Ann Arbor’s art scene isn’t really completely dead, despite what I might have said in The Ann

No one has brought it up to me yet, but I suspect some readers of The Ann magazine are probably pissed at me. The new issue came out yesterday, and I was apparently quoted as having said that the arts scene had died in Ann Arbor with the closing, burning and subsequent bulldozing of the Tech Center. While I don’t deny having said it, I think that a little context is in order. First, though, here’s the section in question.

…While Ann Arbor remains the hub of Washtenaw County’s arts economy, and its economy in general, the affordability and less stratified feel of Ypsilanti are drawing creative ernergy eastward.

Tracing the roots of the Ypsilanti art scene, Mark Maynard thinks back to a summer evening in 2003 when a crowd gathered on Washington Street in Ann Arbor to watch firefighters spray water on a blaze that consumed much of the soon-to-be-demolished Ann Arbor Tech Center.

That rundown factory had housed dozens of artist studions, band practice spaces and a small theater, but was slated for demolition to make way for the new Ann Arbor YMCA.

“In my head, that’s a defining moment,” says Maynard, a blogger, radio host and community organizer in Ypsilanti. “That being bulldozed and replaced by an upscale Y – that kind of signified the arts scene being over in Ann Arbor.”

I should probably start by saying that I really like the article. It’s a well done piece of journalism, and I don’t mean to suggest otherwise with this post. As I said above, my quotes are accurate. And I have no complaints. With that said, though, I’d like to explain myself a bit.

Clearly I was trying to be provocative, and, in order to get my point across, I employed a bit of hyperbole. But I didn’t mean it to be taken as a statement of fact, and I think the context in which it was said would have made that clear.

As I recall, just after having made that statement, I noted that, despite what I’d said, there were still a number of artists doing interesting work in Ann Arbor, many of whom I call my friends. Furthermore, I think it’s worth pointing out that the quote in question was offered in the context of a conversation about the Shadow Art Fair, which a few friends and I launched in Ypsilanti at roughly the same time that the Tech Center was shuttered. I’d been talking with the writer from The Ann about how we’d launched the Shadow Art Fair as counterpoint to Ann Arbor’s very successful, but much derided, Art Fair, during which hundreds of successful artists from around the country pay thousands of dollars for the opportunity to sell their work to wealthy people who have empty living room walls to fill. I wasn’t, in other words, just going out of my way to say the arts scene in Ann Arbor was dead. I was merely sharing this memory I had of the moment when I’d heard the Tech Center was closing to make room for a pilates and yoga complex, and how it struck me as a pivotal, symbolic moment… not necessarily because all of the great artists who lived in town had studios there, or because all of the folks who were pushed out would invariably leave Ann Arbor, but because it seemed symptomatic of a bigger demographic shift in taking place in Ann Arbor.

For what it’s worth, if you heard the entire tape, you’d probably also hear me saying that I don’t really have a problem with the Ann Arbor Art Fair. While not too much of the work resonates with me, I love that there are venues where working artists can siphon cash away from people outfitted in fannypacks. As I told the author, though, it was just too easy of a target to pass up.

Back in the early 2000s, I felt as though there was a huge opportunity for Ypsilanti to cast itself as the antithesis of what people increasingly saw Ann Arbor as becoming… a bloated, out-of-touch, breeding ground for privileged, faux-liberal hypocrites who wouldn’t know good art if it jumped up and bit them on their upturned noses. And that was a huge motivator for me in launching an anti-Art Fair, which my friend and collaberator Tim Furstnau christened The Shadow. It wasn’t just about getting interesting people in a room together to share their work over beer for me. It was about helping to redefine Ypsilanti as a welcoming community for creative types.

By the early 2000s, the signs of the shift were already painfully apparent. Artists were being priced out of Ann Arbor. The Tech Center was being decommissioned. Interesting things were beginning to happen in Ypsi. And that was the context in which the Shadow Art Fair was born. Was the art scene really dead in Ann Arbor? No. In fact, many of the most interesting artists presenting at the first Shadow Art Fairs were folks from Ann Arbor, like Tim Furstnau, Molly Mast and Ted Kennedy. But, in the bigger scheme of things, it didn’t really matter. The fact that this cool little gathering of people making compelling work was taking place in Ypsilanti, while the “real,” legitimate, established Art Fair was taking place in Ann Arbor, was all that mattered. It spoke volumes. We were at the right place, at the right time, with the right message, and the press ate it up. (This was before Etsy and the other shows like Handmade Detroit, which would start popping up later.)

So, no, the Ann Arbor arts scene wasn’t really dead then, and it’s not dead now. (See the show that Jeremy Wheeler and Peter Baker just pulled off at the Ann Arbor Arts Center.) But, if you look at the trends, yeah, I’d say that Ann Arbor is more about safe and sellable art than anything else these days. It’s about fairy doors and public murals that are approved by committee. How can a decent gallery exist in a downtown where downtown rent is too much for even a 5 Guys to survive? And what artists would be drawn to a community where people are actually debating the merits of hiring Segway-riding army of “ambassadors” to remove band flyers from light poles and chase away the homeless? So, yeah, I like to poke my thumb in the eye of Ann Arbor every once in a while. If it’s any consolation, though, I always feel bad when I do it… because I know it must get under the skin of the people who are still there, continuing to do good work in the face of increasing marginalization. And I’m sorry about that, but I think it needs to be said. It’s been well over a decade since the Shadow Art Fair launched, and these comparisons started to be made, and nothing’s really improved in Ann Arbor as far as I can tell. The bad things have just accelerated. And, yeah, it was probably irresponsible and disrespectful to say that the Ann Arbor arts scene is “over,” but if you don’t see that things are trending in that direction, you aren’t paying attention. Yes, Ann Arbor will always have the University Musical Society, the Michigan Theater, and the U-M Art Museum, but the artists themselves are leaving. The canaries are leaving the coal mine.

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One more thing… I don’t think it’s that useful anymore to define ourselves in relation to Ann Arbor. I think it served a purpose for a while, and I still find myself doing it on occasion, like in this interview, but my sense is that we’ve got our own identity now, independent of our neighbors to the west. And that’s a good thing.

[The above image was taken for The Ann magazine by Benjamin Weatherston, who actually laid down in the middle of Pearl Street to get it.]

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28 Comments

  1. Spain!
    Posted June 1, 2015 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

    oh mark you’re such a naughty naughty rebel

  2. Posted June 2, 2015 at 3:07 am | Permalink

    “I don’t think it’s that useful anymore to define ourselves in relation to Ann Arbor. I think it served a purpose for a while, and I still find myself doing it on occasion, but my sense is that we’ve got our identity now, independent of our neighbors to the west. And that’s a good thing.”

    You are just now coming to this conclusion?

  3. E. Simms
    Posted June 2, 2015 at 7:16 am | Permalink

    A few years ago as part of the Ann Arbor Film Festival they had a panel discussion on the origins on the event. A number of the founders were on stage and the picture they painted of the changing art scene in Ann Arbor wasn’t pretty. In the 60s they said they were breaking down barriers and confronting authority. Now according to them it’s all about corporate sponsorships. If video exists you should check it out.

  4. Tony
    Posted June 2, 2015 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    I don’t think you needed to clarify what you said. The art scene in Ann Arbor is dead. It was dead before I left in 2009. For an art scene to thrive, you need affordable places for new and upcoming artists to explore their talents. You need galleries, venues, and events that will show your work because it’s good, not because you’re known. This doesn’t exist in Ann Arbor. The fact Ann Arbor runs the largest arts fair in the country is inconsequential. It’s difficult to even find “new” art at the art fair because the same artists come year after year, selling the same things. And, very little of it is affordable. I’d love to decorate my walls but my budget is a grand or two, total. I can decorate a 4 bedroom house on that budget at the Shadow Art Fair. In Ann Arbor, I’ll be lucky if that scores me a single piece.

    Some may see this as a negative but I just see it as different. Manhattan’s SoHo hasn’t supported the artist community for decades now yet people still love coming here. All the artists now live in the LIC or farther parts of Brooklyn, but that’s OK.

    If anything, I think it’s exciting for cities like Manhattan that Detroit and Ypsilanti have these artist communities that are growing and flourishing. Eventually, we hope some of these artists stop becoming “starving” and become recognized for their talent when people with way more money than I do can buy their art.

  5. Graeme Kzing
    Posted June 2, 2015 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    Haven’t read it yet, but considering the public art i see in A2 – it is dead, or i want it to be.

  6. Rick Cronn
    Posted June 2, 2015 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    The arts scene that people remember Ann Arbor for began with the ONCE Group. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ONCE_Group.

    I feel sad for people who continue to believe that Ann Arbor has a chance to make itself anew creatively. They’re delusional. The City doesn’t care. The majority of voters don’t care so the politicians for all their lip service to the contrary, follow suit. The UM certainly doesn’t care and the remaining creative venues are more concerned with survival than they are with showcasing creativity.

    The institutions and bureaucracy sanction only what serves their purposes. In the last 20 years, even with so called progressive politicians at the helm, Ann Arbor has become more conservative politically and less diverse socially and culturally and it will only get more so in the future.

    As far as Ypsi goes, it will eventually be swallowed politically but it must guard against what happened in A2 culturally and socially for it to retain any sense of place.

  7. Rick Cronn
    Posted June 2, 2015 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    I think that E Simms is referring to discussions and seminars at AAFF past festivals led by Jerry Fialka.

  8. Steve Pickard
    Posted June 2, 2015 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    I always considered the Tech Center fire to be the figurative “end of an era” for the Ann Arbor art’s scene too. I think it was “reborn” in a new version that, while viable, is nothing like the old radical Ann Arbor art scene…which, as attested, moved to Ypsi and points east (Detroit). If I was pressed to say what the “new” Ann Arbor art scene that the closure of the Tech Center spawned, I’d say it became a “family focused” art scene…that is, centered on family friendly art events like the Foolmoon, Festifools Parade, the Fairy doors, 826 Michigan, the Neutral Zone, etc. All of those things seemed to coincide with the dissolution of the old radical Ann Arbor art scene…and the rise of the Stroller Mafia.

    Not better or worse, just different. (Well, probably for the worse if you’re someone like me with no children…

  9. Anonymous
    Posted June 2, 2015 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    To get a complete picture compare the cover of The Ann this month, which is about the Ypsi arts scene, with this cover from last year.

    http://imgur.com/Tu03VzZ

  10. Posted June 2, 2015 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    For what it’s worth, I’d probably agree that the Ann Arbor art scene is dead. One of the reasons that Pete Baker and I made Refractive a group show was to have a spotlight on those in the area who weren’t being represented in an official capacity in any legit downtown Ann Arbor art space (of which there are very few). While I’m proud of every area show that I’ve been a part of since the Tech Center closing, they’re for the most part, fleeting — and many times they happen in basements — or alternative venues that put too much stress on the business owner to make them want to do it a lot. I guess I’m unsure what constitutes a scene — and I’m scared that I won’t know that we had one until it’s passed. I sure as hell know that there are a lot of people in both of our towns stacked with talent, but low on time and resources. I will say I’m excited about the discussions happening now to fix some of these issues — but we probably wouldn’t be talking about them if the system weren’t so fucked in the first place!

    Anyhoo, thanks for the clarification — and the show shout-out. Refractive is up at the A2 Art Center until Saturday — stop in anytime they’re open. Here’s Pete and I talking it up online and briefly mentioning a few of these very issues: https://youtu.be/TnE96wmhaK4

  11. Chaely Chartier
    Posted June 2, 2015 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    As for the art fairs, a large majority of their exhibitors are out of town artists. Actually most large, established fine art fairs operate that way so it’s nothing against the A2 shows, but it also doesn’t contribute to the “local art scene” a whole lot. They’re really more of a boon to the local businesses/CVB than to local artists or culture. Smaller shows & arts markets that are less cost prohibitive to non-traveling artists are more beneficial to the local arts community.

  12. deleuzean
    Posted June 2, 2015 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    I like my fanny pack.
    Keeps the wallet sciatica at bay.

  13. deleuzean
    Posted June 2, 2015 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    Also, as my son is about to enter high school, hopefully I will have some tangential influence on helping foster some youth culture wherein things might get a little weirder here in Ann Arbor in the next few years. Now that my boy has experienced the efforts of my pals Ann Arbor’s Far House crew and friends in their fullest flowering, I don’t think there’s any turning back.

  14. mariah
    Posted June 2, 2015 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    I’m pro a2 AND pro-ypsi (gasp!) and even I agree that the loss of the Tech Center (and frankly, some of the stuff leading up to that – let’s not gloss over the questionable management during the pre-Y transition) was a “defining moment.”

    But for me, in a more *personally* defining way. I’d just returned from a trip out of the country where I was seeing squats turned into galleries (in a good way).

    The realization that policy is how communities articulate what they care about is what kicked my ass and made me enroll in EMU’s Art Admin program. Since then, there has always, and will continue to always be more work to do. However, if policy is the way a community articulates things, then yeah, A2 has done a pretty shitty job of articulating its support for actual artists and not just gift shop-style “galleries.”

    I’ll be real, when I came across the Arts Alliance survey of artist needs from 2005 last week, and thought about how little progress there had been, I got super pissed, super depressed and super angry (anyone who knows me knows I work hard at keeping positive, but hey, we’re all allowed to get POed). I felt like burning the dang thing.

    I’d also like to give some credit – even if things haven’t made as much progress as anyone would like on the city/larger level there have been plenty of people working really, really hard, holding space/events/things down around the margins. Hott Lava, Shelley, Vault, people still hustle. But the thing is, it IS a huge hustle to make things work, and I wonder if rent/space prices are beyond what can support any sort of experimentation, thus then gift-shop or high-end orientation of a lot of gallery spaces.

  15. Posted June 2, 2015 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    Keep up the great work Mark, I loved A2 for such a longtime, but now that I feel like I am doing the best work of my life, I decided that A2 was just not the place for me to thrive. I was sad but left, as with many other quality artists who had so much to offer but just could not survive. Great job raising awareness and writing about tough truths.

  16. stupid hick
    Posted June 2, 2015 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

    As long as you live in Ypsi, you will never escape the shadow of Ann Arbor. You know it. Everyone knows it. It has always been that way. No offense.

  17. fart air
    Posted June 3, 2015 at 4:16 am | Permalink

    If the art scene in A2 was over when the Tech Center burned, was the art scene in Ypsi over when 555 Gallery fled? When Shadow Art Fair fizzled? When Spur Studios shut down?

    If non-commercial galleries, audiences, and fresh unknown artists are what’s needed for an art scene, did one ever really exist here? How does vilifying expensive gift-shop art in Ann Arbor, and celebrating cheap commercially-hip art in Ypsi actually help artists make a living?

    Who is meaningfully growing and cultivating an audience for art here? Can an art scene be so exclusionary that it is actually irrelevant? Does it even make sense to discuss an Ypsi art scene without Ann Arbor? Why is there only despair, retreat, and flight? Why aren’t we celebrating shows like Refractive? Because they are in Ann Arbor?

  18. Stupid Hick
    Posted June 3, 2015 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    Does David Zinn’s “street art” in chalk count for anything? It’s not commercial and has received national attention.

  19. Stupid Hick
    Posted June 3, 2015 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    Tony: “I can decorate a 4 bedroom house on that budget at the Shadow Art Fair”

    No you can’t, because Shadow Art Fair doesn’t exist! It was good while it lasted but Ypsilanti doesn’t have the type of community capable of sustaining or building upon their small successes.

  20. History Lesson
    Posted June 3, 2015 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    The Shadow Art Fair didn’t end because of lack of support. It ended because the founding members decided to get out while they were still having fun and focus elsewhere. It could have easily continued.

  21. Steve Pickard
    Posted June 3, 2015 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    You know why I know A2 Art Scene is in a doldrum…aka…nearly dead? There’s no decent art supply stores kept afloat in A2 city limits. There used to be the excellent Ulrich’s Upstairs at Campus Book and Supply at the Diag (now a CVS) and over the years many many more that have come and gone. I know Hollanders has a (smallish) supply of art supplies, but that’s about it within city limits. I find myself driving to Blick;s in Dearborn or the Blicks downtown Detroit to get decent supplies (Micheal’s crap collection doesn’t count). Apparently there is a UM Art School store on North Campus, but I’ve never been able to find that place open.

  22. Frosted Flakes
    Posted June 3, 2015 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    Maybe a lot more people are buying art supplies online?

  23. stupid hick
    Posted June 4, 2015 at 12:34 am | Permalink

    History Lesson, I know. I’m pointing at MM et al.

  24. Erika Nelson
    Posted June 4, 2015 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    I just got around to reading this. I’m sure that I don’t think about these issues nearly as much as many of your readers, but I was glad to read this piece because it fleshed out a vague thought/feeling I had had when I moved to Asheville. On a visit back to Michigan, I told a friend of mine from Ann Arbor that “Asheville is what Ann Arbor thinks it is.” and she just looked at me like I had slapped a child. I became self-conscious and realized that maybe I didn’t know what I was talking about. But I know realize that I did.

  25. Marissa
    Posted June 4, 2015 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    It’s very difficult to not compare ourselves to our neighboring city. However, I think it’s viable to compare ANY city’s art scene to another. Since A2 is known as a cultural destination, it makes sense that Ypsi measures itself next to it’s bigger, wealthier neighbor.

    The primary differences I have seen (having worked at arts organizations in both cities) is that the A2 community feels as though they have already earned their art scene, whereas Ypsi views it as a living, ever-evolving culture that needs constant care and attention.

    I know many artists and supporters of the arts in A2, and I also do not mean to discredit their work, but they’re simply different.

    For the sake of comparison, the Detroit art-scene is another great example of a grassroots culture, but due to the sheer size of the city, the community is not as closely linked as Ypsi. I think Ypsilanti has the potential to be like the Chicago art-scene (vibrant, community-centered, non-competitive)…with more affordable housing.

    Your quote in The Ann was a great conversation starter!

  26. Rick Cronn
    Posted June 4, 2015 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    Very few in this conversation have historical perspective of how A2 got its rep as an arts town. The legend began with the ONCE Group in the 60’s. Contrary to what others might say, Ann Arbor had a vibrant independent local music scene in the 60’s and 70’s. There’s no getting around that the Visual arts have always been dominated by the UM and those connected with the institution. As well, there was a politically radical element that fed the music and visual arts that were not connected to the institutions or the bureaucracy. Sadly none of these things exist as a critical mass today. Why? Because the institutions and government bureaucracy have become larger, more conservative, less diverse, increasingly wealthy and are now more closely aligned with each other than ever before. Those institutions have their own exclusive vision and it does not include or encourage deep local involvement that falls outside their narrow scope. Every local, non aligned or unsanctioned arts group, artist, venue, scene, etc are in survival mode to the point where they either kowtow to the institutions, leave or go under. Sadly, rather than working together, independent artists, groups, followers and enthusiasts fight each other over petty issues like who was here first, who screwed it up, who owns it now and where it might go. Those who fight over it seem more concerned with what little turf is left rather than working together and learning from each other. All of these things contribute to the dearth of locally inspired visual arts and any cohesive effort to create a new locally inspired artistic/creative vision for Ann Arbor. I only offer this as my 43 year perspective on the arts in A2 because if you don’t know the path behind you and those who made it successful, the chances for your own success are minimal.

  27. Steve Pickard
    Posted June 5, 2015 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    Thanks Rick for the amazing revelation that the local arts scene in Ann Arbor sprang from the 1960’s. I’m sure none of us ever thought of that before. We’ll be sure to name-check some more tired cultural cliches from almost 50 years ago before commenting next time.

  28. Frosted Flakes
    Posted June 5, 2015 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    I am not trying to be intentionally obtuse here, but how do people define “art scene”anyway?

    Some communities have larger communities of people taking turns patting each other on the back–that is for sure.

    What constitutes a “scene”? Why is it important?

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