Blog: Robb Woulfe

In a city that packs in crowds nearing 110,000 on football Saturdays, can art eclipse sport? Robb Woulfe, executive director of the Ann Arbor Summer Festival, a showcase  for the performing arts, will write about how a festival's identity strengthens its host community and how it can be an economic catalyst.

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.