A few feet away from the street-side café tables on Main Street, throngs of colorful papier-mâché puppets and performers entertained a crowd of onlookers tapping along to echoing drumbeats.
While FestiFools has been a prime example of public arts engagement in Ann Arbor since 2006, Sunday’s parade and Friday’s FoolMoon festival were produced with less University support than in previous years. Arriving to Main Street on the heels of last November’s failed Public Arts Millage, arts funding in Ann Arbor and at the University continue to spur discussion.
Marjorie Horton, assistant dean for undergraduate education, said University funds have not been available to sponsor the FestiFools event itself since the 2011-2012 academic year. However, LSA continues to sponsor Art in Public Spaces, the University course that produces much of the content for the festival and parade. The college continues to fund the course’s instructor, studio space and storage of puppets.
In the course, undergraduate students are immersed in public art, including the creation of FestiFools puppets. Additionally, students in the course have created murals in campus buildings, such as the evolution-themed mural in the Undergraduate Science Building produced for the LSA theme semester on evolution in 2006. Students have also participated in set design and construction for public theater productions such as the Burns Park Players.
While LSA no longer funds the actual parade and festival, through the Lloyd Hall Scholars Program, in collaboration with the School of Art & Design and University Housing, two expert puppet-makers from New York City came to campus to work with the students.
Lloyd Hall Scholars Program lecturer Mark Tucker, the founder of FestiFools and instructor of Art in Public Spaces, said for 2013 a group of supportive citizens formed the non-profit WonderFool Productions to cover the significant costs of putting on a town event.
While taking their puppets for a test run outside South Quad Residence Hall on Thursday, LSA sophomores Chene Karega and Alana Weiss Nydorf said it’s important for both the University and the city of Ann Arbor to sponsor public arts events such as FestiFools.
“I think it is important for the University to be sponsoring events like this,” Karega said. “It makes us happy; it makes others happy. Arts are important.”
“This is one of those parades and get-togethers that is really representative of what Ann Arbor is all about,” Weiss Nydorf said. “It’s totally foolish, but at the same time there’s a message. FestiFools is another way for people to get to know Ann Arbor and to publicize Ann Arbor, so if it helps the community that much more, then why not fund it?”
The city also plays a role in supporting the event, though in a more indirect way than the University. Tucker said the city waives a portion of FestiFools’ event permit fees using community-event funds, rather than public-art funds, which are in short supply.
Ann Arbor City Council member Sabra Briere (D-Ward 1) said most members of the council would be pleased if they could find a way to financially support public art opportunities, but so far the city has not found an effective approach.
“The city doesn’t have a civic theater or civic art space. While some of us would support such an idea in theory, I don’t know anyone in local government that would make this more of a priority than fixing streets and sidewalks or hiring more police,” Briere said. “I hate to weigh such things and determine that one is more important than another.”
Briere said if the city could find a creative solution for finding sufficient funding for performance art, she would be “delighted” to support the proposal.
“FestiFools and FoolMoon help create that unique character and interest that any community would seek,” Briere said.
As the chair of the council’s taskforce on public art, Briere is no stranger to these types of discussions. Though performance-based art funding, such as that for FestiFools, has not been a part of the conversation, Ann Arbor has heard much debate over funding for art installation projects over the past few months.
At a City Council meeting on April 1, Briere asked the council to extend the temporary halt on public arts funding until May, which was originally set to expire in April. This discussion came after the failure of a public arts millage, which was defeated by voters during the November election. It would have provided specific funds for public art installation projects such as murals or sculptures. Under the current funding method, certain capital development projects must devote one percent of their funds to public art installation.
At the meeting, Briere said the extension would allow city officials more time to compose a revised approach to funding public art in light of the millage’s defeat.
“Public art is one of many indicators of a creative and vibrant community,” Briere said. “Cities that care about the quality-of-life issues — like diverse downtowns, great parks, safe neighborhoods and public art — attract great people to share those benefits. And great people bring their imagination and creativity, making all of us enjoy living here more. Some folks look at the economic health of communities and see public art as a factor in creating a healthy economy.”
Ann Arbor resident Monte Fowler said public arts events are important because of the community atmosphere they add to Ann Arbor.
“I like to have a hell of a good time and it affords me the possibility to walk around and see lots of people I know,” Fowler said.
While Ann Arbor residents seem to agree on the unique flavor FestiFools brings to Main Street, they disagree on whether or not the city should play a role in funding the event.
Seated on a cement planter beside the parade route, Ann Arbor resident Colleen Retherford said although she loves the event after a long winter, it is better off remaining financially separate from the city.
“I think as soon as the city gets involved in things, it gets pretty bureaucratic,” she said.
In contrast, Sociology Lecturer PJ McGann, an Ann Arbor resident, said the city should fund FestiFools and similar events.
“It’s an important part of community life and community identity in Ann Arbor.”
Deb Mexicotte, program coordinator of Arts at Michigan, said co-curricular endeavors — such as the Art in Public Spaces class and FestiFools — often grow out of University classes. Once the event or initiative is launched and has the ability to be self-supporting, the University often decreases its level of support. Mexicotte also said the University’s current interests also play a role in funding decisions, which can fluctuate based on the missions of new initiatives.
Mexicotte emphasized the University’s strong commitment to community arts engagement. She said programs such as Passport to the Arts, which provides student passes to enjoy on-campus cultural events such as plays or concerts, as well as the University Musical Society and the University of Michigan Museum of Art have a strong public responsibility to serve the campus and community.
UMMA director Joseph Rosa said the University’s art museum plays a particularly prominent role in Ann Arbor arts engagement.
The museum, which does most of its own fundraising and receives a small portion from the University’s general fund, often sponsors museum Student Late Nights, which offer arts-related activities to students. The most recent event drew nearly 1,100 people, Rosa said.
“The building becomes a backdrop to the experience of art and art culture,” Rosa said. “For students, we want the museum to be a backdrop for everyday life. When they move to new cities, they should join the local museum and make it part of their world.”
From late-night oil painting observations in the UMMA rotunda to a sun-streamed puppet parade route on Main Street, public arts discussions in Ann Arbor continue.
“These kinds of discussions never go away because public art is so important,” Mexicotte said. “They wax and they wane depending on where the funding is or where the public interest is. There is always a role for the University, for the city, for the state, for the federal government, for these public entities to have this conversation.”