With its mix of Midwestern casual and cosmopolitan flair, Ann Arbor has a collegial atmosphere and a reputation as a lively arts scene.
Even so, on my first visit, I was amazed by the ample opportunities and accessibility to a range of cultural attractions. Home to the University of Michigan, the city of 114,000 residents offers an abundance of high caliber museums and galleries.
Plus, two outstanding theatre companies, the Purple Rose and Performance Network Theatre, combine with a strong live music scene to ensure that there’s always something going on in the evening.
One highlight is The Ark, a historic venue celebrating its 50th year. Since starting out as a coffeehouse for local jammers, it now offers 300 performances annually with acoustic, folk, jazz and ethnic music. I attended a crowd-pleasing tribute to Ella Fitzgerald and Louie Armstrong performed by local musicians.
The following evening, I joined another engaged crowd of listeners at a performance of Handel’s Messiah by the Grammy award-winning University Musical Society and Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra at Hill Auditorium, known for excellent acoustics.
The University of Michigan Museum of Art is considered one of the best college art museums with its dramatic architecture and extensive collections.
Docent Gloria Nosse enlightened my group with thought provoking commentary on Chinese, Cambodian and African art exhibits, works by Picasso, Tiffany glass, and an entire room dedicated to Lego art.
The University also has an excellent Museum of Archeology and Natural History Museum, as well as installations of public art.
I took time to stroll the historic campus and visit the library to view the exhibit of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America, a bound collection of prints purchased by the University in 1839.
Numerous galleries represent artists from the region, and I discovered a few favorites, including WSG and Dancing Dog and the Ann Arbor Art Center.
For a look at locally made but nationally known tilework, Motawi Tileworks is quite impressive. In addition to visiting the small gallery, visitors can tour the workspace on Thursday mornings and see the unique handmade tiles being stamped, glazed, fired and painted in Arts & Crafts and Mid-century Modern styles.
For antique aficionados, two standouts are Bowerbird Mongo in nearby Ypsilanti for very reasonably priced finds, and Materials Unlimited, a trove with three floors of architectural salvage and restoration artistry including ironworks, windows, doors, lighting and hardware.
A highlight during my visit was KindleFest, a traditional Christmas market with artisan vendors. The whimsical Santas drew me in at the booth of folk artist Victoria Fox, who shows regularly at Ann Arbor’s Artisan and Farmers’ Market.
With its pedestrian-friendly Main Street area, Ann Arbor invites browsing and discovery any time of year.
For fanciful fun, the city offers an “urban fairy trail” leading to a series of tiny doors installed in select storefronts.
Whatever they’re seeking, visitors to Ann Arbor will discover a colorful palette to explore.