It’s 5:15 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 7, and the Michigan Theater is buzzing with excitement. Hundreds of Art & Design students crowd the rows, pink attendance slips in hand, intermingled with Ann Arbor residents holding tubs of popcorn. The classic architecture of the Michigan Theater contrasts the modern Penny W. Stamps Distinguished Speaker Series logo displayed on the projection screen. One thing is clear — this is important; this is innovation.
“The main purpose of the speaker series would be a platform for engaging with new and innovative, sort of progressive and transcendent ideas with people who are successful artists and designers and creators in the world,” said Chrisstina Hamilton, Director of Vistors’ Programs. “And also an opportunity to have social dialogue in our community about it.”
For more than 10 years, The University of Michigan’s School of Art & Design has hosted weekly lectures for a wide range of designers and artists thanks to the generous support of Art & Design alum Penny W. Stamps. Every Thursday, speakers come to the Michigan Theater to share their work with students, faculty and the Ann Arbor community. Following their lectures, students and community members may attend a Q&A session held in the theater’s screening room.
“It is an exciting and challenging and rewarding thing to do when it all works,” Hamilton said.
Prior to being a formalized weekly event at the Michigan Theater, the series began as loosely organized lectures at the University exclusively for students of the School of Art & Design. Now, they’re weekly installments that average around 1,000 attendees per week.
“As far as I’ve seen, the vision that started it has continued the series. It’s been a fabulous vision and the fact that it takes place at the Michigan Theater, which is a community venue as opposed to a University venue, the capacity is such that it allows more than just the target arts students to come,” said Russ Collins, Executive Director and CEO of the Michigan Theater. “It makes it a very special event.”
The attendance of many non-students amplifies the importance of the lectures. The Penny W. Stamps Distinguished Speaker Series can no longer be defined as a niche offering for School of Art & Design students and has now expanded beyond the confines of the University to become a valued community event.
“Society needs places to engage with ideas and to have conversations around them. That is a basic need of a community,” Hamilton said.
A committee of Art & Design students and faculty, appointed by Dean Gunalan Nadarajan, decide which speakers to invite to the series. According to Hamilton, the committee works to bring in speakers whom they feel fit into areas of media or issues they would like to focus on.
“The series is constantly evolving programmatically because it has to always be answering to the issues at the moment. So that’s a constant challenge,” Hamilton said. “If we can continue to do that, then we are doing a great job.”
The committee takes nominations for speakers online. Anyone may fill out the form; it is not limited to Art & Design students, or even University students. Nominations include a description of the nominee’s work and why they would be a good choice for the speaker series.
“Then it’s a game of who can we really get. A lot of times people want to do it but their calendar doesn’t line up with the date we have available,” Hamilton explained. “We can go through a lot of people very quickly. It’s a weekly series that happens on a fixed calendar so it can be quite challenging to actually confirm people for it.”
Bringing speakers to the series is not the only challenge faced by the series and its administrators. The lectures answer to a higher social duty beyond their responsibility to the areas within art and design.
“You have to represent these basic human ideals, like common sense,” Hamilton explained. “Common sense doesn’t change that much over time but the decisions you have to make with that common sense, those issues of the day are changing constantly.”
The issues of the day dictate which nominees the committee chooses to invite to present their work in Ann Arbor.
“The series is trying to, at the same time, speak to the integrity or integral (part) of human experience,” Hamilton said. “Us as humans, our perception are not changing, but the things we are perceiving are changing all the time.”
The series continues to expand the range of speakers brought in. From photographers and designers, to actors and social activists, the subjects addressed by the speakers are never repeated due to the endless diversity within the art and design community.
“The series brings in a lot of different people coming in from different areas of media and design using different tools and approaching things from different perspectives,” Hamilton said. “Students get a wide variety of perspective, and see people who have all taken different paths to find their place in the world and find their success.”
Recently, the series hosted Russian feminist punk-rock band, Pussy Riot, whose presentation was so popular that some students and Ann Arborites were left outside an at-capacity theater.
“That typically only happens when there’s someone of international renown or a really hot issue of today, or someone who is renowned beyond the art and design community,” Hamilton said.
Overcrowding is not an issue for students of the School of Art & Design. They are guaranteed admission through a line separate from that of the general public and non-Art & Design students. Lectures are mandatory for all Art & Design students for the entirety of their time as undergraduates. The series counts as one academic credit per semester for them.
“It’s amazing how many accomplished artists come here, and we have the chance to interact with them,” said Art & Design junior Cara Denton. “We want to see their art. We are artists and visual people so it’s nice when they come in and really show us their work and tell us their story.”
The series also serves as a challenge to the Michigan Theater. They often host events after speaker presentations, so the theater staff must work quickly to get the necessary work done before and after lectures so films may be screened or other events can run the same day as the Penny W. Stamps Distinguished Speaker Series.
“We organize the technical execution for the lectures. Sometimes that is very simple, sometimes it is complicated,” Collins said. “I don’t want to overplay our role. We are the venue and we are very happy to be the venue, but it’s really the school’s event.”
The series serves not only to educate, but also specifically to inspire students looking to prosper in the fields of art and design. Some speakers also collaborate with students beyond their lectures, participate in discussion panels, present performance pieces or create exhibits.
“People always need role models and this series provides students with a wide variety of role models. No one of us fits into some pre-prescribed mold, so it’s an opportunity to see a lot of people who took a lot of different journeys to find their success,” Hamilton said.
The journeys shown throughout the lecture series are constantly changing and evolving because the world is doing the same. What worked for the series one year, will most likely not work for the next based on climate change within the community.
“It is always really difficult to look backwards because I am always looking forward,” Hamilton said.
With constant innovation among a board of students and faculty, it’s no wonder why the series has continued and furthered its success over the course of the past 10 plus years, however it’s still looking to further its reach within the University and greater Ann Arbor community.
“I constantly run into people who don’t know about the series or are coming for the first time. I always think it’s great to get people to know about it and come because they are free events for the community,” Hamilton said. “It’s a great place to spread some interesting ideas that can help move society forward.”
Tonight at 5:10 p.m., the series will host Anab Jain, designer, filmmaker and founder of the design studio Superflux at the Michigan Theater. Superflux’s work has won awards from Apple, the Ann Arbor Film Festival and a handful of other respected organizations. Other upcoming speakers include The New Yorker’s arts editor Françoise Mouly and artist Seth Ellis.
“I feel like there is always room for more people to come to the series,” Hamilton said. “It’s such a wonderful place for people to gather around ideas so the more the merrier.”