Introducing Ann Arbor’s Aquarium Gallery

A few months ago, the Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation presented a $1,000 cash grant to artist Lea Bult for the establishment of a small, 24-hour micro gallery in what had been a vacant shop window looking out on Ashley Street, near the intersection with Liberty, in downtown Ann Arbor. And, now that it’s up and running, I thought I’d check in and see how things were going… Following is my conversation with Lea Bult.


[Aquarium Gallery photo by Adam Eichner.]

MARK: Tell us about the window in question… How big is it? What, if anything, was in it previously? And when did it first occur to you that it could be appropriated to serve as a sidewalk-facing, public gallery space?

LEA: The window is approximately 7’ x 7’, and 2’ deep. And, as far as I know, it’s been empty for years. Since the window is located in an area with relatively high traffic, I thought it was unfortunate that it wasn’t being utilized better. I’d seen other “micro” galleries before, in other cities, and it seemed like the perfect spot to construct one. The shape of the building surrounding the window also struck me. It looks like a big frame around the display area.

MARK: You mention having seen other micro galleries. Are there any in particular that come to mind? And, if so, what is it that makes them memorable?

LEA: I once saw a flatbed truck that was converted into a small gallery, and it would be moved to different locations and events. And I saw another one when I was in Chicago, where someone had converted a small garage into an exhibition space. I really like the idea of taking art outside of the traditional gallery or museum setting.

MARK: What kind of art do you envision being in the Aquarium Gallery?

LEA: I think there’s a great need in Ann Arbor for a space that showcases contemporary art, especially art that’s playful and non-traditional. The Aquarium Gallery is intended specifically for artists working with installation, kinetic sculpture, or moving image.

MARK: How will the Aquarium Gallery be curated? Will there be opportunities for people to submit ideas, perhaps through a website, or are you planning, at least at first, to recruit artists whose work you’re already familiar with?

LEA: In its initial stage, I will curate the exhibits with the help of my colleagues at the the Art Center and Gallery Project. Soon, though, I’ll be creating a website for artists to submit proposals. The URL information will be posted next to the display area and on the Art Center’s website. I anticipate that the gallery will include both invited artists as well as those who submit proposals. It’s important that the space includes a range relative to media and artistic vision. Some upcoming artists that I am very excited to include are Ellen and Robin Wilt, a mother- daughter duo, the Work Collective, based in Toledo, and Brian Spolans, professor of Art at EMU.

MARK: That little corner of Ann Arbor appears to be evolving in an interesting way. With Blimpy Burger just having opened up across the street, and plans for a new beer garden on the corner, you get the sense that there’s potential there…

LEA: Yes, indeed… It’s really exciting. I think as State street has become more corporate, there has been a shift in business activity in Ann Arbor. We’re seeing a lot of cool, local businesses pop up on Liberty and Ashley.

MARK: Why, in your opinion, is a space like this important in Ann Arbor right now?

LEA: I think Ann Arbor can be a bit of an contradiction, in that it prides itself for its liberalism and progressiveness, yet, at the same time, it can be hostile to contemporary arts projects, especially ones that fall outside of the University. As housing prices increase, and the town (and University) become more corporate, it’s increasingly difficult for artists to find feasible areas to create, display and live. Although the Aquarium is small in size, I see that it has great significance. At this point in time, it’s a lone gallery for contemporary artists to display their work to the public, free of charge or membership.

MARK: Tell me about the first piece, which was just installed, and why you chose it?

LEA: Ben Saginaw, our first artist, usually incorporates objects that are nearby into his installation work. I liked the idea of using things already on hand at the Art Center, such as pedestals and ceramic pieces. It acts a a nice segway from what was previously in the space, to what is to come.


MARK: How have you spent your Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation grant money?

LEA: The money has been spent on lumber and hardware for the display box, lighting, signage, promotion and a projection system for time-based artists. At this point the gallery is about 75% finished.

MARK: Should we expect to see a formal opening reception sometime soon?

MARK: I’ll be leaving town in a few days for a residency and would like to host a kick-off party when I return in January.

MARK: Where will you be doing your residency, and what will you be working on while you’re there?

LEA: I’m about to begin a two month artist residency at the MacDowell Artist Colony in New Hampshire. This fellowship program has been supporting artists, writers, and musicians for over a century. Many notable artists and a number of Pulitzer prize winners have been through the program. Needless to say, I’m very excited to be included in this opportunity. As for my work, I’ve been working these past few years on a project related to slavery in America today. As a graduate student I worked with the University of Michigan human trafficking clinic, and each painting is a visual representation of a particular case, with emphasis on location. I will be continuing this work, and experimenting with media other than painting.

MARK: What brought you to Ann Arbor, and why do you stay?

LEA: I moved to Ann Arbor 8 years ago and immediately connected with local artists and mentors. Soon thereafter I was accepted into U of M’s MFA program, and I received my degree two years ago. People are generally very passionate about making the city enjoyable and fun. Plus I never really felt that I belonged in the city I grew up in. My hometown, a suburb of Grand Rapids, is very traditional and conservative. I like Ann Arbor because I can be myself and no one thinks that I’m weird.

MARK: What will it take for you to consider the Aquarium Gallery a success?

LEA: For the Aquarium to be successful it will need to suit the needs of artists working with alternative media, and also it will need to appeal to the general public. As an artist, it’s easy to forget that art that is highly conceptual or ironic can be often be alienating to those who have no background in art. My goal is to select work that is playful and fun, and that will appeal to a wide audience.


[Lea Bult receiving her Awesome grant from Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation trustees Linh Song, Omari Rush, Heather MacKenzie and Lisa Dengiz.]

note: If you’d like to know more about the local chapter of the Awesome foundation, check out our website, or the recent feature in the Detroit News titled “Spreading Awesomeness through Small Grants.” And, if you have an idea that you think could make life Ypsi-Arbor a little more awesome, by all means, let us know about it. We give out $1,000 grants monthly, and we’re always looking for brilliant ideas.

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  1. Crack
    Posted November 5, 2014 at 6:45 am | Permalink

    I like the idea that Ashley is becoming a local downtown separate from corporate downtown.

  2. Rick Cronn
    Posted November 5, 2014 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    Congratulations on doing something creative with that space. That part of downtown exhibits good growth potential for local businesses. Primarily due to Mark Hodesh’s efforts.

    On the other hand, UM and those connected with the institution continue to dominate the lame, insular and exclusive local arts scene.

    I hope the effort is a success. But considering the sick condition of the local gallery scene and the greed of landlords and the remaining galleries , the chances are iffy (for a new gallery and the local scene in general) for the long term.

    If you’re a local artist I suggest Detroit.

  3. Eel
    Posted November 5, 2014 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    More of this, please. And fewer fairy doors.

  4. 734
    Posted November 5, 2014 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    In Ypsi our micro gallery is buried in a desolate field.

  5. JG
    Posted November 5, 2014 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    ….where no one can hear you scream.

  6. Rick Cronn
    Posted November 5, 2014 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    Unlike the Aquarium, Ypsi’s buried micro gallery will not appeal to a wide audience. Unlike most deliberately self conscious conceptual art it is not ironic nor playful or fun. Ypsi’s micro gallery is beyond concept. It is a reflection of Ypsilanti. It was well worth the drive and the time. Mainly because I got to go to the Sidetrack.

  7. PrincessTinyMeat
    Posted November 6, 2014 at 2:37 am | Permalink


  8. wbs
    Posted November 6, 2014 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    unmentioned is that this is a collaborative piece with ceramic artist Amber Locke. congratulations to Ben and Amber on a beautiful work!

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