Saturday, July 18, 2009

Is it Art..and is it Fair?

I've lived in or nearby Ann Arbor, Michigan since 1974. One of the biggest attractions, besides the University of Michigan Wolverines football games in the fall, is the annual "Ann Arbor Art Fair". There isn't one fair, as I'll explain in a moment. However, most people see it as one thing and that's how I think of it as well. The art fair covers most of the streets downtown and around the main campus of the U of M. There are literally thousands of exhibitors showing all types of art and craft. Some areas are very upscale, and some are pretty mundane. There is something for everybody. And, this being Ann Arbor, there is a collection of a hundred or so "political" booths as well. This takes place the third week of July from Wednesday through Saturday. All in all, quite a nice way to spend a day.

I've been attending the event since the summer of 1974. In fact, I met my wife at the art fair on a Friday evening. We've been attending together on Friday every year since.

Now, for those who just drop in for the day, trying to figure out the scheme and where to go can be daunting. We see hundreds of people with their fold-out, color-coded, maps looking lost. There is a scheme. We've developed, over the years, sort of a walking tour that lets us take in all of the four main fairs, and the few off-shoot display areas that show up for a year or two, and then disappear. We try to find something unique each year to purchase during our annual trek through the fairs.

There are four main fairs. The "Ann Arbor Street Art Fair" is the original, so they claim, and held the first fair on one street in 1960. This year was the 50th fair. This part of the overall spectacle has, what I consider, the most "art". Along with art comes high prices, and in general this part seems to have the highest prices. I find the most inspiration in this section of the fairs, but haven't bought much here over the years.

My second most favorite part of the overall event is the "State Street Area Art Fair". This fair possibly covers the biggest physical area, at least that's what my feet say. Overall, we've probably bought more art from artists exhibiting in this fair than any other part of the overall event.

The Michigan Guild of Artists and Artisans hosts the "Ann Arbor Summer Art Fair". This fair is for Michigan Guild member artists only. This is where I see a lot of people I know. I was a member of the Guild, and had hopes of exhibiting one day at the "art fair". However, after doing many one and two day shows, I think a four day event is just too much work.

The fourth official fair, is "Ann Arbor's South University Art Fair". This is where things get confusing for me. This fair is the newest, and it occupies the streets where the "original" art fair was held. Several years ago, the local merchants and the fair organizers had a falling out, over what else - money, and that's when the original fair moved onto the grounds of the U of M. We didn't see this fair this year. It is quite a distance away from everything else, and I never found anything I wanted to buy here, so we've stopped going over there.

Finally, there are a few nameless areas that sell very crafty items, or stuff that has been imported from China. Usually these are tucked away in parking lots, alleys, etc. We stroll through, but usually don't find anything we want to take home.

So after thirty five years - I've come away feeling kind of sad about the whole thing. We didn't buy anything last year, and nothing again this year. Everything is the same. Even the artists we like bring the same old things. I don't even see people carrying stuff away from booths anymore. It's more of an event to get out in the sun, take a stroll in a nice city, have some food and drink, and talk with friends. Not much art buying going on - from what I see. Another thing I miss is what used to be ubiquitous at the art fair - "Shit on a Stick". That's what I called the $20 items that people would sell for people to stick in their gardens. It really didn't matter what you made, you had a bucket of shit on a stick in your booth. And one of the best spectator sports was trying to avoid getting hit in the face with people wielding their shit sticks while talking, walking, and trying to chew gum at the same time.

My favorite thing from the art fairs, and I only saw them one year, was the guy who made $20 "chia pets" from old panty hose, potting soil, and some grass seed. He'd cut the panty hose off near the ankle, filled it full of potting soil, and put some grass seed in it. Finally, he painted simple faces on them. he must have watered them for a couple of months as the hair (the grass) was several inches long. A wonderful, clever, innnovative idea, and I saw them everywhere. Probably a college student who is now some doctor somewhere!

Also gone are the bird houses with the old license plate roofs. Some of these were quite clever. Maybe the license plates aren't available anymore, or everyone who would buy one has one. I don't know but these were usful shit on sticks.

So I'm left wondering, where are the new things?

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