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Though the University of Michigan’s Penny Stamps Distinguished Speaker series—which spotlights cutting edge contemporary artists of all stripes, from across the globe, on Thursdays at Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theater—has grown in popularity and esteem for more than a decade, it’s still tough to put together a lineup each fall and winter semester.

“These are people who don’t make their living by speaking,” said series director Chrisstina Hamilton. “They make their living by doing work, and they’re really successful at it. So speaking is not the first thing on the agenda they want to do. It doesn’t move their work forward. … And on top of that, these are people who are really busy. … It often takes six years from an initial contact before we can finally get it on their agenda, in terms of importance, and before they work it into their schedule.”

IMG 7351 copyMira Matreyek: Dreaming with Your ShadowSome of the artists that come to Ann Arbor carry the mantle of fame. The Russian female punk band Pussy Riot—once imprisoned for criticizing Vladmir Putin—appeared in the Stamps lineup in the fall of 2014, and the line to get in snaked all the way down the Michigan Theater’s block on Liberty Street an hour before the event. (In the end, some attendees had to be turned away from the 1,700 seat theater.) French film star Juliette Binoche, in conjunction with a UMS theatrical presentation, gave a talk in 2015, as did visual artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel, and the bestselling graphic novel artist of Fun Home, Alison Bechdel.

The current semester’s kickoff speaker, DEVO front man and prolific visual artist Mark Mothersbaugh, also drew a big crowd, including audience members who traveled from as far as Cleveland and Florida.

“I’m constantly talking to people in the audience about where they’re from, and how they heard about the series,” said Hamilton. “At our Sally Mann event [in 2012], there were three women photographers, one from New York, one from Florida, and one from Minneapolis. They’d gotten to know each other online, and the one in New York stumbled upon the fact that Sally Mann was speaking here, so she wrote to the others and said, ‘Let’s go for it! Let’s go to Ann Arbor!’ And they did. Three people who’d never met each other before, from different corners of the country. Penny Stamps was the unifying factor to bring them together. I love that.”

The series’ origin story is a bit tricky to pin down. In the late nineties, former U-M Art & Design graduate (’66) Penny Stamps “wanted to give money to the school to create a mechanism for students to interface with successful practitioners from beyond the walls of academia,” said Hamilton.

To this end, a few working professional artists were invited to speak to students and faculty in an auditorium on the university’s North Campus. The public was welcome, if largely unaware, and the talks were individual events rather than the structured series and one-credit class for students at the Stamps School it is today.

This changed in the years following, as the series not only took shape, but changed venues to the Michigan Theater in the early 2000s, so as to be more accessible to the larger community. 

“In 2005, when I stepped in, it was the first time there was a director for the series,” said Hamilton. “Before that, they’d run it by passing it around to various faculty members.”

Hamilton’s vision for the series involved making the local community more aware of this unique, free program. “I said when I started, ‘Penny Stamps should be a household name in Ann Arbor,’” said Hamilton. “‘We should be able to gather an audience not based on the specific person that was coming to present, but instead gain a following of people that have faith in the brand and come to see someone unknown to them speak.’ … We’ve come a long way in terms of audience engagement since 2005, that’s for sure. And we’ve gone beyond the confines of the city of Ann Arbor as well. It’s become more of a regional conversation, which is great.”

Even so, Hamilton’s taking deliberate steps this year to expand the reach of the series, adding a few encore Stamps lectures in Ypsilanti on Fridays.

IMG 3552 copyThe crowd at Ypsilanti's Dreamland Theater on October 7.“I was thinking about how to generate excitement about Ypsilanti, because there are some really exciting things happening in the downtown,” said Hamilton. “There’s a vibrant artist community there. So this was about cross-pollination. Getting Ann Arborites to know more about what’s happening in Ypsi, and getting Ypsi folks to not just find out about the Stamps series, but to let them know they can engage in this program that’s happening just down the road from them. We just had our first event [animator/performer Miwa Matreyek at Ypsilanti’s Dreamland Theater on October 7th], and people were so excited.”

Hamilton initially worried that everyone who’d be interested in seeing a Penny Stamps talk would have already come to the Michigan Theater on a Thursday, but she soon learned that “people from Ann Arbor were excited about coming on Friday at 7pm in Ypsi, … because it’s not always easy to get to the Michigan Theater by 5:10pm on a Thursday. I hadn’t really thought about that before.”

Two more Stamps outreach events are scheduled this semester: visual artist Athi-Patra Ruga will not only appear in Ann Arbor on November 10, but at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) on Friday, November 4, and Bona Sera in Ypsilanti on Friday, November 11.

Hamilton has clearly worked hard to expand the audience for her speaker series, but this evolution also serves those whom the series was initially meant to serve—art and design students.

“It gives them not just a connection to the person on stage,” said Hamilton, “but also connections to other people in the audience who may be successful designers and artists who are already out there working.”

For the full speaker schedule, click here.

All images courtesy of the Penny Stamps Speaker Series.

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