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Arts & Resistance theme semester to engage campus, community

The University of Michigan is kicking off the 2023-24 academic year with the Arts & Resistance theme semester in a demonstration of the central role the arts play in shaping the world.

This campuswide endeavor provides numerous opportunities to engage with the arts and learn about how they help define cultural movements and impact society.

The theme semester is co-organized by a cross-campus coalition that includes the Arts Initiative, U-M Museum of Art and LSA, with participation from a wide variety of campus units and nine schools and colleges. Nearly 100 public events will take place this fall and include more than 20 visiting artists representing various disciplines, ideas and forms.

Programming consists of exhibitions, keynote lectures, concerts, performances, workshops and more. The Arts Initiative has awarded more than 60 theme semester projects and programs with grants totaling more than $500,000.

“One of UMMA’s core values is the belief that art strengthens human connection and creates a more just world. And during this year’s theme semester, UMMA is celebrating and honoring the power of the arts to change hearts and minds,” said Jim Leija, deputy director of public experience and learning at UMMA.

“UMMA’s two major exhibition projects this fall platform BIPOC artists and the powerful ways in which they are resisting the forces of white supremacy and imagining a more equitable and joyful future. The Arts & Resistance theme semester is unleashing the impressive creative and artistic capacities of the University of Michigan, and highlighting our role as a vibrant and dynamic international hub of artistic practice.”

In addition to public events and programs, the semester includes more than 100 theme-specific courses taught by U-M faculty. All across U-M’s three campuses students will learn about the forms, methods, histories, influence, design, implications and future of arts being used as resistance.

Participating units, schools and colleges include, but are not limited to, LSA, School of Dentistry, College of Engineering, School of Music, Theatre & Dance, Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design, A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning and the School of Social Work, as well as activations through the Arts Initiative at the UM-Flint and UM-Dearborn campuses.

“This theme semester is a months-long, immersive experience that in and of itself is an act of resistance to the norm,” said Christopher Audain, managing director of the Arts Initiative. “There is an opportunity here for everyone to engage in ways they have not before, and to find their own way — or better yet a way with others — to artfully resist and create change that makes progress towards the world they want to live in.”

Theme semesters provide the opportunity for the U-M community to collectively explore ideas around a common theme, and provide intellectual and cultural immersion in a particular topic across U-M. They have been an integral part of the teaching and learning experience on campus for more than two decades, connecting the great intellectual and cultural strengths of U-M to the issues defining our world today.

New York street artist spotlights racial, gender experiences of U-M students on campus buildings

ANN ARBOR—Brooklyn-based public art phenom Tatyana Fazlalizadeh has installed larger-than-life portraits of Black and brown, queer and women-identified students at the University of Michigan upon the facades of several buildings across campus. 

As artist in residence at the U-M Institute for the Humanities, Fazlalizadeh created “To Be Heard,” an exploration of identity encouraging understanding of racial and gender experiences on campus through art, publicly on view through mid-October.

Well known for her previous collection “Stop Telling Women to Smile,” which was profiled by The New York Times, NPR, The New Yorker and Time, Fazlalizadeh’s work takes on social justice issues in an upfront, visual way.

In the classroom, she will lead conversations with students around thought-provoking world issues surrounding race, gender, and their personal opinions and experiences at U-M, in particular—from the experience of walking around campus, to pressures they experience in the classroom; how they got here and why they chose this university; who their community of support is while they are at school vs. in their home life. 

“My work is meant to provide space for voices that need to be heard, so I want those voices to be loud and I want them to be honest. I want them to be very bold and very brave,” Fazlalizadeh said. 

The impermanence of her work contributes to the meaning and urgency of its message, she said. 

“We have these faces and words we are amplifying, but it won’t be up forever, so once you see this, what do you do with it? Do you let it go away, as the work comes down, or do you take their message with you into your lives, like the lives and experiences of the art’s subjects continue to unfold and develop,” she said. 

Fazlalizadeh challenges the university to keep the conversation going and to continue to challenge oppression in its many forms.

“Fazlalizadeh’s work is very much about the students being heard and occupying institutional spaces,” said Amanda Krugliak, curator at the Institute for the Humanities Gallery. “It isn’t static. The project has built into it space for discourse, for dissent, for constructive critique and future visions. It continues to challenge archaic ideas as to who we should honor in public spaces with monuments or buildings, and to publicly present the thoughts and voices of people whose voices have historically been overlooked.”

Several oversized murals adorn the Modern Languages Building, Shapiro Undergraduate Library and Trotter Multicultural Center. There are also several cutouts of lifesize drawings posted on the grounds of Central Campus. 

“Each cutout and each installation on each building has the potential to be resonant in a different way and change the very landscape on campus and the way we see things,” Krugliak said.

While Fazlalizadeh has worked with other universities and institutions, including Columbia University’s Black Girl Magic conference, this is her first time having a gallery exhibition in conjunction with her public mural project.

“They sort of balance each other out,” she said. “We have this big public art project with many voices confronting the institutional sexism or racism on in the world, but in the gallery we have this more quiet exhibition that is thinking about the same topics but within an enclosed, private, intimate space; we still wrestle and navigate those same issues in different spaces and environments, and these works show what that feels like.”

“Pressed Against My Own Glass,” a multimedia installation on Black womanhood within the home space, will be on view at the Humanities Gallery through Oct. 21. Here Fazlalizadeh explores her childhood and adulthood within the domestic space and how it connects to the experiences of other Black women and those who had a “girlhood.” 

Using paintings, drawings, video and reappropriated home objects, she examines her experiences of joy, rest, sadness, fellowship and even threats of violence within the home in times of the civil unrest we have seen in recent years. 

In a conversation between Fazlalizadeh and Krugliak, they discuss an inactive space becoming active; the idea that even once the art is removed from the facades of these impenetrable-seeming buildings, they will have forever changed the picture. They hope and believe that people will never look at those walls the same way again once they have seen Tatyana’s work on them, making these buildings less daunting, more “for everyone.”

Prisoner art exhibit makes its US debut at Ann Arbor Art Fair

ANN ARBOR—”WE BEAR,” an art exhibit featuring works sourced by the University of Michigan’s Prison Creative Arts Project, will make its U.S. debut at the Ann Arbor Art Fair July 21-23.

The work of more than a dozen artists incarcerated in the Ann Arbor area—and a dozen more from across the United Kingdom—will be exhibited after a successful showing at the Coventry Biennial in England.

With a mission of supporting artists at all stages of their artistic practice, PCAP presented incarcerated artists with the same prompts: a work of art featuring bears from the American Folk Art Museum in New York and one from the Compton Verney Art Gallery and Park in Warwickshire, England. Organizers posed questions to inspire creativity pondering how the bear might be feeling, and where the bear might be in those works. 

“One of PCAP’s missions is to bring art from ‘the inside,’ outside to humanize people in prison, as well as create a larger dialogue around mass incarceration,” said Sarah Unrath, PCAP arts programming coordinator. 

The artwork this project inspired puts a spotlight on the human condition, particularly in the time of COVID when prisons did not lend themselves to social distancing or mental health solutions, PPE was not provided and overcrowding became a more prevalent issue, she said.

WE BEAR, art by Alvin Smith

WE BEAR, art by Alvin Smith

“So often people in prison are put away and become ‘out of sight, out of mind,'” Unrath said. “Unless you have a loved one who is incarcerated or has dealt with the justice system, you don’t often think about it in your day-to-day life. 

“The idea that the U.S. locks away more of the population than any other country in the world, and all the issues with mass incarceration, it’s almost like this big secret. By bringing this issue to the forefront, we are not allowing people to forget about the humans that are still being held behind bars.” 

Ninety-five percent of people in prison will be returned to society, according to the Congressional Research Service. PCAP’s focus on humanizing artists in prison through their art aims to create a more supportive and understanding community, and to encourage artistic collaboration, mutual learning and growth, Unrath said.

WE BEAR, art by Parker Ayers

WE BEAR, art by Parker Ayers

On-site with the exhibit at Liberty and Main streets, PCAP will host storytelling 2-4 p.m. July 21 and spoken word performances—from slam poetry to monologues to raps—2:30-4:30 p.m. July 22. 

Citizens for Prison Reform will have an interactive model of a solitary cell on display at the fair for visitors to experience the conditions under which these artists were finding their inspiration and creating their art.

Prison artwork live again after 2 years of digital versions

ANN ARBOR—The University of Michigan Prison Creative Arts Project presents the 26th annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners, the largest exhibition in the world of its kind.

“Falling Down Locked Up,” Ink & Colored Pencil. Image credit: Tyler Gaastra

The free, public exhibition highlights the work of 392 artists from 26 state correctional facilities in Michigan. It features 714 paintings, drawings and three-dimensional works. 

After two years of not being able to meet the artists in person (the 2020 show was canceled and last year’s exhibition was virtual), PCAP staff and volunteers had strong reactions to reconnecting with them.

“There was no greater joy I experienced this year than visiting artists in prison,” said PCAP Director Nora Krinitsky. “Despite everything, PCAP artists have persevered and they continue to create works of great ingenuity, nuance, thoughtfulness and playfulness. I’m humbled by it.” 

For Krinitsky, art selection trips to each facility are at the heart of the exhibition because this is when powerful dialogue happens between artists and volunteers. 

MSW graduate Emily Cole was among the group of U-M students, staff, faculty, community members and local artists who traveled to all 26 participating prisons in Michigan in search of the best works of art created.

“I learned a great deal about what inspires their work, such as their family, passions outside of art, and the goals that they have set for themselves in the future,” Cole said.

The show features diversity of both artists and artistic choices. Artists range from 18 to 80 years old, men and women from across the state with diverse racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Most pieces are for sale, with proceeds going directly to the artists.

Last year, almost half of the 823 pieces were sold, generating $28,945 in just two weeks. There is a broad array of artistic media and subject matter, including landscapes, portraits, prison scenes and political statements. 

“Many artists chose to respond visually to several topics that currently dominate the news and public discourse,” said curator Charlie Michaels. “They include emotional and thoughtful reflections on isolation and COVID-19, on the American political landscape, and personal perspectives on race and the Black Lives Matter movement.”

  • "At our Wit's End," Paint. Image credit: Serge Tkachenko
  • "Curiosity Built the World," Acrylic. Image credit: Albert Kakosky III
  • "Even in the Dark, There's Beauty," Acrylic. Image credit: Daniel Teribery
  • “3 Dodo Birds, Acrylic. Image credit: Darryl Rattew

Senior curator Janie Paul started the Annual Exhibition in 1996 with her husband and PCAP founder Buzz Alexander. Paul, a community-based artist and U-M professor emerita whose primary focus is the capacity of visual meaning-creation as a vehicle for social change, has been bringing art from prisons across the state to campus each year.  

Paul and Alexander traveled to 16 prisons in Michigan to collect art for the first show in 1996. 

"We were just mind-blown by the work," Paul said. "We discovered it was such an important event both for the artists inside and for the community. It brought us all together."

The exhibition is at the Duderstadt Gallery, 2281 Bonisteel Blvd. on U-M's North Campus March 22-April 5. Gallery hours are noon-6 p.m. Sunday and Monday; 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. 

The opening celebration begins at 6:30 p.m. March 22. It features speakers from U-M and the Michigan Department of Corrections, artists from previous exhibitions and a performance by the U-M Out of the Blue choir. 

UMSI students provide Arab American National Museum invaluable community accessibility and usability expertise

The halls of the stately Arab American National Museum (AANM), usually echoing with the patter of feet and expressions of awe, have sat silently awaiting the return of patrons since March 2020.

With the pandemic necessitating the temporary closure of AANM’s physical space, the institution turned to University of Michigan School of Information (UMSI) students for assistance and expertise in improving the digital accessibility of the museum’s collections.

Located in Dearborn, Michigan, AANM is the only museum out of the nation’s 35,000 that is dedicated to preserving, celebrating and sharing Arab American culture. The institution has long been a champion of curatorial accessibility; however, ensuring that its tens of thousands of annual in-person visitors have the same intimate and meaningful interactions with its online collections is a new challenge.

While the museum was closed due to the pandemic, staff hosted an online music festival, in their pajamas, from Yasmine Nasser Diaz’s “Teenage Bedroom” installation. Video by AANM. 

“The pandemic and our inability to have visitors come to the museum really forced us to ask who’s accessing our things online, who do we want to be accessing them and whether they’re getting the full experience that we want them to,” says Matt Jaber Stiffler, the research and content manager at AANM and lecturer within the U-M College of Literature, Science and the Arts’ American Culture department.

To answer these questions, Master of Science in Information (MSI) students William Cheng, Michelle Torby and Angel Caranna met regularly with Stiffler as part of the fall 2020 SI 547: Engaging with Communities course, led by clinical associate professor David Wallace. The class is client-based, meaning that companies, nonprofits or organizations host student teams that work to address real-world information challenges.

UMSI’s Engaged Learning Office helps recruit projects for the course that facilitate community partnerships and allow students to make an impact while building their portfolio through real-world experiences. In SI 547, students are challenged to examine the principles, methods and ethics involved in community collaboration.

The Arab American National Museum, located in Dearborn, is the first and only museum in the U.S. that is devoted to Arab-American history and culture.

Wallace says, “This type of experiential, hands-on, client-facing work is fundamental for professional development as it explicitly joins course theories and concepts to pragmatic, real-world problem solving and shaping positive client outcomes.”

At the start of the semester, each student submitted a questionnaire surveying their skills, experience and interests. The students were subsequently matched with projects where they could make a meaningful impact.

Cheng, who graduated from the MSI program in spring 2021, was excited to be a part of AANM’s project because he could exercise both his technical user experience (UX) design skills and his empathetic objectivity.

“I’m an international student, so I can relate to the way that Arab people feel in U.S. society in terms of status and suffering,” Cheng said. He came to UMSI after growing up in Taiwan and earning both a BA and MA in library and information science from National Taiwan University.

The students worked with Stiffler and the team at AANM to set realistic goals. AANM had just migrated to a new website for the first time in 13 years during June 2020. Around the same time, the museum had been forced to lay off nearly two-thirds of its staff due to pandemic budgeting constraints.

The museum’s website contains object, archival, art and library collections in addition to born-digital collections that preserve online content. AANM started the partnership with the intent of making the museum’s digital space more accessible specifically for those with hearing and vision impairments.

Through a series of user interviews, students discovered that people with sensory impairments were not the only users having trouble accessing information on AANM’s new site. The students determined the website needed a stronger structure before it made sense to solely concentrate on audio and visual accessibility.

Entrance to the exhibit “Coming to America” at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn.

“We expanded the project’s scope to focus on general accessibility that could benefit everyone,” says Torby, a second-year MSI student.

Her advice to those taking client-based courses is to “be open to changing the scope of the project and working with the organizations to voice your concerns, because if you don’t, then you can’t best pivot to meet the needs of everyone.”

The students spent four months engaging with the website to create a usability report. During their regular meetings with the team, AANM was receptive and often implemented the students’ suggested changes on the spot.

AANM found the experience of working with the students so useful that when an opportunity arose to continue the partnership during the winter 2021 semester in the SI 622: Needs Assessment Usability course, they seized it. A new group of MSI students, including Austin Zielinski, Jordan Graves, Qinchi Chen and Shujie Li, picked up the project.

In SI 622, students utilize a variety of methods — including observation, surveys, interviews, performance analysis, evaluation in the design/iteration cycle, usability tests and assessment of systems — to provide clients with recommendations for performance improvement. The winter 2021 course was taught by clinical assistant professor Mustafa Naseem.

“The AANM project goal was to better understand how to bring users to the website and how they access information,” says Zielinski, a second-year MSI student.

Epicenter X, a timely exhibition of Saudi Contemporary Art in Dearborn, Michigan opened at the Arab American National Museum (AANM) on 8 July 2017, and ran until 1 October 2017.

The interdisciplinary team assessed the website and held interviews with users and stakeholders. They also conducted comparative analysis assessments with other museums and did usability testing. At the end of the semester, the students sent a report to AANM along with a final video summarizing their findings.

“The recommendations were very clear: Change the wording of headings for clarity, adopt color contrasts to make screen reading easier and run tests to understand how screen readers are picking up the information,” Stiffler shares. “We had really good suggestions, so it’s just a matter of implementing them now.”

Stiffler and his colleagues at AANM were impressed by the final product. “It was very professional, very useful. Throughout our conversations, the team understood what we were trying to do, and the end product will be very helpful for us as we move forward.”

AANM recently reopened to the public and hopes to continue implementing the changes to their website for those interested in exploring the museum’s digital collections. The institution plans on sustaining its relationship with UMSI in the future, too.

“I think it’s great that UMSI is so invested in these projects. It’s really nice that we don’t have to seek out ways to get help, that they’re always there,” Stiffler says.

Fair Representation in Arts and Data

Stamps Associate Professor Sophia Brueckner has long known that small things can make a big impact. However, the fact really hit home for her very recently through her work with the ongoing research project, ​Fair Representation in Arts and Data.” In the last year, she’s been part of a team of dedicated University of Michigan (U‑M) researchers who used several of the most popular face detection algorithms designed to distinguish a variety of factors (including gender and race) to analyze the entire collection at UMMA.

We’re trying to draw parallels between bias and exclusion in the museum world and bias and exclusion in technology,” Brueckner says. ​With our research, we hope to create a more aware — and more inclusive — local community and world.”

Funded by the U‑M’s Arts Initiative, Brueckner explains that the year-long collaboration between data scientists, artists, and museum curators has focused on exploring how bias is present and problematic, the process where bias happens, and if they could recognize some trends in the diversity of UMMA’s collection.

There’s simply no other project like this anywhere, and it’s really important research to have in this day and age,” says the project’s lead investigator and data scientist, Dr. Jing Liu.

Liu, who is also the managing director of the Michigan Institute for Data Science, shares that previous to working on ​Fair Representation in Arts and Data,” she had already been kicking around the idea of how artwork could be used to demonstrate to the public, ​in a very intuitive way, both the power of data science and the harm of data science.”

We know that data science and artificial intelligence (AI) systems have implicit bias and that momentum needs to be built up around the topic,” Liu says. ​For a few years now we have thought about educating the public in some way. When we found out that there was funding for pilot projects, I knew it was a chance to be a part of doing something really substantial.”

Working Together To Make Change

The project’s initial findings are certainly thought-provoking. Some key highlights were not too surprising to the research team. For instance, they uncovered that the algorithms often failed in recognizing females in the collection and that the collection is very white-heavy.

We essentially did face detection over UMMA’s entire collection,” Brueckner explains. ​We found all the faces in the collection and then we applied algorithms that are available publicly and open source, which helped identify race classification and gender classification to those faces.”

She said that it’s very hard to understand sometimes why these algorithms are making certain decisions, but the researchers have found the results really interesting. She points to one unexpected discovery: when left to an algorithm to categorize visual input, the most representative face found in the collection is a painting of a clown.

Georges Rouault, Cirque de l’Etoile Filante. Plate XIII: Le Renchéri (p.106), 1935. Full information

We applied a different type of algorithm that looks at which features are really important in detecting a face and then look at the averages,” Brueckner says. ​That the algorithm concluded on the ​clown’ is funny, but it actually sort of makes sense, because clowns have exaggerated facial makeup.”

Motivated by the knowledge that both the algorithms and UMMA’s collection are biased, the ​Fair Representation in Arts and Data” team inspired the UMMA exhibition, White Cube Black Box.

The phrase ​White Cube’ is a term that refers to museums historically being exclusionary and having blank white walls and removing all the context, which makes the work actually quite inaccessible for those who aren’t highly educated in the subject matter or coming from certain communities,” Brueckner explains. ​And, the term ​Black Box’ is used in engineering to talk about how a lot of these technologies that we rely on are opaque.”

She and the rest of the research team are currently talking about the next steps of expanding the project. In the meantime, Brueckner is looking forward to public feedback – UMMA visitors can see the initial findings on display at the Apse at UMMA inside of the You Are Here exhibit. Curated by Jennifer M. Friess, associate curator of photography at UMMAYou Are Here centers on the idea of being present as the world reopens after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Friess shares that the idea of being present is different for everyone. In her view, It can be really joyous to be back in a museum, but if a person doesn’t see themself represented in a collection, and in the works that are on view, then it can be quite alienating.

Entrance at UMMA during the “You Are Here” exhibit (2021).

White Cube Black Box really makes such a good counterpoint and another way to speak to the idea of being here,” Friess says. ​Underneath monitors, where the findings and research play out in a narrative way, we’ve asked the question ​Are you here?’ as a type of reverse of the exhibit title, and people can really take in the data and contemplate and make connections.”

She and the rest of the research team are currently talking about the next steps of expanding the project. In the meantime, Brueckner is looking forward to public feedback – UMMA visitors can see the initial findings on display at the Apse at UMMA inside of the You Are Here exhibit. Curated by Jennifer M. Friess, associate curator of photography at UMMAYou Are Here centers on the idea of being present as the world reopens after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Friess shares that the idea of being present is different for everyone. In her view, It can be really joyous to be back in a museum, but if a person doesn’t see themself represented in a collection, and in the works that are on view, then it can be quite alienating.

White Cube Black Box really makes such a good counterpoint and another way to speak to the idea of being here,” Friess says. ​Underneath monitors, where the findings and research play out in a narrative way, we’ve asked the question ​Are you here?’ as a type of reverse of the exhibit title, and people can really take in the data and contemplate and make connections.”

Viewers examining UMMA’s 2019 Photography Exhibition “Take Your Pick,” which showcased every aspect of 20th-century American life you can imagine—and some you probably can’t.

For Liu, the power of people from different disciplines coming together to share ideas has not escaped her. She shares that in her usual experience when different groups of people talk about the same topic, they tend to talk over each other.

But, with our project, artists and scientists sat down and talked with each other and learned from each other and challenged each other to strengthen our collective effort,” she says. ​I want to see more of this and I’m really hoping that our project is an example that helps to steer things away from the status quo.”

Seconding her wish is Brueckner, who also hopes that the team’s work will steer people towards becoming more educated consumers who will vote for more data privacy and security. If the project can provide an inroad to making people aware of the pitfalls in technology that is being embedded locally, and all across the world, a bit earlier, then she’ll be plenty happy.

This type of biased data collection is already being deployed around the world, and some of it is useful and some of it is frankly pretty scary,” she says. ​Recently, there was a disturbing case in Detroit where a child was misidentified at a skating rink and was given a ban all because of an algorithm. We need to raise awareness that these algorithms are still deeply flawed.”

A Rare Opportunity: SMTD Musical Theatre Students Undertake Extensive Preparation for Roles in UMS’ Production of Fiddler on the Roof

Musical theatre students in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance (SMTD) have countless opportunities to learn from world-class scholars and practitioners: in courses taught by faculty, in masterclasses conducted by industry professionals, in visits from alumni working on Broadway. An upcoming production offers a group of musical theatre students an entirely different educational opportunity: the chance to perform alongside Broadway actors, in a production led by a professional creative team—including Broadway director Sarna Lapine and music director Andy Einhorn—and accompanied by major orchestras. The University Musical Society (UMS) is producing lightly staged concert performances of Fiddler on the Roof in Hill Auditorium, February 19-20, starring Broadway performers Chuck Cooper (Tevye) and Loretta Ables Sayre (Golde), along with 14 musical theatre students. An additional six students serve as understudies for the production. The Ann Arbor performances will feature the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra and will be the first live performances of John Williams’ orchestral arrangement of the movie score. The Williams score had not been preserved in written form in the 50 years since the film’s premiere and had to be reconstructed. Two weeks after the Ann Arbor performances, the production will head to Philadelphia, where it will be performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

“I think that this show speaks to everybody. And the idea of how we’re born into traditions and how we push forward as a society, so when we see the struggles of this one particular family it’s really an extension of everyone,” Music Director and Conductor Andy Einhorn said. 

  • This week, Broadway professionals worked alongside @umichmusicaltheatre students in their production of “Fiddler on the Roof in Concert,” debuting in Hill Auditorium on Feb. 19.
  • This week, Broadway professionals worked alongside @umichmusicaltheatre students in their production of “Fiddler on the Roof in Concert,” debuting in Hill Auditorium on Feb. 19.
  • This week, Broadway professionals worked alongside @umichmusicaltheatre students in their production of “Fiddler on the Roof in Concert,” debuting in Hill Auditorium on Feb. 19.
  • This week, Broadway professionals worked alongside @umichmusicaltheatre students in their production of “Fiddler on the Roof in Concert,” debuting in Hill Auditorium on Feb. 19.
  • This week, Broadway professionals worked alongside @umichmusicaltheatre students in their production of “Fiddler on the Roof in Concert,” debuting in Hill Auditorium on Feb. 19.
  • This week, Broadway professionals worked alongside @umichmusicaltheatre students in their production of “Fiddler on the Roof in Concert,” debuting in Hill Auditorium on Feb. 19.
  • This week, Broadway professionals worked alongside @umichmusicaltheatre students in their production of “Fiddler on the Roof in Concert,” debuting in Hill Auditorium on Feb. 19.
The beloved stage musical and film – based on the Yiddish-language stories of Sholem Aleichem – explores the tension between tradition and evolving norms in Anatevka, a poor Jewish shtetl (village), in early 20th-century Russia. Tevye the dairyman extols the traditions that govern Anatevka, dreams of a more comfortable existence, and seeks to arrange favorable marriages for his daughters. His daughters, on the other hand, long to depart from tradition, and the shtetl faces imminent threats to its existence from pogroms, the deadly anti-Semitic massacres that displaced scores of Jewish communities in Czarist Russia. Seeking to raise awareness of the relevance of Fiddler on the Roof to contemporary events, including a rise in anti-Semitism and global migration crises, UMS partnered with several University of Michigan departments – the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies, the Center for Russian and East European Studies, the Copernicus Center for Polish Studies, and the Center for European Studies – to present programs for the public in conjunction with the performance. Michael McElroy, chair of the Department of Musical Theatre and the Arthur E. and Martha S. Hearron Endowed Professor of Musical Theatre, says that examining Fiddler’s context was a vital component of the experience for the students in the production. “We’re looking at all these traditional musicals through a new lens. How do we explore our history—which is steeped with a lot of baggage—and find the things about traditional musical theatre that are worth celebrating,” he said. Keenly aware of students’ concerns about telling the stories of communities they aren’t a part of, McElroy wanted to take the steps necessary to help his students feel more comfortable in their roles. It’s a question, he noted, of “how we as artists step into other spaces that don't necessarily represent our own lived experience.” He acknowledged that all artists do that, but, he asked, “if we're saying yes, that's what we're going to do as a community, then what is our responsibility?” The answer, McElroy determined, was to learn and understand – about Jewish traditions, about Yiddish language and culture, and about the lives of Jews in Eastern European shtetls. Before the roles in Fiddler had even been cast, he gathered all of the musical theatre students to meet with Rabbi Lisa Stella, director of religious life and education at U-M Hillel, Rabbi Josh Whinston of Congregation Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor. Students also met with Christi-Anne Castro, interim director of diversity, equity, and inclusion for SMTD. “I was really honored to be asked to talk to them,” Stella says, “and I think it showed sensitivity on the part of everyone involved.” McElroy began the process by asking whether the Jewish students in the department and the rabbis felt it was appropriate for, as McElroy states, “a diverse group of artists to tell a story that is steeped in Jewish culture and tradition, like Fiddler on the Roof.” The answer was a resounding yes.

The characters of ‘Fiddler’ come to life this weekend with the help of costume designer Beth Goldenberg.

Once the roles were cast, McElroy scheduled for the students a series of sessions with U-M professors and other educators, inviting them to meet with the students and address a wide range of topics. One of the guests was Mira Sussman, a Jewish educator and the resettlement resource development manager for Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County. Along with Stella, Sussman spoke with the students about Jewish identity and history, explaining that “Judaism is not just an ethnicity or a religion, but it is also a way of life and a culture.” And while there are abundant examples of persecution throughout Jewish history, Sussman emphasized the joyfulness of her Jewish identity, noting “that trauma and discrimination is not the totality of our lived experience.” The session concluded with the teaching of the hora, the traditional circle dance that is a feature of many Jewish weddings and bar and bat mitzvah celebrations. Levinson told the students that the era depicted in Fiddler was a time of significant transition in Eastern Europe; many people were embracing revolutionary ideologies, he noted, and “rejecting tradition and rejecting religion and rejecting hierarchies of all kinds.” At the same time, Levinson asked the students to think about the fact that Fiddler reflects not just the era depicted in the musical, but the era in which it was written. He encouraged them to consider the musical, written in the early 1960s, as “an expression of postwar American Jewish culture.” Levinson pointed out that the themes explored in Fiddler – “conflicts between tradition and modernity, conflicts about gender, about the role of individual decision, love, [and] yearning in relation to the needs of the community” – resonate with people of many cultures worldwide.

In support of the performance, you can find a collection of Polish posters of Fiddler on the Roof from the last four decades on display through March 18 at Weiser Hall (Gallery Space, 5th Floor).

In another session, Stella gathered with the students to discuss Shabbat, sharing relevant passages from the Torah. “I wanted to ground them a little bit in the context of what the Jewish Sabbath is,” she says, “and how significant it is in the framework of Jewish life.” Stella also gave the students a sense of how Eastern European Jews in the time of Fiddler would have celebrated Shabbat. And finally, she shared with them her own Shabbat traditions, setting up a table with a tablecloth, her grandmother’s candlesticks, and a kiddush cup, the special receptacle for the wine that accompanies the blessing for Shabbat. Mikhail Krutikov, chair of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures and the Preston R. Tisch Professor of Judaic Studies, met with the students via Zoom and painted a picture of life in the shtetl, sharing images, describing the marketplace, and explaining that Jews and Christians coexisted in these villages and surrounding areas. "Understanding the historical context adds depth and complexity to the performance and helps actors create more nuanced and multilayered characters,” Krutikov says. The process involved in preparing for this production of Fiddler was not without its challenges. But this work is essential, says McElroy. “How do we earn that right, to step into an experience that is not our own? By doing the work and bringing your empathy, bringing your humanity, and honoring [that story] through telling it in the fullest possible way,” he says.

Ancestor garden: Community plants butterfly garden honoring Detroiters lost to COVID-19

DETROIT–Asia Hamilton showed up on a misty fall day to Detroit’s historic Virginia Park district to plant three flowers: one for her mother, one for her father, and another for her sister.

She was one of dozens of people that stopped by that day to ceremoniously plant blooms one-by-one, each in honor of loved ones who had passed away—most from COVID-19. Many were unable to have funerals during the pandemic.

It’s no surprise so many gathered. An early “hot spot” in the pandemic, the city of Detroit data indicate that more than 2,800 Detroiters have died of COVID-19 to date with more than 7,000 deaths likely related to the virus.

“Losing my mom last year was really shocking, especially to COVID,” said Hamilton. “And since then, I’ve really gotten into gardening. A garden is a place that offers peace, beauty and unity, and I thought it would be an amazing way to honor her and other family members I’ve lost.”

Venita Thompkins said that every memorial garden needs a soldier in it, so she planted a purple coneflower in honor of her brother, Irvin Thompkins, a Vietnam veteran who died from COVID-19 in May 2021.

“Every garden needs a soldier in it; this is for Irvin Thompkins,” said Venita Thompkins, referencing her brother, a Vietnam veteran who died from COVID-19 in May 2021, as she knelt down to plant a purple coneflower. 

Samantha Pickering found out about the garden over the summer and had been looking forward to participating.

“I lost my dad to COVID April 1, 2020, so I came here to do something in memory of him. Having to grieve through isolation, we never had a funeral or memorial service, so I’m grateful for this opportunity.”

They all had responded to a call for community members to contribute to the planting of the “Ancestor Posterity Butterfly Garden,” located just outside the Joseph Walker Williams Center off of Rosa Parks Boulevard. The three-year-long project is the brainchild of University of Michigan alumnus Douglas Jones, a Detroit-based artist, activist and community organizer, and his co-collaborator and fellow artist Errin Whitaker. 

Just before the stay-at-home orders were issued in March 2020, the project was commissioned and greenlit by the city of Detroit and Design Core Detroit. Though the plan was always to design a garden in the historic neighborhood, the pandemic and its devastating impact on the people of Detroit gave it more meaning as plans stopped and stalled but continued to move forward. 

“It feels so great to be out here today, to see this come to life,” said Jones, who greeted each person stepping onto the plot with a cheery hello and a socially distanced elbow bump.

Jones, who has facilitated public art projects in several locations across Michigan including Detroit, Jackson, Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Grand Rapids, says the garden is an example of the brand of “public art” that he believes in. 

“Through my work as an artist, I’m trying to shift the narrative of public art,” he said. “Most of it is consumptive, but I’ve always thought of it as something that requires participation and collaboration from the community, from the people that will enjoy it most.”

Errin Whitaker, a Detroit artist who collaborated with Jones to create the butterfly garden, created the ancestor posterity chair that is positioned in the middle of the garden.

Led by Jones and Whitaker, there were several people who helped bring the project to fruition, including Kyle Bartell, co-founder of Sit On It Detroit, who crafted the wooden benches that surround the garden and Akello Karamoko, a farmer at Keep Growing Detroit who grew the starter seeds for the native Michigan plants that make up the butterfly garden. 

While Jones designed the garden, Whitaker created the “ancestor posterity chair” that is positioned in the middle of the plot, where it will eventually be enveloped in plants as the garden matures in the coming years. According to the artists, the chair was inspired by Wole Soyinka, a Nigerian playwright first introduced to Jones while taking undergrad classes at U-M, and his idea of a symbolic chair created for our ancestors, both past and future.

“My biggest influence with the chair was my grandmother. She had three daughters and three grandsons and she never thought we got enough rest as Black men,” Whitaker said. “I made the chair in quarantine, where I was able to sit still and rest. I thought about her a lot while making it, and I thought about all of the people, ancestors, that are continuing to transition during this time.”

Jones and Whitaker are currently working to create potential community programming related to the garden, and to create a plan with the community to continue its upkeep.

“We didn’t realize how powerful the idea would be pre-pandemic when we started planning the project,” Jones said. “It’s full of symbolism—hope, unity, renewal—and I know it will be cared for and nurtured by all of the people who showed up today to grieve and reflect. This is the kind of art that I want to do.”

Just outside the garden, a historic sign memorializes those who died during the events of the summer of 1967.

This is Michigan

$12M gift of Chinese calligraphy transforms Asian art collection at U-M Museum of Art

ANN ARBOR—The University of Michigan Museum of Art has received a gift of Chinese calligraphy from the family of Lo Chia-Lun valued at more than $12 million—the largest gift of art in the university’s history.

The Lo Chia-Lun Calligraphy Collection, donated by his daughter Jiu-Fong Lo Chang and her husband Kuei-sheng Chang, will transform the museum’s Asian art collection, adding an impressive breadth of works to an already stellar collection of Chinese paintings and ceramics.

Lo Chia-Lun (1897-1969) was a student leader in China’s “May Fourth Movement” and became a prominent government official in Nationalist China as well as a scholar, calligrapher, poet and president of two major universities—National Central University and Tsinghua University. 

The Lo Chia-Lun Calligraphy Collection will contribute significantly to contemporary scholarship on Yuan and Ming dynasty calligraphy, and includes masterpieces by Yang Weizhen (1296-1370), Wang Shouren (1472-1529), Wen Zhengming (1470-1559) and Wang Duo (1592-1652), among others. 

Yang Weizhen (1296 – 1370), Two Calligraphy of Poetry (detail), Yuan dynasty, handscroll in two sections, ink on silk, 8 ¼ x 13 ¼ inches (first section); 8 ¼ x 16 ½ inches (second section), Gift of Jiu-Fong Lo Chang and Kuei-sheng Chang, UMMA. 

It also represents a major contribution to the study of Chinese cultural history, as it includes pieces from many cultural leaders of the early 20th century, including Cai Yuanpei (1868-1940), Chen Duxiu (1879-1942) and Shen Yinmo (1883-1971), as well as later artists Xu Beihong (1895-1953) and Zhang Daqian (1899-1983). 

The collection preserves important evidence of cultural pursuits among these notable historical figures, while also reflecting the tastes and intellectual exchanges among leading intellectuals in the early 20th century. 

The Lo family in Taiwan in 1963. Image courtesy of Elaine Chang.

The gift to UMMA is the result of a long relationship between the Lo family and U-M, and builds upon their history of philanthropy including previous gifts of Chinese art. Lo Chia-Lun’s wife, Djang Wei-djen (MA ’27), earned a master’s degree in political science at U-M on a Barbour Scholarship—one of U-M’s oldest and most prestigious awards, offering funding to female students from Asia and the Middle East since 1917. 

Their daughters, Jiu-Fong Lo Chang (MA ’57, PhD candidate) and Jiu-Hwa Lo Upshur (MA ’61, PhD ’72), also attended graduate school at U-M as Barbour Scholars; their son-in-law, Kuei-sheng Chang (MA ’50, PhD ’55), earned a master’s degree and doctorate in geography from U-M. In the past decade, Jiu-Hwa Lo Upshur has endowed a scholarship in her father’s name at the Rackham Graduate School and created internship endowments at UMMA.

“This gift honors not only the legacy of my father, but it also recognizes our family’s deep roots at Michigan and our gratitude for the opportunities U-M afforded us at a time when few Chinese students had the privilege of studying abroad,” Jiu-Fong Lo Chang said of the calligraphy collection. 

Wen Zhengming (1470 – 1559), Twelve Poems (detail), Ming dynasty, album of twenty-six leaves, ink on paper, 9 ¼ x 6 ⅛ inches (each page), Gift of Jiu-Fong Lo Chang and Kuei-sheng Chang, UMMA.

UMMA will partner with U-M faculty and global scholars to research and interpret the works in the collection for major exhibitions and collections installations in the coming years.

“The Lo Chia-Lun Collection will have a major impact on U-M and UMMA, in terms of both research and scholarship on Chinese calligraphy and our ongoing outreach to Michigan’s large Chinese community,” said Ann Lin, the Lieberthal-Rogel Professor of Chinese Studies and director of the U-M Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies. 

The calligraphy collection numbers 72 pieces, dating to the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties and the Republican Period, including some of the finest examples of Chinese calligraphic works outside of China. The gift also includes several seals, ink stones and other objects from Chinese literati culture. 

“The addition of the Lo Chia-Lun Collection will be transformative for UMMA’s Asian art program,” said UMMA Director Christina Olsen. “It will significantly deepen UMMA’s holdings of Chinese calligraphy and will add depth and perspective to other UMMA artworks, enabling a more complete portrayal of Chinese art for museum visitors. UMMA is extremely grateful to continue the legacy of the Lo family and to share this rich and beautiful collection with the world.”

Top U-M Arts & Culture Stories of 2021

Throughout another year of navigating the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, fighting for social justice and observing significant milestones, the creative community at the University of Michigan continued to prove that the arts are essential. Adapting to hybrid systems in a post-pandemic world, many turned to tools of creation and highlighted the arts ability to share perspective. Though 2021 was another year filled with a lot of uncertainty, we found ways to express our experiences, past, and present.

We saw an immense amount of creativity, innovation and resilience from our arts community this year—and though this is just a snapshot of all of the amazing work that was done—here’s a quick look back at our top stories of 2021.

UMS Premieres ‘Some Old Black Man’ Starring Wendell Pierce

“Some Old Black Man,” produced by the University Musical Society, starring Digital Artist Residency actor Wendell Pierce and actor Charlie Robinson, premiered virtually January 2021. Photo by Doug Coombe.

Acclaimed actor Wendell Pierce pushed forward a new way of imagining live theater in a lingering pandemic, which shuttered in-person arts experiences throughout the country. 

His first experiment, “Some Old Black Man,” premiered in January, and is his first live theater performance since his acclaimed run as Willy Loman on London’s West End. Produced by the University of Michigan’s University Musical Society, the production also stars actor Charlie Robinson and frames racial prejudice with bold probity rarely confronted and dramatized.

The fully-staged production of James Anthony Tyler’s 2015 play was filmed at the Jam Handy in Detroit after a three-week quarantine by its entire creative team under strict public health and safety protocols.

U-M Students Created Online Resource For Families To Create Art Projects at Home

An image created using the “Painting Minimalist Landscapes” project prompt on Art Connects Kids, a new website created by students at the U-M Stamps School of Art & Design. Example by Sofia Stark, “The Arb”, 2020, Acrylic on canvas paper.

During the fall semester, University of Michigan students in Melanie Manos’ “Detroit Connections: In the Classroom” course were faced with a challenging question: How could they connect kids with creative activities and art education while so many K-12 students were studying remotely? 

Under Manos’ guidance, the class addressed this question through Art Connects Kids, a website brimming with original, kid-friendly art projects for families to do together at home. 

“Students worked hard and managed their collaborative groups inventively,” said Manos, a lecturer at the Stamps School of Art & Design. “I was impressed.”

U-M Arts Initiative Launched Collaborative Project With Yo-Yo Ma and Regional Artists

Yo-Yo Ma (left) and Tunde Olaniran on stage in Flint. Photo by Eric Bronson/Michigan Photography.

Maps are used to represent physical topographies of land or borders between nations, and to assist with directing us to a desired destination. But can they also be used to represent emotions? To make unseen connections? Or to understand the past or move forward into a new future? Can the arts help to shape a new kind of map?

A residency with international performing artist Yo-Yo Ma, launched by the University of Michigan Arts Initiative in partnership with the University Musical Society, was created in 2021 to explore these ideas.

Ma joined a steering committee composed of six U-M students and three Michigan-based artists from Ann Arbor, Flint and Dearborn—representing all three campuses—who were charged with the development of new variations of maps that express what the U-M community experienced during 2020-2021.

U-M’s Historic Peony Garden in Nichols Arboretum Saw Record Bloom Season

The U-M peony garden at Nichols Arboretum contains up to 800 plants that produce as many as 10,000 blossoms at peak bloom. Photo by Scott Soderberg/Michigan Photography.

Following a pandemic year in which visitors were asked to stay away, the nearly century-old peony garden in the University of Michigan’s Nichols Arboretum welcomed them back with a banner bloom year. 

The garden, begun in 1922 with a gift of peony plants from U-M alumnus W.E. Upjohn, celebrated its 99th year of bloom from about Memorial Day through mid-June.


“Oh Say, Do You Hear?” — Have You Heard of The Abolitionist Star Spangled Banner?

Anti-slavery lyric labeled “A New National Anthem” (Signal of Liberty, July 22, 1844, p. 1).

University of Michigan musicologist Mark Clague is one of the nation’s foremost experts on “The Star-Spangled Banner,” among many other facets of American music. 

For Independence Day, Clague, an associate professor at the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance, participated in a conversation this week about the history of “The Star-Spangled Banner” alongside Naomi André, U-M LSA professor and musicologist, and Louise Toppin, professor of voice at SMTD. The programming was part of a newly announced theme semester at U-M focusing on democracy.

Bringing Art Back: U-M’s Seven Mile Offers Free After-School Music, Art and Coding to Kids in Detroit

Cynthia Wells (left), with her grandchildren Chelsey (center) and Chase (right) outside of Mission:City in Detroit, MI.

Eight-year-old Chase Singeltary first picked up an instrument when he was 5. After three years of weekly lessons at Mission:City, a community center in Detroit’s historic Brightmoor neighborhood, he can now read music and play several songs.

Patricia Jackson, who co-founded Mission:City with her father in 2010, says kids like Singeltary have inspired her to make music a top priority at the center, which offers a variety of resources for community members of all ages.

Since its founding, the organization has given free lessons to hundreds of children in Detroit ages 5-16, and has grown from working with one community center to two. In addition to Mission:City, Seven Mile added Conant Avenue United Methodist Church as a partner in 2016, and while they continue to teach music lessons, they have also expanded their offerings to literary and visual arts, as well as coding.

Mural by U-M STAMPS School of Art & Design Alumni, Students Honored Class of 2021

The U-M commencement mural was on Washington St. between Fletcher and Thayer streets. Photo by Scott Soderberg/Michigan Photography.

To honor the University of Michigan Class of 2021, undergraduate students from the U-M Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design created a chalk paint mural on the street outside of the Rackham Graduate School in April.

Located at 915 E. Washington St., between Thayer and Fletcher streets, the mural took nearly five hours to paint and was on view until as part of the university’s commencement celebrations.

The project was led by Stamps alumnae Yen Azzaro and Liz Guilmet, along with the Office of the President and the Office of University Development Events.

A New Fontier: Preserving Computer and Video Games at the U-M Library

The CVGA also preserves the supporting print materials and promotional posters that come with the video, board and card games. Photo by Eric Bronson/Michigan Photography.

On a normal day, during a normal year, the University of Michigan Library’s popular Computer & Video Game Archive is abuzz with activity.

Since its establishment in the 1970s, the accessible, multipurpose archive has offered students, staff, faculty and the general public a space to take a break, study, conduct research or play games among friends.

From the Atari 2600 (1977) and the Nintendo Entertainment System (1985) to the first four out of five PlayStation consoles—to name just a few—visitors can choose from more than 60 unique systems and 8,000 games available for research and play.

While shut down due to COVID restrictions in 2021, the CVGA took the opportunity to focus on archiving the extensive collection.

Love & Data: Stephanie Dinkins’ U-M Exhibition Explored Bias, Inequality within AI Systems

“Afro-now-ism” (2021) by Stephanie Dinkins.

Stephanie Dinkins is a renowned transmedia artist known for creating plat­forms for dia­logue about arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence as it inter­sects race, gen­der, aging and our future histories. Her work seeks out answers to questions that often go unasked.

Through her art pro­duc­tion, exhi­bi­tions, com­mu­nity-based work­shops and pub­lic speak­ing engagements, Dink­ins has become a cen­tral fig­ure nation­ally and internation­ally for her work expos­ing bias and inequity within arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence.

Her 2021 exhibition, “Stephanie Dinkins: Love & Data” was the first comprehensive survey of her work.

“My inten­tion is to encour­ag­e action towards mak­ing arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence sys­tems more inclu­sive, acces­si­ble and transparent,” said Dinkins, who debuted new and inter­ac­tive instal­la­tions and work­shops at U-M that built on her con­cept of “Afro-now-ism.”

U-M Professor Released Never-Before-Seen Photos of 9/11 Ahead of 20th Anniversary

Photo of smoke coming out of twin towers after airplanes crashed into them on Sept. 11, 2001. Photo by David Turnley.

David Turnley is an award-winning photographer and U-M professor who documented the first responders on Sept. 11, 2001. ©Photograph by David Turnley

In a pre-social media era, we watched many of the apocalyptic scenes unfold on our TV screens or in newspapers as two hijacked airplanes crashed into the north and south towers of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. A photographic documentary released in 2021 by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer and University of Michigan professor David Turnley offers close-up encounters of the moments before both towers fell, and the immediate aftermath.

There are photos of bystanders looking up in disbelief, exasperated first responders standing among the rubble and scores of people running from the wreckage as the smoke trails behind them. There are even some who look as if they’re going about an ordinary day—riding a bicycle or on rollerblades—though complete devastation surrounds them.

Michigan Marching Band’s Illuminated 9/11 Halftime Tribute

Field level view of illuminated Michigan Marching Band Halftime Show on September 11, 2021. Drum Major on the side-line of the field looking out at the "We Remember" 9/11 20th Yeah Anniversary Memorial performance.

Marching Band paid tribute to those lost in 9/11 during a nighttime Sept. 11 halftime show at Michigan Stadium. Photo by Eric Bronson/Michigan Photography.

In a dazzling presentation from start to finish, the Michigan Marching Band’s Sept. 11 halftime show commemorated the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks. 

Michigan stadium erupted in applause as the marching band’s members spelled out the word “heroes” to start the show while launching into John Williams’ “Summon The Heroes.” 

Throughout the emotional performance, which included lasers, glowing orbs, high-powered flashlights and more, members of the band created memorable formations of the World Trade Center’s twin towers, an outline of the United States, and an American Flag.