Episode 51: Art Fair, a jewel in Ann Arbor’s crown, featuring Angela Kline
Deborah Holdship: Hi I’m Deborah Holdship, editor of Michigan Today. In this episode, my guest is Angela Kline, executive director of the Ann Arbor Street Art Fair, the original. She just survived year one as the boss, following longtime executive director Maureen Riley. Now, the original fair started in July 1960 when local vendors wanted to goose retail sales while the students were out of town.
Hosting an art fair during the dog days of summer was the perfect lure, and so it began. These days the “art fair” comprises three fairs, the aforementioned original, plus the Guild’s Summer Art Fair and the Ann Arbor State Street Art Fair. The event has a huge footprint that covers much of the town and the logistics are staggering.
One either immerses in it, abandons it altogether, or suffers through it begrudgingly, and the mid-july date always coincides with the most extreme weather of the season, Thunderstorms, tornadoes, life threatening heat stroke — but hey, it’s all part of the gig.
Angela is an avid art collector, herself, and she’s deep into fair culture. She worked for years with textiles artist Chris Roberts Antieau, actually staffing the artist’s booth for nearly a decade. Much like an actor who’s become a film producer (which she was), Angela knows the highs and lows, and the storms, that come with every art fair. She’s got perspective. Art can change your life, she says, but it does take a community to support that change, and like her, I feel grateful to live in a community that does.
Angela Kline: Someone used to ask me when I was in my 20s, “So, like oh you have an art degree. What do you do with that? And I just went: “Anything I want. Literally anything you want.”
There’s an artist, Helen Gotlib, who’s on our footprint, who, as a little girl growing up in Ann Arbor, she would go and she would like braid people’s hair for a dollar. And then she got a permit to braid hair when she was a teenager, with her sisters, and now she’s this amazing, incredibly gifted printmaker. Just the progression of that that story – I love it. And she’s a phenomenal human being and her artwork is just amazing.
That’s why I have an art collection, so that my kids can see this story of this progression: Someone had an ide, just a spark, and they believed in themselves enough to say, “OK. I’m gonna make this thing,” and then they believed in themselves enough to say, “OK. I’m going to put it out in the world in this daring act of like everyone’s going to see it now, and then I’m going to invest in myself and I’m going to build this business, and then I’m going to pack everything up and drive across the country, wherever, and put up this pop-up event over and over again.” And then you as a an art buyer get to come in talk to these artists, take the piece home, and then it lives is this inspiring beautiful reminder of what it means to believe in yourself.”
Armando Pedroso: I had a corporate job for years and after 9/11 I got laid off. I kept hearing: “Paint.” I never painted before. So I said OK, God, I’m gonna give you 7 weeks to sell one painting and if I can do that, then I’ll believe this crazy voice.” I sold five in one week. And it’s been 21 years. It’s like, if you listen to your heart, your heart will always find beauty in any tragedy.
AK: Everyone has this philosophy the starving artist. I understand that purist notion where you just wanna sit in your studio and make art and have no one bother you. And I get it, you know. But at the same time, you do need to eat.
DH: You gotta pack it up and take a tent and go hang out on the steps of Hill …
AK: I would say 90% of these artists are concurrently in gallery shows and national shows and some in museums and things like that. So for this idea of like, oh these are just, you know people being crafty in their basements, uh, no. That is not what’s happening here. These are professional people that deeply care about their work.
Mark Sudduth: I’m from Cleveland. It’s all hand blown and hand formed and I work by myself,f so I make everything, but I blow them as whole forms and then once they’re cold I cut him with a diamond saw and then I grind and polish them and then do usually some engraving or some sort of surface articulation. Each piece is kind of what I call work based on work, so I’m making things and kind of asking questions of the material all the time. And then as you’re kind of doing that, the piece is posing questions to you, and so you wanna do the next piece and the next piece.
AK: In terms of making art commercial, if that’s the question, I don’t feel like that’s what’s happening at the Ann Arbor fair. I mean these are people that are very passionate about what they make and I love that everyone gets to choose how they want to show their work, whether it’s at an art fair, whether you wanna go the gallery route, all the all the routes are possible now. All the voices get to be heard and seen and known, and that’s important to me. That’s the community I want my kids to grow up in.
Jack Magurany: Every time I do a Jimi or a Marilyn, they always sell. I like to use colors in the faces that people don’t think would really work. That red is incredible. It makes it interesting, yeah.
AK: One of the first things I did that I was really excited about was running the studio for Chris Roberts Antieau. She is a self-taught artist and she still has two galleries in New Orleans and Santa Fe. For Chris Roberts Auntieau, I was able to make a documentary for her and make a book for her and help her start galleries, and then, also, do the Ann Arbor art fair.
Getting $100,000 worth of artwork prepped and made and hung in the booth, and our crews organized, and I physically sat in that booth for almost eight years. She’s done many of their commemorative posters and been their featured artist. So I got to know all the artists in the community and many of the artists still do the fair from that era. I get to know them and see them and see the progression of their artwork in their careers.
I love it. We’ve had three fairs since I think 1967. You know, the Original, the my footprint, started in 1960. Each one has their own vibe, which I love. Our footprint is called the original ’cause it’s the first one that started, but also because we have original art on ours. We don’t allow reproductions. That’s just one difference, but also I think since we’re on the university campus it has a little bit of like a calmer vibe up there. We all work together with every city member and they each have a board of directors and I have a board and so you have to answer to them. I love organizing things, so I love the process of compromising and figuring it out and making sure everybody wins. That’s always my goal. We have the fire marshall, the police, all of these people come together in this beautiful ballet to get this all organized and they do it with such joy.
I’ve had people invite me into their homes to show me all the art that they had bought from the art fair. They’re like “let me show you this!” I have yet to meet anyone that was like, “Ugh,” you know? Everyone’s like, “That’s my favorite thing and I can’t wait to go to it every year!”
DH: And the people who do go “ugh,” you probably have nothing in common with anyway.
AK: I don’t know about that. You know, I get it. Like sometimes it’s crowds or parking. I totally get that. I’m a human being to where you’re like, “Oh I’m hot and there’s too many humans.” But you can find your time. Go in the morning when it’s cool. Go in the evening when the crowds are a little less. You can find that perfect time where you can go and see your favorite artist ’cause that’s the beauty of it.
When do you get to go and actually talk and have a really nice dialogue with an artist, an artist that you love. They’ll sit and talk to you for an hour…
DH to artist: Why do you like working with wood
Jake Blok: Because it’s a medium that I can sculpt, bend, do whatever, and then it still has its own warmth and texture. It’s not like metal, which is beautiful, but it’s fairly flat or generic.
AK: When I hear curmudgeons say, “Oh I don’t want to come to the fair,” I’m like, “Gosh, you gotta think of all these helpers that are coming together to put on this thing for you and your kids.”
DH: Why does it work so well here? Why are we so famous for it? What is it about Ann Arbor that makes for a fantastic art fair?
AK: I’ve thought about that many times. We have such an amazing population in a community of people that love and know art and care about it. I think maybe they understand that, without the arts, music, visual arts, whatever it is and all the different people that make it, you can’t thrive. You know, even if you’re someone who runs a car company, who are you going to get to design your cars? Every human-made thing was designed by an artist, even if it was someone who worked for the city and was thinking about how the curve of the street side went, or the the shape, you know the architecture. Everything.
And without that, and if you’re not feeding that all the time, what do you have? And that’s evidenced by when communities don’t have that anymore, who brings back those communities? It’s always the artists that move back into those communities and build them back up.
DH: I do love that community aspect of the arts and the merchants kind of joining forces for a weekend of “Yeah, let’s all some stuff,” you know? And I love how it just takes over the town.
AK: I love everything about it. I was a fair goer years and years and years and years before I was ever part of the event and organizing the event and I still love it the same way.
I would come and spend a day kind of like on each because it’s like the Louvre. I mean it’s so gigantic. It’s the largest outdoor gallery space. I will say, as the director, I’m sad that I can’t make it now down to all the footprints. I feel like I’ve organized Christmas and I’m not allowed to go to Christmas.
The surprise to me is just how many hats you have to wear, from doing a TV interview for the news the day of the fair, and then you have to run back and make sure that all the tent poles are exactly where they need to be and your ops manager is set, and what do they need, and does artist number in booth number have enough water and first aid supplies, and then going back and making sure the accounting is all done, and everybody is in their place. I went to film school so it seems very much like when I was producing a film, and you’re trying to get it done all in a certain number days. You gotta get your talent in place, you have to get everybody up, ready, and fed, and on a dime.
I think with weather, you have to take it in stride and you have to take it with a bit of humor and just be prepared – have, you know, extra socks and shoes and all that stuff. I used to do archaeological digs in Ireland; I was an illustrator and in Ireland the weather just changes like on the hour, so you just had a backpack full of your stuff. And if you get into that mindset of like. “OK, I’m prepped,” there’s some fun and adventure to it.
DH: That it’s a great way to look at it because right when the skies open, everyone flees, and as soon as the sky clears everyone’s like unwrapping their stuff again and it’s just like nothing happened.
AK: These are pros. Most of the people have been doing this for for a very long time, and then we have new artists and the pros next door say, “Bring an extra pair of socks next year.”
DH to artist: Where do you source the wood from?
Jake Blok: Mostly from local sawmills right in the area. You can see the wood in the grain. I’m talking about the the medium…
DH: It’s also very fun to be able to see the same people every year.
AK: On our website artfair.org, we have an artist directory that goes all the way back to the ‘90s, so fair goers that are looking for their artist from 1992 and they wanna find them again…
DH: I’m sure the artists maybe recognize the customers every now and then?
AK: I know they have patrons and people. I mean, for example, we had one artist who had like a snafu with his parking. He forgot to pay for his parking and one of his collectors called us and they’re like, “You have to help with their parking.” Of course, we were already talking to him, trying to figure it out. But I thought, “How lovely that their patron cared so much and their collector to call me to help them solve their parking problem.”
DH at fair: They look like Gandalf pipes.
Melina Schaefer: This whole place feels like a futuristic elf house.
Jake Blok: I should put that as its name.
AK: I wasn’t a part of this, but in 2020 it was closed down, and then just like 8 weeks before the last ‘21 art fair, the governor said, “OK you can open back up.” And then Karen and Mo and Francis said their phones just like exploded. How do we make this art fair that usually takes us an entire year to organize, and I mean every day of that year, how can you do it? And they did it. They could have said, “No it’s too much.” And they didn’t. And what chutzpah it took do.
Thomas Wargin: After a while, you wanna make connections. So it took me like a while to figure out that I wanted to make connections with people. So, they start looking at the pieces; they look at them because of curiosity, but then when they start reading into them, they find out there’s a reflection happening. There’s a part of themselves in that piece, and we all deal with things, so it’s like having it be an extension to me is more important than just there standing for décor.
AK: I have an art degree. I have a double major in drawing and painting and a minor in ancient art history. But I love the business of art. I love everything about it, everything from the graphic design to architecture and I love every component of it and I like to think about how to bring that to people. I love that there is truly something for every single person. There’s something for every pocketbook. There’s a style for everyone. If you just want to go and have a drink. I mean there’s really truly — if you just want a quiet moment, come and sit up, you know, in the Original, and find an artist who just wants to like quietly talk about their formalist work.
I do love Joachim Knill. I don’t know if you went to his booth, but it looks like a big shipping container from the outside and then there’s these red ropes and then when you go inside he has this whole — and I will not do it justice because the paintings are absolutely exquisite… they’re oil paintings, but they’re of this whole world of stuffed animals, with gilded gold frames and they’re so beautifully rendered and painted. My son, who’s 9, was just completely enchanted, and how could you not be? He actually was one of the winners this year. His booth really goes the extra mile to create an installation, an environment and experience, like a whole happening, in this little 10 by 10 space.
It is nice to have a jury, but you know it’s like I love art brut and any type of art. If someone had a booth of just art that they made and brought, I feel like “yeah that’s pretty cool. That’s pretty punk rock.”
I’ve had people say over the years, like when I was on the board, “Oh that’s kind of like your grandma’s art fair,” and I’m like, “Well my grandma was a feminist badass. My grandma was pretty rad. I think most of our grandmothers were pretty incredible human beings so I’ll take that as a compliment.”
DH: That’s awesome.
AK: Yeah, these are real artists. Where else can you see a living artist, making money, and being collected by Oprah and the presidents of the United States? A lot of times I tell young people that are going into the arts that it’s smart probably to get a minor in business or marketing, so you can be your own champion. You have to do that when you’re starting out. But then I find that I really love the business of it and the artistry in that business. There’s a real art to doing that and finding your way in that.
What a jewel in the crown of Ann Arbor. Like, there are people that I met in LA that knew about the Ann Arbor art fair. That’s unusual.
I live in a community of people that deeply care and I’ve told my husband, like, all I want on my headstone at the end of my life is: She cared. Like, you just care. You give a darn. Because that’s what I don’t think people realize. This is a labor of absolute love. Karen, Francis, and I — this is all nonprofit. We do this purely for the love of Ann Arbor and the arts.
DH: Thank you so much to Angela and all of the art fair directors, staff, and volunteers. You are a gift. The artists you heard on this podcast, in order of appearance, aar painter Armando Pedroso, glass artist Mark Sudduth, pop culture artist Jack Magurany, wood sculptor Jake Blok, sculptor/philosopher Thomas Wargin, and the kids in the School of Rock house band, hipster teens doing the Cure’s “Lovesong.” Check the show notes for details about the artists. Thanks for listening. That’s another art fair in the books. Come back next July. Until then, as always, Go Blue.
The jury is in — and we are the champions
“That’s why I have an art collection — so that my kids can see this progression:
“Someone had an idea, just a spark, and they believed in themselves enough to say, ‘OK. I’m gonna make this thing,’ and then they believed in themselves enough to say, ‘OK. I’m going to put it out in the world in this daring act. Everyone’s going to see it now. And then, I’m going to invest in myself and I’m going to build this business, and THEN, I’m going to pack everything up and drive across the country, wherever, and put up this pop-up event, over and over again.’
“And then YOU, as a an art buyer, get to come in and talk to these artists, and take the piece home where it lives as this inspiring, beautiful reminder of what it means to believe in yourself.” — Angela Kline, Executive Director, The Ann Arbor Street Art Fair, The Original
Another art fair on the booksBlazing temps, a torrential storm, and a mass of optimistic humanity combined for the kind of alchemy only Ann Arbor can deliver this July, as the 2022 Ann Arbor Street Art Fair took over your favorite town. Love it or leave it, this annual event is one of the city’s most iconic happenings.
A Midwest tradition that draws close to half a million attendees each year, it is the largest juried art fair in the nation. Its footprint spans up to 30 downtown blocks, extending onto the U-M campus.
The original Ann Arbor Street Art Fair dates to July 1960 when the town’s merchants sought a way to offset the effects of the annual student exodus. Today’s modern event draws massive crowds and comprises three fairs:
- The Ann Arbor Street Art Fair, The Original
- The Guild’s Ann Arbor Summer Art Fair
- The Ann Arbor State Street Art Fair
“It’s like the Louvre, I mean it’s so gigantic. It’s like the largest outdoor gallery space you’ll find,” says Angela Kline, executive director of the Original.
In this episode of “Listen in, Michigan,” you’ll meet Kline, an artist herself and longtime Ypsi native who’s now in Ann Arbor. She has a long and productive history with textiles artist Chris Roberts Antieau, helping to launch galleries in Santa Fe and New Orleans, producing a documentary, and, yes, staffing the artist’s booth at the Ann Arbor fair for nearly a decade.
Much like an actor who’s now a film producer (which she was) Kline brings an artist-friendly perspective to the post, following in the steps of longtime leader Maureen Riley. She previously served on the Original’s board of directors and describes the fair as a “jewel in Ann Arbor’s crown.”
Whether you’re a fan who delights in the organized chaos or a curmudgeon who leaves town for a week, the fair likely was a large part of your Ann Arbor experience. Listen in, as we walk through the crowds, mingling with some of the most brilliant talents on the planet — and loving our town because of it.
(The image in the podcast art is a self-portrait by Armando Pedroso.)