A Tale Of Two Cities

The SPUR Studios building in Ypsilanti is beige on the outside and damp on the inside, and a few of the darkly tinted windows are cracked and foggy with age. But, really, what do you expect for a building that has been lying vacant for eight years?

Located at 800 Lowell St., near Eastern Michigan University, SPUR Studios is taking this old two-story office building attached to an even older manufacturing facility and transforming its aged, musty offices into low-cost work spaces for artists and musicians. There isn't a lot of frill to it. In fact, there isn't a lot of anything to it, except walls, windows, and doors. And James Marks, the brains behind the project, wouldn't have it any other way.

"It's raw without being gross," he says as he walks in and out of the old office spaces-turned new artist studios. "There is a fine line between raw and gross." Marks is also the founder and creative director for VG Kids, a screen-printing and design shop on Michigan Avenue.

He has developed this project to provide low cost spaces to artists in hopes of spurring (get it?) more coolness, art, and people in Ypsilanti. Though, as he says, it doesn't need all that much spurring. "We've struck a balance here of affordable living and cool people, just like any place that's kicking seems to do," he says of Ypsilanti's growing art scene. "And Ypsi is kicking."

Ann Arbor, a 15 minute drive west, is an art city that's a bit different. This is not to say it isn't kicking, because it is. It just kicks differently. Where it lacks in arts-incubator spaces like SPUR – or Ypsilanti's Dreamland Theater – it makes up with years of established art and art commerce.

Organizations like the 100-year-old Ann Arbor Art Center, the 50-year-old Ann Arbor Art Fairs, the soon to be 28-year-old Performance Network, and the University of Michigan Museum of Art and its imports of national and international art, make Ann Arbor a different destination when it comes to art and artists. It attracts a different audience. The vibe is, in most cases, more formal as its downtown is filled with established galleries where children require an accompanying adult to enter. There isn't much in the way of cutting edge homegrown art, but what comes to visit the celebrated college town is first rate.

Ypsi, well, isn't Ann Arbor… it's Ypsi.

It has Eastern Michigan University, a school with fewer resources and, generally, a less privileged student body than Ann Arbor's University of Michigan. As of the 2000 census, Ann Arbor's median household income of $46,299 was nearly $20K higher than Ypsilanti's, at $28,610. Ypsilanti is a working class, slowly transforming factory town, whereas the hospital and U of M feed Ann Arbor. And, of course, one mustn't forget that the cost of living – both  renting and buying – is considerably lower in Ypsilanti. All these foster a different vibe, both on the street and in the art.

"If Ann Arbor is Broadway, then Ypsilanti is off-Broadway," says Carla Milarch, the executive director of Performance Network in Ann Arbor. Milarch says the Performance Network at its inception was considered the fringe, the new kids on the block in Ann Arbor's art world. But as the art nucleus of the city grew broader and broader, the fringe was pushed further and further out.

"That fringe used to be Washington Street," she says. "Now it's Ypsi."

"When you start appealing to a wider and wider audience, when you try to broaden your base, you take yourself out of the fringe," Milarch says. "Successful people want a wider and wider audience. If you do your job well, just the fact of doing that, your base grows."

Ann Arbor's base has grown. "Artists have been priced out of Ann Arbor," says Mark Maynard, one of the organizers of the Shadow Art Fair, a one-day, twice a year, locally loaded art fest. "Ann Arbor is very well established and it's hard for people to break in. Plus renting, it's expensive, this works against them, it hurts them." These things work toward Ypsilanti's advantage – toward this idea of DIY art on the cheap, toward this idea of Ypsilanti as an art incubator, a gritty field to cultivate young, edgy, vibrant art.

"We have a huge opportunity here to start something… something bigger," he says. "And the arts community is in place to start this something in Ypsi."

Donald Harrison, executive director of the Ann Arbor Film Festival, makes another analogy about the Ypsi-Ann Arbor arts dynamic. "I moved to Ann Arbor from northern California," he says. "And I liken the two cities to Oakland and San Francisco" – Oakland being Ypsilanti's counterpart and Ann Arbor the San Francisco part of the analogy. Oakland is grittier and cheaper than San Francisco, which is one of the most expensive places to live in the nation.

"You have artists moving (to Ypsilanti) 'cause they can afford it. If you have to pay $500 for a venue, you tend to play it safe. If it doesn't cost anything you look at it differently, more creatively, more imaginatively," he says. "You'll have a level of creative risk-taking. Ann Arbor is missing this."

Harrison says he isn't exactly sure why. Maybe it's because of the established tradition, maybe it's overpriced and cost-prohibitive, maybe it's that a Starbucks makes more money than a building full of artist spaces. Whatever it is, he says, there aren't enough outlets for younger artists.

"(Artists) need outlets," he says. "There needs to be more creative spaces, more alternative spaces. We need more things like SPUR Studios." Spaces like SPUR or the hyper local, edgy Shadow Art Fair, Harrison says, can help build a young, strong, and cohesive arts community.

With all the benefit and extra resources that Ann Arbor brings to the art community, it's Ypsilanti that seems to lend itself to spaces like what Harrison is talking about.

President and CEO of the Ann Arbor Art Center, Marsha Chamberlin has been part of this respected organization for 30 of its 100 years. "Ann Arbor is physically more formal than Ypsilanti," she says. "There is a young art scene in both cities but there is less grit here in Ann Arbor. There isn't that sort of empty warehouse space here." There have been a few pushes, however, to try and develop low-cost art spaces. Chamberlin and the Ann Arbor Art Center have made strides in the past to develop 415 Washtenaw into artists' studios and musicians' practice spaces. But, due to the economy, Chamberlin says, talks have stalled.

In the meantime, Ann Arbor's image doesn't escape Chamberlin. "I guess we're the establishment now," she says laughing. "When I started we were just an artist co-op, an enthusiastic group of artists that shared a vision. We had the right plan and it was the right time to make something. Now we're the establishment, now we are 'them.'"

Though there isn't much grit to Ann Arbor, there are some organizations that would fit nicely in the salt of Ypsi. Ann Arbor's Yellow Barn, run in part by Ann Arbor artist Britten Stringwell, is a newish edition to Ann Arbor. It brings a younger, vibrant, alternative vibe to some of Ann Arbor's more venerable establishments.

"For a younger audience Yellow Barn provides something less formal here in Ann Arbor," Stringwell says. "Which is something that's needed. There is a separation between high-end artwork in Ann Arbor and gritty Ypsi. But there is also a lot of overlap, too, under Ann Arbor's layers."

Still, the conversation of art in Ypsi and Ann Arbor goes back to affordability. It plays a lot into an art scene, both in cost of living and the market itself. And it has played a part in what is forming in Ypsilanti now.

"Ypsi has an aesthetic that Ann Arbor doesn't," says Chris Sandon, an Ypsilanti-based artist and SPUR Studios tenant manger of visual arts. "There is a freedom to do what you want to do 'cause it's more affordable. Detroit has a similar attitude. You can do what you want with less money." In other words, no chucking it all toward rent.

Yet, even though there are differences in the cities and their art worlds, both provide an incredible one-two art punch for not only Washtenaw County, but to Southeast Michigan as a whole.

"Both communities, in their differences, have an energy and are vital to our culture," says Shary Brown, executive director of the Ann Arbor Street Art Fair, The Original. "Each isn't trying to be each other, and in that is our successes. Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor are tremendous assets in Washtenaw County."

"Ypsi wouldn't be what it is without Ann Arbor and the region benefits from both of these scenes," Marks says. "We probably wouldn't have the Shadow Art Fair without the Ann Arbor Art Fair. The city gives us something to push against, to edge us on."

He adds, laughing: "And we can eat at all of its wonderful restaurants."

Terry Parris Jr. is the utility infielder for Concentrate and its sister pubs Metromode and Model D, and uses Twitter a lot more now than before. His last feature for Concentrate was Start-ups That Stay.


Chris Sandon at SPUR Studios-Ypsilanti

SPUR Studios In-Progress-Ypsilanti

The Ann Arbor Art Center's New Clay Studio-Ann Arbor

The Ann Arbor Art Center's New Clay Studio Part Deux-Ann Arbor

Marsha Chamberlain in the Clay Studio-Ann Arbor

The Yellow Barn Sans Stringwell-Ann Arbor

Mark Maynard Believes the Children Are Our Future; So Much So That He'll Play With Barbies to Support Them-Ypsilanti

SPUR Studios Robot Men-Ypsilanti

All Photos by Dave Lewinski

Dave Lewinski
is Concentrate's Managing Photographer.  He's going to rock the Shadow Art Fair this winter.  Just you wait.