MASTERMIND: Chrisstina Hamilton

Cultural happenings in Ann Arbor are a dime a dozen, says Chrisstina Hamilton.

"Ann Arbor has culture coming out if its ears," explains the director of U-M's Penny W. Stamps Distinguished Visitor Series. The Stamps lecture series features creative people who make a difference in the world.

Earfuls of culture made for a distinctly new experience for Hamilton when she moved here from Idaho in 1999. She's come a long way from gulch side impresario to her current post managing the well-regarded Art + Design School weekly series.

As a little girl, Hamilton was attracted to many careers, including archaeology. By becoming an actress, she could be all of those things on stage, influenced by her father, an avid theater-goer as well as a scientist.

In classic old-movie style, Hamilton built a stage in the basement and produced shows. By coincidence, her maiden name is the same as Dallas bad guy, J. R. Ewing. She dreamed of asking him to fund her shows.

Basement gigs led her to NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, where she studied film acting. In off hours, she went to $6 double features at Theatre 80 on First Avenue and Eighth Street. "It was in a deplorable neighborhood but Myrna Loy's hand prints are in the sidewalk out in front. The double feature changed daily. I went every day. That's how I got my film education," she says.

Marriage and Indiana University soon followed, then pregnancy and Troy, Idaho. "It was the most exotic place I've ever lived. Six hundred people, no stop lights. It hung over the side of a gulch. It was a three-block town and there was a bar on every block. One had a light show – a light bulb over the door that flashed on and off," Hamilton relates.

One night, the light bulb wasn't flashing. The bar had gone out of business. Originally the town cinema, it still had theater infrastructure. "I got a group together, put a to-go pizza place in the front and opened the Troy Pizza Theatre. It was the first series I got to run. You could really see the effect it had," she recalls.

When her husband got a job in Ann Arbor, she didn't want to leave her work in Idaho. The plethora of cultural opportunities in Treetown left less room for the impresario to maneuver. She found her niche as assistant director of the Ann Arbor Film Festival in 1999, moving up to executive director in 2002. In 2005, she joined the Stamps series as it morphed from a classroom program (begun in 1998) to a much broader survey of ideas based at the Michigan Theater.

"I love it that it's at the Michigan Theater. Rackham might make more sense, but this makes it a bridge between town and gown. You don't really see the gap but it's enormous. Getting students into the city – it's in the blind spot. We're the only major university series on city property," she points out.

The weekly series is free to attend but expensive to produce. The more its reputation grows, the costlier it becomes to present, Hamilton notes. "It's an interesting problem to have – we're building momentum as a name. An invitation from the Stamps series has some weight. We're looking for supporters to defray the expenses," she says.

But wait – isn't it the Penny W. Stamps Distinguished Visitor Series? Yes, but art school alumna Penny Stamps and her husband, Roe, provide an annual base budget, not an endowment. Additional support comes from media sponsor Michigan Radio.

Hundreds of people – many of them art students – attend the 5:10 pm Thursday lectures during fall and winter term in the historic Michigan Theater. Dozens of them come as a class requirement while others are just fascinated by the breadth and depth of topics covered.

Michael Moore's recent appearance attracted a turn-away audience with more than 800 people left outside the doors. Author Stewart Brand may be similarly magnetic. The environmentalist and creator of The Whole Earth Catalog will speak on Dec 3. The fall series concludes Dec. 10 with Lucy Orta's speech on body architecture, objects that evoke the need for change.

The series is not a petting zoo for artists. They have to have something to say. The mission behind the series is to be a funnel for ideas.

"Penny wanted to create an interface for student access to real-life artists. The series expanded beyond artists to creativity. "That's when I came into the picture, in July 2005," Hamilton says.
Working with a three-member faculty committee, she seeks speakers who transcend traditions and make the world better, creative minds successful at being effective.

"The cost really depends on the person – some people don't want anything. They're doing it for the right reasons. To fill our 24 dates in the year, we usually go through 150 to 200 invitations," she says.

"There are two people at the top of my wish list: Burt Rutan and Diane von Furstenberg. I would [also] love to get Wim Wenders," she says. Burt Rutan is the renowned aerospace engineer behind SpaceShip One, private sub-orbital personal space flight. Fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg is known as an arts patron. German filmmaker Wim Wenders has appeared in Ann Arbor before but not recently.

"I'm trying to book Agnes Varda, the French filmmaker, for March. She's an alumna of the 17th Ann Arbor Film Festival. Film artists bridge the gap (from popular) to fine arts," Hamilton adds.

Most of the lectures are recorded on video. There's also a DVD archive and podcasts on iTunes, as well as twice-weekly broadcasts on Michigan Television. But not every lecture is for every person. "We aim to turn lights on in the students' minds. The lectures feature an ebb and flow of entertainment, the political, aesthetics," she says.

"Some people are making it their date night. Get a sitter, come to the program, go out to dinner afterwards and discuss the lecture," Hamilton says. "It makes a space for ideas that we don't have in our daily lives. We especially need it now, especially in our state."

Constance Crump is an Ann Arbor writer whose work has appeared in Crain's Detroit Business, The Ann Arbor News, The Detroit Free Press, and Billboard Magazine.  Her previous article was MASTERMIND: Jake Suski. Send feedback here.


Chrisstina Hamilton Before the Penny Stamps Lecture-Ann Arbor

Penny Stamps Takes Over the Michigan Theater-Ann Arbor

Chrisstina Announces the Next Speaker-Ann Arbor

Chrisstina Hamilton

While a Tad Shy, the Audience Fills the Theater-Ann Arbor

All Photos by Dave Lewinski

Dave Lewinski
is Concentrate's Managing Photographer.  He also photographs for Hour Detroit Magazine and all of it's shelter publications. 
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