Ann Arbor is an artistic city. This is something I have believed since I got here way back in 2007, and I have been unwavering in that view. But in a poll on AnnArbor.com, 58 percent of voters feel differently, saying that lack of a viable inexpensive performance space is driving away the city’s artists. When I first saw these results, I thought they were ridiculous. Ann Arbor’s art scene is undeniably rich, right? We find evidence of this on posting boards, in our inboxes and from strangers passing out flyers on the Diag. But then I realized how narrow my focus has been. While the University still serves as a beacon for artistic excellence, the rest of the city isn’t always so lucky.
According to an AnnArbor.com report, City Council has passed a resolution encouraging an “innovative process of community collaboration” for finding a viable arts space (City officials, artists share concerns that Ann Arbor may be losing its cultural vitality, 2/2/10). Arts Alliance, a local arts advocacy group, has its sights set on 415 W. Washington, an out-of-use garage, as a potential location for a community arts center. While this would undoubtedly be a boon to the city’s art scene, there are some other performance spaces the city could tap into in the meanwhile: the University’s spaces.
The University campus includes quite a few performance spaces, none of which are in use each and every night. Sure, it’s not ideal to hold performances on arbitrary weekdays, which may be all the ‘U’ performances schedule would allow, but there is still an opportunity for Ann Arbor’s professional artists to perform in the University’s spaces.
Now, this isn’t a one way street. It would require collaboration from both sides of the University’s borders. Ann Arbor organizations ought to start communicating with the arts organizations on campus responsible for booking these stages. The University Musical Society and the School of Music, Theatre & Dance are always bringing in great performers from all corners of the country and the world. But in the interest of keeping Ann Arbor a viable arts city for all the artists the University spits out into it, the ‘U’ ought to offer the city some artistic sanctuary. And for visual artists, the University could set aside a spot in the now-expansive University of Michigan Museum of Art for local exhibitions.
Some University students and faculty may present a valid objection to this idea: There are only so many artists the school can bring in each year, so shouldn’t the ‘U’ try to bring in the best instead of the closest? But there’s enough to gain to make up for the fact that the Ann Arbor artists may not always be the best artists (though they often could be). This collaboration wouldn’t just give local artists an opportunity to find some exposure in the general sense, it would also show the students just what the city has to offer.
There are several arts organizations that students simply don’t know about because the organizations’ headquarters lie far beyond the traditional student hangouts. For instance, who knew there was an Ann Arbor Comic Opera company? I sure didn’t, but that’s exactly the kind of thing I would make the time to go see. Now it would be much more difficult, though, because lack of viable space sent them to Canton. Bringing performances to the University will show the student body what entertainment lies over yonder. Once there is a better community space for these artists, they will find not only a new building, but a new student fanbase following them there.
And that’s the other consolation for those who feel this is a poor use of space: It wouldn’t be forever. According to the AnnArbor.com report, the City Council is asking for recommendations regarding arts spaces in February of next year. And hopefully the powers that be will come together so that, once recommendations are made regarding 415 W. Washington or another similar space, the new arts space can be up and running as soon as possible.
Tamara Real, the president of Arts Alliance, said in the AnnArbor.com report that in a 2008 artists census, there were over 1,000 responders from Ann Arbor. We have reached a point at which the Blind Pig, the Ark and the Performance Network just aren’t enough. We need to provide an affordable performance space for these artists, or else they will be forced to leave. I don’t want students who come here several years from now to see an artless Ann Arbor.
Obviously, programming for the rest of this year in University performance spaces has already been decided. But next year really isn’t so far away. As the University’s arts administrators schedule performances and exhibits for next year, I beseech them to look local. I still believe that Ann Arbor is an artistic city, but I acknowledge now that this isn’t a given. Let’s do whatever possible at the ‘U’ to help our city keep its culture.