The Ann Arbor Art Fair (whose actual title is the Ann Arbor Street Art Fair, but locals just call it the Art Fair) is, well, huge. It’s a large sprawling arrangement of tents that surround and fill the University of Michigan’s campus and then continues out until all of downtown is lined with venders. It’s a good thing the Art Fair lasts an entire weekend, because a single day is not enough time to even catch a glimpse of every artist’s wares, let alone actually examine them.
It can be tough, walking around the city near the end of July, the annual time for the festival, but there are plenty of local restaurants selling cool drinks and ice cream. It’s a great time to try new Ben & Jerry’s flavors.
The first Ann Arbor Art Fair started in 1960 as a way to increase public knowledge and awareness of contemporary art and connect artists, the Ann Arbor community, and the public at large. It was one of the first art fairs in the country.
When it started out, the Art Fair only took over two blocks of South University Ave, but eventually grew to cover State St, Main St, Liberty St, and several smaller streets that weave between and connect the different sections of downtown Ann Arbor. In 2003, the University of Michigan allowed vendors to set up on the streets surrounding central campus and the main walkways of the campus. The event had simply become too popular, attracting more attendees and artists to the point where the city had to expand the fair to other streets.
Today, the Art Fair attracts over 500,000 visitors from across the nation and has been selected as one of the Top Ten Fairs and Festivals every year since 2004 according to American Style’s readers survey. Road traffic is halted for a good week allowing art and food venders to set up, and for the long weekend the city is surrendered to pedestrians. It's usually held the last weekend in July, from Wednesday to Saturday and the Townie Part the Tuesday before it starts.
Long time art venders of the Art Fair can request tents in the same area year after year, making it easy for returning customers to find them. And venders do return repededly to the Art Fair, some coming from as far away as California to sell their wares.
Other venders include food sellers, which can be found in front of the Michigan Union and the north half of State St, but also music performers at a few of the Art Fair’s scattered performance tents. After all the walking you do exploring artists’ tents, it’s a blessing to sit down and relax.
In addition to musicians performing at selected stages, there’s always a bit of entertainment walking around the streets, but three in particular have become Art Fair staples.
Mr. B first showed up thirty years ago, dragging a piano into the street at the corner of South University and East University Avenues and starting to play. He no longer physically drags his piano everywhere, it rests on a flatbed trailer he pulls with a bike instead, but his playing at the Art Fair is a tradition. This summer he planes to tour Michigan to raise awareness and funding for groups dedicated to improving the health and well being of children, but he’ll be in Ann Arbor to play come July.
George Tait is a well-known magician who has performed between artists’ tents for the past ten years. He’s most known for his ‘Living Statue’ and ‘Psychological Magic’ acts among Art Fair attendees.
Bob Culberston is a Stick musician. The Stick is a twelve-string instrument that bears both guitar and bass elements, but it played in the matter of a piano by tapping strings. Culberston has been playing at the Art Fair for years, and has several albums out.
Townie Street Party
The Townie Street Party is a pre-Art Fair celebration meant to celebrate all things local and raise funds to support future Art Fairs that occurs the day before the Art Fair starts. There’s live music, food, and drinks in the street.
During the day there’s a Kids’ Art Fair, where students in the 1st to 8th grade display and sell their artwork and an Art Activity Zone where children (and adults too) can create arts and crafts projects ranging from paper hats to clay tiles. Come night, Ann Arborites settle into chairs and on blankets to picnic while listening to music in a toned down version of Top of the Park.
All in all, the Ann Arbor Art Fair is a weekend of exploration, diving in and out of tents to see the products of creative minds. It may inconvience driving for a little bit, but it's one of the things Ann Arbor wouldn't be complete without.