and not the original one.


Sat, Jul 20, 2013 : 5:52 p.m.

@Mike, That is because I was there...working on S.U. at the time and actually helped set up the "booths". And yes, the lumber was saved and used over again for several years.!!


Sat, Jul 20, 2013 : 4:32 p.m.

@ indymama You have better knowledge than the Ann Arbor News... Ann Arbor bank on the corner of East U and South U. University towers on the left in the back of the picture. I can almost see the Brown Jug just past Church street.


Sat, Jul 20, 2013 : 2:41 p.m.

It was a VERY big deal. They were definitely thrown out. And I refuse to shop at any of the South U area stores during art fair because of it. Not that there are very many places to shop there anymore. But the original fair is doing great in it's new location.

Cathy Foster Brown

Sat, Jul 20, 2013 : 2:26 p.m.

The second and fourth pictures are of South University. You can tell by the booths that used to be constructed every year for the fair. (The lumber was actually saved and used again and again). Also you can see part of the Ulrich's sign in the fourth picture. Ulrich's is still there. I do believe the move of the original Ann Arbor Street Art Fair was a bit more complicated than mentioned above. Part of the issue was the crowds had gotten so big, there was no room for the retailers to put out sale stuff. I don't live in Ann Arbor any more, but love to get back for the fairs whenever possible. My dad very involved in the Ann Arbor Street Art Fair from its inception, having been an employee of Ulrich's. He even helped build those booths for many years. If you look at the fairs current logo, you will see that it is representative of the old booths.


Sat, Jul 20, 2013 : 2:23 p.m.

All three photos are looking at S. University. The first one is looking west from maybe the corner of Church and South U - (you can see the Purchase Camera sign on the right - 1115 South U.). The other two are looking east.


Sat, Jul 20, 2013 : 12:13 p.m.

I agree with you...there was a great deal of contention going on for several years and eventually, the "art fairs" were designated to their current locations. Also, the picture above that says it is from, State Street looks more like the corner of South University and the South end of the Diag where Ulrich book store used to be located, as one would be standing to look down South University towards Washtenaw Ave.