Carol Cain – Free Press Business Columnist
The Ann Arbor Art Fair has a history that dates to 1960.
Those words were uttered with glee by Karen Delhey, director of the Ann Arbor Summer Art Fair, about the annual event — a staple of our region’s summer tourism offerings — as we talked about this turbulent time for her and others staging festivals and major events.
Mark your calendars: The Ann Arbor Art Fair will indeed be held July 15-17 in downtown Ann Arbor. Nearly 600 artists from across the nation will join small businesses and retailers eager to roll out their open for business signs for the eclectic event that winds its way through downtown Ann Arbor.
The event is comprised of three fairs: Ann Arbor Street Art Fair, The Original; Ann Arbor Summer Art Fair; and Ann Arbor State Street Art Fair.
This past year has been a time of reboots for all of us as we’ve been forced to navigate this pandemic and adjust our personal and professional lives in ways no one could have imagined two years ago.
As executive in charge of one of the three fairs, Delhey has also weathered challenges.
The Ann Arbor Art Fair started out in 1960 as a way to draw more folks downtown when the University of Michigan students went home for the summer. It grew into a major outdoor art fair which has attracted almost 500,000 people and brought in over $400 million to the region’s coffers each year.
No one knew the pandemic would bring it and other events to a screeching halt. The fair was canceled in 2020 and, until just a few months ago, looked like it might again end up on the cutting room floor. But conditions improved as more folks got vaccinated and cases of COVID-19 declined.
“When the governor announced the Vacc to Normal program, it quickly became clear that if that was the metric used to reopen things, we would not be able to hold an event of this magnitude with any type of capacity or density restrictions,” she said as organizers announced May 13 the fair would not be held.
But things continued to improve and restrictions were lifted.
Those behind the three fairs decided conditions were so good they should try to find a way to bring the fairs back.
“This event has a huge impact on so many lives: the artists that participate, the small businesses in town that depend on the boost in their economy during the event, the hotels who benefit from this being one of their busiest weeks a year, the temporary staff that get hired, some of whom are jobless, the merchant associations in downtown Ann Arbor,” Delhey said.
The directors met with city and county officials to get their blessing.
“Then, we each went back to our individual boards and partners to make sure there were no other obstacles that would prevent us from going forward, and then we reached out to artists to see if they would return, then announced to the public,” she added.
Organizers announced on May 27 that the fair is on and will have about 600 artists — about a third less than 2019.
With folks signed up, they went back to square one and reimagined how they could quickly and safely stage the event.
“It’s like a computer reboot. It takes a minute … but once it’s up and running again, it’s full steam ahead,” Delhey said.
What’s new? Well, there will be three fairs instead of four, something that’s more of an internal thing. “The South University Area Association dissolved due to COVID, so the Guild’s Ann Arbor Summer Art Fair is expanding into that space at the request of merchants in the South University Area,” Delhey said.
Organizers also decided to shorten the time frame, so it will be held Thursday through Saturday.
Marcus Ryan of Atlanta, Ga. is a mixed media artist who is passing the time on his phone during the Ann Arbor Art Fair on its final day Sunday, July 24, 2016.
“Also, artist booths will also be distanced to help ease crowd density on the streets,” she said, knowing there is a need to be vigilant as the pandemic is still here. “There will be extra hand-sanitizing stations on site and masks encouraged for those who aren’t vaccinated.”
Only one question remains: Will people show up?
Dave Lorenz, vice president of Travel Michigan, has talked to hundreds of folks staging festivals and events that are also regrouping and slowly coming back on line this year. He’s convinced attendance will rebound.
“Travelers and residents alike are looking forward to a return to festivals and events,” said Lorenz. “As evidence of their importance to the travel industry, the ‘events section’ at www.Michigan.org is typically the most visited section of the website. Travelers often decide where they are going to go based on the events that are being held in a community. They will follow their passions.”
Delhey is also cautiously optimistic.
“It’s really hard to say, but from what we are seeing from shows that are happening in other states/communities, the crowds are coming out to support the artists,” she added.
Contact Carol Cain: 313-222-6732 or email@example.com. She is senior producer/host of “Michigan Matters,” which airs 7:30 a.m. Sundays on CBS 62. See Claude Molinari, Karen Delhey and Dave Lorenz on this Sunday’s show.