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 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.