Michigan Memories: A retrospective of the Ann Arbor Art Fair
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.
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.
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.