Blog: Robb Woulfe

Robb Woulfe is the executive director of the Ann Arbor Summer Festival, an annual three-week celebration of performing arts that takes place on the campus of the University of Michigan. In this role, Robb provides administrative oversight and strategic leadership in the areas of program development, financial management, fundraising, operations, marketing, and public relations.

Robb came to the position in 2004 having served as managing director at the Midland Center for the Arts in Midland, Michigan. Prior to his time in Michigan, Robb was the programming manager for the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where he worked on the planet Ordway season and the International Children's Festival.

Robb has served on funding panels for the National Endowment for the Arts, the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation, and the Minnesota State Arts Board, and frequently serves as a guest speaker and presenter on arts management-related topics.  He is a graduate of Hamline University.
Robb and his wife, Amy, live in Ann Arbor with their two cats, Gigi and Delilah, along their 100-pound golden retriever, Jack Kennedy.

Robb Woulfe - Most Recent Posts:

Post 3: Our Festival's Future, Or Will "Capital Steps" Be Back in 2025?

Preparing to celebrate our 28th season from June 17 through July 10, 2011, the festival offers a progressive mix of regional, national, and international artists of all disciplines. Attracting a diverse audience of more than 60,000 people each year, the festival continues to grow as a major cultural event in the Ann Arbor community, and as an internationally recognized celebration of arts that enriches the cultural, economic, and social vitality of the region.

As part of our mission, the festival is committed to enhancing the quality of life in our community. Attracting a spectrum of talent and a diverse audience in terms of age, interest, ethnicity, economic background, education, and gender, we bring the world to Ann Arbor.  Our festival has an estimated direct local impact of over $1 million. We partner with outstanding organizations to form a vibrant creative community and build a larger constituency for the arts. Our education and outreach activities nurture future audiences and offer students of all ages an opportunity to express their own talent. Free outdoor concerts and subsidized tickets to indoor attractions bring diverse audiences who gather to explore a wide range of artistic possibilities. With over 100 events each season, and 85 percent of those activities being admission-free to the public, the festival provides a multitude of creative ways to engage our fans and supporters.

As the festival enters this next phase of its development, we continue to attract a diverse audience of thousands, and the best performers from around the world, to a small, Midwestern city that revels in welcoming them. As witnessed in the past few years, the festival is becoming more of a cultural and social destination, and less about a specific concert-going experience. The dramatic growth of the festival in size and range of offerings parallels its growth in reputation as a major cultural event in the Ann Arbor community, and as a premiere artistic enterprise in the national and international festival-presenting arena.

Moving forward, the Ann Arbor Summer Festival will continue to present the best possible artistic experiences to as many people as possible through excellence, diversity, and relevance. Building upon an already successful model, the festival will begin to introduce a greater variety of events, venues, ticket prices, and program partners.  With the green of Ingalls Mall serving as the nucleus of all activity, the festival will take place in multiple Ann Arbor venues, both indoor and outdoor.  

Ultimately, it is our vision to see Ann Arbor transformed into a destination city during festival season featuring world-class culture, award-winning dining, and eclectic shopping – all catalyzed by the Ann Arbor Summer Festival.

To create a roadmap for ourselves, we recently completed a thorough strategic planning and visioning initiative to determine where we see the festival in the coming years. For more information on those directives, please visit our website to read the festival's five-year strategic plan, which articulates an understanding of who we are, what we do, and the values by which we define ourselves. It also details our vision, five overarching goals we believe we must meet in order to achieve that vision, and an assessment of where the festival stands today as we rededicate ourselves to these shared objectives.

Lastly, if you enjoy the Ann Arbor Summer Festival, I ask you to please consider making a donation to the festival to help us maintain the high quality programs that you have come to love.  Your contributions help us to offer the finest arts and cultural experiences from around the world, and to support local and regional artists by providing a platform for their creative aspirations and collaborations.

See you on the lawn in 2011!

Post 2: The Feds Are Using the "F" Word

There's no denying that these are challenging times in the country, and more specifically in Michigan, particularly for the arts and cultural community. But interestingly enough, even as attendance at museums and concert halls across the country has leveled off, the public continues to patronize outdoor arts festivals. These types of community events are also drawing younger and more diverse audiences, largely due to people liking a variety of programming, freedom to move around a venue, and a level of interactivity.

These are some of the findings of the recently released, first-ever National Endowment for the Arts survey on outdoor arts festivals in the United States. The report, Live from Your Neighborhood: A National Study of Outdoor Arts Festivals, provides a snapshot of outdoor arts festivals in the U.S., with facts and figures on what these events offer, their production costs, and who shows up. The report also explores the relationship between the festival and local community; the reasons why volunteers, artists, and audiences participate in and attend the events; and what makes festivals special and unique.

As part of the informal working group who offered advice and feedback throughout the course of the NEA's study, I was thrilled to see the government's leading arts agency was beginning to bring some attention to this important part of the cultural sector.

With plenty of data, statistics, charts, and trending analysis, there are two key findings in the NEA's in-depth report. First, festivals are committed to presenting excellent and diverse art.  This is demonstrated in the policies and procedures festivals put into place to ensure audiences have access to high quality, diverse arts experiences. And by diverse, I mean multidisciplinary, a variety of aesthetic experiences, and different artistic mediums on display. For many, festivals are a gateway to the arts.  A related finding, the NEA says, is that the goal of a racially and ethnically mixed audience for arts and culture is realized more fully in outdoor festival settings than in regular arts venues.

The second major take-away in the study is that festivals are integrated with and engaged in their host communities.  Most of the festivals surveyed take place in small to mid-sized communities (250,000 people or less) and have taken place in the same community for over a decade. Additionally, festivals have a symbiotic relationship with communities.  They provide the public with low-cost and easy access to the arts, while also relying on their host communities for support. Most festivals depend on funds and services from local government and businesses and are run by armies of local volunteers.
This new NEA report is the first of what I hope will be many on this important segment of the arts and culture industry, as it expands our understanding of the field and serves as a foundation for future studies.  Knowing how festivals work, whom they attract, and what resources they need is critical not only to those of us in the presenting community, but hopefully also to local governments to help with urban planning and management. 

Even more important, this could be useful in the development of public spaces based on the need for people to gather around culture.

Post 1: Ah, Yes, The Business of Show

Let me just start out by saying that I've got a pretty good gig.  

As director of the Ann Arbor Summer Festival, I am proud to be part of an event that inspires such a sense of community, of belonging, of connection in its participants, and that enhances the quality of life in this region. There are definitely some not-so-glamorous aspects of producing outdoor events – severe weather warnings, porta-john sanitation, generator malfunctions that cause the inflatable movie screen to suddenly deflate right when Julie Andrews is about to hit the high note– but for the most part, there are worse ways to spend my day. My position involves seeing concerts to scout talent, attending parties to socialize with donors, visiting national and international festivals to see what ideas I can borrow (read: steal), and trying to find innovative ways to bring our community together for three weeks each summer.  All in all, it's not a bad way to make a living.

For those readers unfamiliar with my organization, the Ann Arbor Summer Festival is an annual celebration of performing arts, outdoor entertainment and community spirit.  A boutique music and arts festival, the three-week gathering offers dozens of performances, activities, exhibitions, and screenings representative of the best in music, dance, comedy, film, street arts and family entertainment. Each year, national and international artists join regional performers and local partners in transforming Ann Arbor into a vibrant, creative playground, a place brimming with entertainment and artistic inspiration for 21 nights.

Founded by Eugene Power, and established as an equal partnership between the City of Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan, the Ann Arbor Summer Festival presented its first full season in 1984.  Early festival seasons emphasized classical music and theater, but have since become more popular and diverse in nature, encompassing a breadth of performance genres. What began with a vision for a summer cultural event that would connect audiences with world-class artists, bring community together, and showcase the city and state as a major arts destination, now flourishes as one of the leading performing arts festivals in the country.  

Today, the Ann Arbor Summer Festival produces two concurrent programs, one indoor and one outdoor, at various venues and spaces across the University of Michigan campus and in downtown Ann Arbor. The indoor Mainstage series includes ticketed performances of world-class music, dance, theater, and comedy.  The outdoor program, Top of the Park, is held along a beautiful campus green and offers admission-free concerts, movies under the stars, open-air spectacles and unique family attractions.

Although most people here are familiar with us as "Summer Festival" or a variation thereof, there are still many locals who know us only as "Top of the Park," or more affectionately, "TOP."  And it would be an abnormal week at the festival office if we didn't receive the random phone call from a misguided fiber artist or funnel cake vendor wanting to know how they can get a 'booth' at our art fair. Plus, you throw the acronym of AASF into the mix with our friends at AAFF, A2SO, AAAC, AAPS, and AAACF, and it all gets very confusing. But if you look beyond our names, nicknames, logos, icons, taglines, color palettes, graphic treatments, brand imagery, and other creative elements that are associated with the festival's identity, you will hopefully see an event – or, better yet, think of an experience – with a personality that truly reflects Ann Arbor: diverse, friendly, kinetic, and unique.

And there you have it, a long-winded intro to this week's blog postings on the importance of festivals, their role and impact on communities, and more specifically, how the Ann Arbor Summer Festival is using its profile and reputation to serve as a catalyst for community strength and economic development.

And if that bores you, I have lots of good stories about crazy artists as back-up.