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Top U-M Arts & Culture Stories of 2021

By Lilian Varner

U-M Men's Glee Club performs "Seven Last Words of the Unarmed"

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.


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