A conversation with Maureen Riley, Executive Director of the 2018 Art Fair

Wednesday, July 25, 2018 - 4:48pm

Visitors walk through the Ann Arbor Art Fair in downtown Ann Arbor Thursday.

Visitors walk through the Ann Arbor Art Fair in downtown Ann Arbor Thursday. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

The Annual Ann Arbor Art Fair took place last Thursday through Sunday, bringing artists, vendors, shoppers and spectators who lined the blocks of South University, North University, Main, Liberty and State. For a town that sees older teens and twenty-somethings most of the year, Ann Arbor in the summertime can fall into a lull. The Art Fair brings a much needed pulse of energy to midsummer ease of downtown.

In a phone interview with the Daily, Maureen Riley, executive director of the Ann Arbor Street Art Fair, The Original, delved into the history of the Art Fair. Riley said that beginning in 1960, the art fair was put forth as an idea by one of the merchants in the South University area. “It was pre-mall, and all of the shopping was in town,” Riley said. “When all of the students went away in the summer, those businesses needed extra help.”

The fair, which boasted three music stages, over 1,000 artists, and an expectation of 500,000 visitors according to M-Live, is in its 59th year. Despite its longevity, Riley says through the decades, the Fair’s mission has remained largely the same: to drive business into downtown Ann Arbor during the quiet of summer and to promote knowledge and appreciation of art. “The State Street Art Fair and the South University Art Fair all have business within their footprint that participate within their fairs,” Riley said, “particularly State Street. There are merchants from the stores on the street. That’s part of the fun of Ann Arbor.”

In other ways, however, the phenomenon that is the Ann Arbor Art Fair has splintered and shifted. In beginning, the first artist markets were only hosted on South University. After the events’ repeated successes, year after year, the State Street area created a fair of its own. “I believe that was ’67. So there were two,” Riley said. She continued, “there were so many artists that wanted to be part of it, and it had been very successful for the South University businesses.”

The Art Fair continued to grow into the aughts, and two more fairs would spring up. A group of artists started the Free Fair, in which they sold their wares on blankets in the diag, but the University put the kibosh on that. “Ultimately, that became the guild of artists and artisans in the summer art fair. Which is why the summer art fair has two locations: a few blocks on state street adjacent to the diag, because they started there,” Riley said. Furthermore, the Street Art Fair, The Original, was moved to its current location between Washington and North University, and the South University Art Fair would spring up in its place on the avenue. “That’s how we got to be four,” Riley said.

This year, the Art Fair strode forth with its typical vigor, inciting its traditional parking scarcity that has become somewhat funny. “Thursday was over the top with huge crowds because it was so beautiful,” Riley said, and held its momentum through the weekend despite overcast skies and occasional drops of rain. It’s just what Ann Arbor needed to get through this summer slump. “It’s important to note that the fair was started to help support local business, and here we are 59 years later,” Riley said, “that has never changed. In our desire to be part of the cultural fabric and business community of Ann Arbor, it’s as strong as it ever was.”