It’s that time of year again, folks. More drum circles popping up on the Diag than usual? An influx of metro Detroiters marveling at the hustle and bustle of downtown Ann Arbor as though they’ve never seen upscale chain restaurants or head shops? Unseasonably hot and muggy weather?
As of 9 a.m. Wednesday morning, the four-day hassle disguised as “fun” that’s known as the 46th Annual Ann Arbor Art Fair will be upon us. (Useless fact I discovered in my research for this column: There are actually four Art Fairs — Street Art Fair, Summer Art Fair, State St. Area Art Fair and the South University Art Fair.) For Ann Arborites who live, work or attend classes downtown, this means the rerouting of busses, even less parking space for commuters and the warm, fuzzy feeling one gets by inviting a half million people to crowd your streets, gawk at folk art and leave trash all over your backyard.
In theory, I like the Art Fair: It’s a change of pace from summer’s usual overheated ennui, perusing the booths on the first day or two can be interesting, and local shops (as well as the chain stores that are gradually replacing them) receive an influx of business during the slow summer months. My first Art Fair experience occurred last summer when, as a respite from living on North Campus — the University’s answer to Siberia — the thought of mingling downtown with thousands of people, eating funnel cake and surreptitiously getting drunk on the Diag at 3 p.m. was downright exciting. But ultimately, I was let down: I didn’t see one piece of “art” that was worth the price at which it was offered. After two days of navigating the massive traffic jam of hot, sweaty fairgoers just to get to the public library, I was pretty grossed out by the whole concept.
To explain my problem, I’m going to borrow from one of Ann Arbor’s many stencil artists, who tagged downtown sidewalks last year with the snappy slogan “It’s not art / It’s not fair.” Correct me if I’m wrong, but the stated purpose of Art Fair is a celebration of craftsmanship, right? But really, it all boils down to money. The Art Fairs invite artisans from all over to show their work — not in exhibition, mind you, but to sell. Along with the fairgoers come food and drink vendors, political groups soliciting donations and, of course, sidewalk sales from businesses like Urban Outfitters, whose annual stockroom-emptying sale probably attracts more fervor in the community than a whole street full of jewelry makers or painters. “But Alex,” you might say, “The brilliance of your verbal skills has persuaded me. But, pray tell, what’s wrong with making money?”
Perhaps this comparison with my home state will clarify my point. We have the North Carolina State Fair, a celebration of carnival rides, extreme agriculture and deep-fried candy bars. The State Fair also includes crooked games, fake sideshows and handicrafts (like airbrushed T-shirts with slogans like “If you think I’m sexy, you should see my grandma!”) But here’s where Art Fair and the N.C. State Fair differ (besides the substitution of carnies with hippies): Everyone who goes to the latter knows that they’re going to be spending at least $30 per family member on the festivities, and that price includes admission. In order to have any real fun, you might as well double that. Everyone knows they’re going to spend an assload of money, and that’s how it’s always been.
In contrast, the Art Fair doesn’t give off the same commercial aura; indeed, “docents” give “tours” of a few booths three times a day in order to show patrons what to look for in a piece of art. We’re reminded by the swanky, delicate designs on Art Fair posters that this is something special, something outside the mainstream — but it’s simply not true. Fairgoers are there to spend money on tchotchkes, not appreciate art; vendors are there to make money, not exhibit their work; and the city needs another “funky” event to make up for the fact that living in Ann Arbor is becoming more expensive and less fun every year. As for me, I’d rather know I’m getting ripped off than participate in what’s just another overrated Ann Arbor tradition.
Jones is a Daily fall/winter associate arts editor. She can be reached at email@example.com.