announcing the new shadow art fair grants

OK, here’s my 4th post for Concentrate. It’s all about the Shadow Art Fair and the grants we’ve just announced.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I like Ann Arbor quite a bit. I don’t, however, have a fondness for its Art Fair. At least I haven’t historically.

Maybe it’s all the memories of working during it. Restaurant jobs during Art Fair, as you might imagine, suck. It’s hot, thankless work cooking in a kitchen anyway, but the steady crowds of Art Fair make it unbearable. As I’ve been out of food service since graduating from college, though, my opinions on Art Fair have changed a bit. I still don’t find myself liking a lot of the art, but I don’t have the same visceral reaction when I ride my bike into town and see all of the white tents going up in the distance. I no longer feel like curling up into the fetal position and crying.

Now that I’m older, I appreciate it for what it is – an extremely effective engine for keeping the local economy afloat during the student draught of summer. So, I like it for that. Anything, in my book, that helps our independently-owned, local businesses stay up and running is a good thing. So, my relationship with the Art Fair, I guess you could say, is maturing.

Soon after moving to Ypsilanti it occurred to me that there might be an opportunity for us to benefit from Art Fair as well. If we could coordinate our restaurants and bars, I thought, we could maybe pitch something like an “Escape Ann Arbor” event for locals. They may not be willing to say it publicly, but I know a hell of a lot of people who live in Ann Arbor that absolutely hate the Art Fair and the throngs of fanny-packed tourists that it brings along in its wake. I think these folks would welcome a slightly subversive opportunity to lash out by spending a few dollars in Ypsi. At the very least, I thought, we’d get a ton of bitter restaurant employees. (And, yes, like Obama, I used the word “bitter.”) As I can attest, they spend quite a bit of money and tip pretty well… Anyway, that was the genesis of what was to become the Shadow Art Fair.

Like most of my good ideas, nothing happened with it for a few years, though, until I mentioned it to the right group of people. In this case, it was five people that I’d met through Jennifer Albaum’s store, Henrietta Fahrenheit. We all sold stuff through the store, which had since closed, and we all wanted to keep making and selling whatever it was that we were churning out at the time. In addition to Jennifer Albaum, the team consisted of Timothy Furstnau, Molly Mast, Melissa Dettloff and Tiffany Threadgould. (Tiffany has since moved on to New York, but the rest of us are still together, running the Shadow empire.)

I brought my “Let’s do something in Ypsi during Art Fair” idea to the table, and the rest is history. All the right components were in place. Our friends Matt and Rene Greff had just opened the Corner Brewery in Ypsi, which I thought would provide the perfect venue, and we knew tons of people doing insanely creative work in art, fashion and music. We thought that, even if we didn’t get a lot of customers, it would just be cool just to sit around, drink beer, and talk with other people doing interesting work. Our hope was that collaborations could be discussed and other creative projects might spring up as a result.

Well, as rarely happens, at least for me, we were apparently at the right place at the right time. People, for whatever reasons, were ready for a broad, quirky, playfully counter-culture art fair. Maybe they were rebelling against Ann Arbor’s established, high dollar art fair, and all of its living room-friendly landscape paintings. Maybe they just longed to meet people doing interesting, handmade, non-corporate work. For whatever reason, people came out in droves to meet the collection of zine makers, fashion designers, musicians and artists that we’d pulled together. It far exceeded our wildest expectations. (At least 1,500 people attended the first SAF.)

And, with success came some pretty big questions.

By the time we’d done two, word had spread pretty far. We were getting mentioned here and there, and, as a result, some large corporate entities started sniffing around. Sponsorship offers were made. And we, the founders of the fair, had a frank conversation about what we wanted. Happily, we all agreed on one thing. We didn’t want to “cash in” on what we’d created. We didn’t want to take the money of a large corporation that would then make demands on us, and try to change what we’d built. (We actually offered to put their signs in the bathrooms for an obscene amount of money, which we were thinking we could then pour into art supplies for needy kids, but they didn’t respond.)

If we didn’t want to grow that way, though, what direction did we want to grow in? We’d decided to have them twice a year, but what else could we do? Did we want to make it bigger? Did we want to spread it over multiple venues? Did we want to raise the table-rental fees now that so many people were applying to be vendors, and use that money to fund other endeavors? Did we want to set up an online store so that we could sell items to folks that lived too far away to attend?

In the end, we decided not to change much about the SAF itself. We continued to try different things, like going to two days instead of one, and having music outside instead of inside, but those changes weren’t terribly significant. The Fair pretty much kept its eccentric character. We decided instead to focus on other projects that would leverage the success of the SAF. Like Zingerman’s, we decided to diversify.

Melissa brought the first project to the table. She suggested that we start a grant program. We all liked the idea, and decided that in order to fund it we’d put a bucket out in front of our next event with a sign asking for every person coming in to leave a nickel. We raised $917.18 that way. (Some people clearly left more.) And, we had a few friends brew a special beer for the occasion, with a dollar from every sale going into the same grant fund. By the time we added everything up, we’d raised $1,027.18, and all of that money is now available. So, if you’ve got a damned good idea, let us know about it – we’ve got money to invest.

Here’s the announcement as it appears on our site:

People in Washtenaw county have great ideas. Some ideas or projects, like the Shadow Art Fair, don’t take much to get going. Others do. We recognize that we have several brilliant, ambitious people in this community and we want to give them the tools they need to accomplish great things. Through this special grant program, we hope to do just that.

Here briefly are the criteria we’re looking for:

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  1. mark
    Posted April 20, 2008 at 10:29 pm | Permalink

    For some reason, it wouldn’t let me link to my friend Tim’s site in the post. It’s SappyCards dotcom.

  2. Astounded
    Posted April 21, 2008 at 4:18 am | Permalink

    “Well, as rarely happens, at least for me, we were apparently at the right place at the right time.”

    With ALL the amazing, wonderful, curious, significant, and interesting things that seem to happen in your life (as reported in your blog) it astounds me that you would write a statement that is so clearly missing the good in your life.

  3. Camelia
    Posted April 21, 2008 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    I would like to cause several simultaneous miscarriages at the next Shadow Art Fair. People wishing to participate should show up at 9:00 AM on July 19 pregnant. I would need about $50 for the drugs.

  4. Sarah
    Posted April 21, 2008 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    What about art installations in empty storefronts?

  5. thirdcity
    Posted April 21, 2008 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    I wonder if we could invite some of the art teachers from the local public schools to become involved? What a great way to inspire art and opportunity in our youth, and showcase a whole other generation. I’ve seen quite a few pieces that, with the proper display, would be quite impressive. And, it could reach out to areas in our community perhaps not yet involved.

  6. Posted April 21, 2008 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

    When will the new tenant be occupying the building formerly occupied by Quinn’s Essentials? Wouldn’t it be cool if the owners of the building would donate it’s use for the two days of the SAF. It would be a venue close to the CB so patrons could walk from one to the other.

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