Imported inspiration: Ann Arbor's one-of-a-kind speaker series

For more than a decade, The Penny Stamps Speaker Series has brought innovative artists, thinkers and makers to Ann Arbor to speak to students and locals alike. For free! It's the only program of its kind in the nation, and it's impact has help forge an unique connection between the community and the university.
Each fall, a series of small miracles happens in Ann Arbor. Every Thursday at 5:10pm, the doors of the Michigan Theater open to the public and a distinguished speaker—often globally recognized in their field—makes an appearance, totally free to the public. The events have inspired artists, encouraged local entrepreneurs and even created career opportunities with the illustrious guests from around the world. And no where else does such a thing happen. 

"It's such a precious local resource," says the University of Michigan Stamps School of Art and Design's Director of Visitors' Programs Chrisstina Hamilton. "I can't say that I know of any other speaker series that exists—art and design focused or not—that happens off campus and is free for the general public on a weekly basis."

The University of Michigan's Penny Stamps Speaker Series is a true local gem—one that has been quietly growing for more than a decade. 

It's hard to say how long the Series has been going, even for Hamilton, who organizes it, because the program has evolved so much. It all started with a simple desire: U-M art school alum Penny Stamps wanted to give students access to successful art practitioners from the outside world to learn more about their field and also to build a network to help them get a foothold when embarking on their own careers.

"What that would look like developed. So did the idea of taking it off campus," says Hamilton. "We [decided] could take that engagement and network beyond the guests themselves, but the students are also able to make connections there, outside the confines of the university."

Impressive people & impacts

And that's exactly what has started happening, thanks to the growing popularity of the weekly series among students and community members alike. Students connect with local businesses and organizations, making the Penny Stamps Series a unique point of overlap between the university and Ann Arbor residents. 

And the impact flows into both groups. Just as a recent art student was able to find an internship placement with a high-profile sculptor in London, a local gallery owner wrote to Stamps to share how the series served as the inspiration to keep her business going though a tough time.

"It's really been able to touch people's lives in a significant way," Hamilton says.  

That kind of impact can't happen without some really outstanding guests. And that is what truly makes the Penny Stamps series unique. 

"As you build your roster of people who have come to speak, the series itself builds it own network and reputation," Hamilton says, "so we're able to get into conversation with people who, perhaps we wouldn't have had an easy time getting into conversation with before."

Think Anna Deavere Smith, Pussy Riot and Michael Graves - just a few of last year's guests. 

"We're not interested in people who are just generally on a speaking circuit, so speaking is not the primary focus of the individual's lives who we're inviting to come," says Hamilton. 

As impressive as some of those name are, they aren't even the part of the series' history of which Hamilton is the most proud.

"That's less impressive to me than the engagement we've seen grow within the community," she says. Twelve years ago, all of the attendees were students and faculty. 

"Last year," Hamilton says, "I think that the percentage of general public attending the series surpassed the number of students." 

The upcoming Series

This year's Penny Stamps Series is set to kick off Sept. 17 and promises an equally impressive roster.

"I'm really excited about the whole season," Hamilton says. "We have a really interesting mix of makers." 

The year begins with pioneering visual artist Julian Schnabel, whom Hamilton calls a "heavyweight" in the art world. The Ann Arbor series will also partner with the Detroit Design Festival to host South African artist Stephen Hobbs at the Detroit Institute of Art for a special Tuesday event, followed by bio-fabricator Suzanne Lee in Ann Arbor on Thursday. Lee experiments with growing new materials to be used as fabrics. 

Other big names included in this fall's line-up are photographer and visual activist Zanele Muholi, who explores black lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex identities and politics in South Africa, Detroit's own fashion legend Anna Sui, and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Luther Adams. Not only does Adams' appearance promise to be particularly fascinating, says Hamilton, but also, his lecture will be followed by a performance of his work at Hill Auditorium. 

Worried that with such big names, the free events will end up being standing room only? Hamilton says though the Penny Stamps Series is more popular than ever, there's no need to worry about running out of space quite yet in the 1,700-seat Michigan Theater.

"We still have a ways to go," she says. "I won't be happy until every seat is always full."

Your chance to help fill them up will come every Thursday this fall at 5:10 pm at the Michigan Theater beginning Sept 17. Visit the Penny Stamps Lecture Series website for this year's full line up. 

Natalie Burg is a senior writer at Concentrate and IMG project editor.

All photos by Doug Coombe.

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