Ann Arbor Art Fair cancellation deals blow to local artists, business

Thursday, May 14, 2020 - 3:53pm

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Alec Cohen/Daily

On May 7, directors of the 2020 Ann Arbor Art Fair announced the event would be canceled due to safety concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The 61st annual fair was to be held July 16-19. According to a press release, the directors began planning for the 2021 fair and are determined to keep the momentum for the event rolling into next year.

The fair typically hosts more than 1,000 artists and 500,000 attendees from across the country. Located in downtown Ann Arbor and on the University of Michigan campus, the event comprises four art fairs: the Ann Arbor Street Art Fair, the Original; Summer Art Fair; State Street Art Fair and South University Art Fair.

In an interview with The Daily, Karen Delhey, spokesperson for the Art Fair and director of the Guild, recognized the impact the cancellation of the event will have on artists and the local community.

“This event has such a huge impact on, you know, not just the artists and how hard this is for them, because they're missing these opportunities all year to do this to sell their work,” Delhey said. “But also, this has a huge impact on the community and the businesses within the community.”

Delhey emphasized that because of this, booth fees would be refunded and artists in some fairs would be provided an invitation to return in 2021. She noted the directors would be considering possible methods of digitally promoting artists.

“At the very least, the website will be updated with all of the artists that were going to participate this year and we'll do some sort of social media promotion about those artists,” Delhey said. “But whether we can do something bigger is yet to be determined, just because of the scope of 1,000 artists and how can you effectively promote all of them.” 

Amy Ferguson, an artist from Royal Oak, Michigan, and owner of Printer & Press, was one of the artists due to participate in this year’s fair. In an interview with The Daily, she said  although she travels to several art fairs each year, the Ann Arbor Art Fair is her most important event. 

“It’s the biggest show of the year for most people,” Ferguson said. “There are a couple around that are also four days, but there are no other shows that I know of that have 1,000 artists all in one place, so it’s the highlight of my art calendar. It’s like everything leads up to Ann Arbor — it’s like either before Ann Arbor or after Ann Arbor — it’s huge.”

Ferguson said she doesn’t believe it would have been possible to execute the fair safely due to its size, and expected it to be canceled, considering other fairs had already made the same decision.

“As to this date, I have 13 art fairs that have canceled … It’s a big profit loss for me,” Ferguson said. “Some artists are losing $6,000-plus in income for this one show and some people make even more.”

The University BioArtography program was also due to exhibit artwork at the fair. The program accepts submissions of microscopic images taken by University scientists and has artists transform the microscopic images into pieces of art and put them up for sale. 

Rackham student Renee Conway, a participant in the BioArtography program, highlighted the role the Art Fair plays in funding bio art and showing the public how science can intersect with art. 

“There are a ton of people from all different ways of life and different careers and disciplines that come to the Art Fair … and a lot of them have really never seen what an image taken by a scientist looks like or an image of some biological process being taken under the microscope,” Conway said. “It's a really great way for us, as scientists, to connect to the general public and relay what it is about what we do that is so important.”

In addition to being an important means of exposure for artists, the Art Fair also helps local businesses acquire new customers. Dominic Telemaco, co-owner of the New York Pizza Depot, said although business goes up during the Art Fair, the primary benefit is the expansion of the business’ customer base. 

“From my point of view, (the Art Fair) is only good for exposure,” Telemaco said. “I mean, it’s four days of good business … we make 20 to 25 percent more than we usually do. So I have never looked at the Art Fair like something that was going to be a savior for me in any way.” 

City Councilmember Ali Ramlawi, D-Ward 5, and Jerusalem Garden owner, said the cancellation of the Art Fair would negatively affect local merchant associations.

“It’s a big blow to many,” Ramlawi said. “I know many merchant associations rely on Art Fair to provide the funding for their operations for year-round activities, so without the Art Fair, those associations don’t have the money they would have for other programming for their merchants for the rest of the year. So it’s got bigger ramifications than just the four days itself.”

Ramlawi indicated the Ann Arbor City Council and Downtown Development Authority may be looking to close down some streets and allow merchants to safely sell goods. This could provide opportunities for some local artists to sell their work in lieu of the fair. 

“We will look to do road closures downtown-wide in a cohesive way,” Ramlawi said. “So we can open our streets to pedestrians, open up our streets to restaurants and businesses, perhaps having some sidewalk sales like they did back in the old days for merchants who perhaps want to sell some wares.” 

Ramlawi stressed how influential the Art Fair is on the Ann Arbor community and how local businesses and events, such as the Art Fair, would need to work to quickly adapt to the changing landscape amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Hopefully (the Ann Arbor Art Fair) will continue and hopefully it will be redesigned in ways to still exist,” Ramlawi said. “I think everyone's gotta kind of reinvent themselves right now, whether you’re the Art Fair or you’re selling groceries, so everyone’s gotta go back and try to figure this out and try to find ways to maintain survival.” 

Daily Staff Reporter Dominick Sokotoff can be reached at sokotoff@umich.edu.