The Great Michigan Online Art Fair looks to help creators "uncancel" their livelihoods


The Great Michigan Art Fair landing page

Brian Walline's work is instantly recognizable. The Ann Arbor artist creates Michigan scenes in the style of vintage travel posters, using bright colors and bold typography to convey a deep love for his home state.

While Walline takes freelance commissions -- he did the art for AADL's 2019 Summer Game -- a significant part of his income is derived from tabling at art shows across Michigan. But most of the major art shows for the summer have been canceled, and since they all take a while to organize, it's unlikely any will attempt to reopen even in a modified fashion that's in line with the current phase 4 guidelines for the way businesses can operate.

With his fellow artists in mind, Walline took it upon himself to create The Great Michigan Online Art Fair as a virtual way for creators to display their wares in a playful, interactive environment.

"We are trying to uncancel our livelihoods," Walline writes on the art fair's website.

Artists and vendors can apply to be a part of The Great Michigan Online Art Fair through 11:59 p.m. EST on Sunday, June 7. The site will host 31 artists and 16 vendors between June 15 and July 13, and the art fair is also accepting sponsorships.

We emailed with Walline about his creation of The Great Michigan Online Art Fair:

The Great Michigan Art Fair logo

Q: Tell me the story of when this idea came to you -- I assume it involves lawn croquet, strong drinks, and long-distance runs?
A: Ha! I definitely hashed out details on many runs and with the aid of strong drinks and raucous croquet games, but the idea came to me in the spring when it became clear that more and more shows were being canceled and that many artists like myself would be missing out on a great deal of income this summer. I wanted to create a way for artists to still get their work out there in some fashion, to promote local artists and artwork, and to hopefully allow artists to make back a small amount of the income that we've lost. Although browsing virtually can't take the place of actually meeting artists and seeing their work in person, I thought that by gathering a variety of artists together in a fun and engaging virtual space, people would hopefully be inclined to visit the website and support the artists.

Q: Why are you limiting the event to the 31 virtual art booths? Just to keep the project manageable? Is there any significance to the number 31?
A: No significance to the number 31 -- that's just what worked with the visual that I created. I've kept it pretty small to start because I'm the only one organizing and I wanted to make sure it was manageable for me. I also wanted to make sure it would be manageable for our online visitors, so hopefully by limiting the number of booths it will make it easier for each artist to be seen. Once we see how this goes, I'd definitely be open to increasing booth numbers for future virtual events. And, even though there are only 31 available "booths" for featured artists, any artist interested can have their name and website added to a directory of Michigan artists that will be on the site.

Q: What Michigan inlet -- or combination of inlets -- inspired the landing page art? 
A: There was no specific spot, but I wanted to create an interesting and fun piece that would draw people in and that featured things you might see in Michigan, and that would have the vibe of the outdoor summer art shows that we're missing out on. Forests, lighthouses, beaches, dunes, UP rock formations ... all stuff you might see while traveling around Michigan.

Q: Is there any chance there will be some version of an in-person art fair this summer since certain places are starting to open with certain restrictions? If not, when do you think the next ones will be held?
A: I think it's unlikely that there will be any major in-person art fairs this summer. In fact, most that I am aware of have already been canceled, even into August. The nature of art fairs and booths make social distancing difficult, a ton of planning and permits are required to hold art fairs (so it would be tough to start planning one now that would take place this summer), and a successful art fair has thousands of visitors, which would still be illegal with the limits on gatherings at this point. I'm hopeful for fall and winter art fairs, but that will all depend on if/when there is a second wave of COVID-19 and how bad it is. I think many people will feel uncomfortable attending large events for quite some time, so even if art fairs are able to be held later this year, I don't expect revenue to be as high for artists as it typically would have been.

Q: Do you think you'd continue some version of the online art fair even after in-person events begin to open? And if things look to remain closed through fall and winter, would you consider doing the virtual art fair quarterly or something like that?
A: I've definitely already thought about doing something like this quarterly if in-person events continue to be canceled. And like I said above, even if in-person events do start to take place, I think attendance might be lower than usual so it could be worth it to continue to offer virtual options to people. It has been really tough for those of us who rely on the big shows for so much of our income. Essentially, I'm just hoping that the Great Michigan Online Art Fair offers a fun and easy way for people to support artists, and for artists to make some money during this time. And as long as it does that, I'll continue to offer virtual art fairs.

Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.

The Great Michigan Online Art Fair runs June 15 to July 13.