With the Ann Arbor Folk Festival canceled, The Ark innovates to weather COVID

The annual event is the Ann Arbor music club's biggest annual fundraiser, providing 15-20% of its annual operating revenue. So what happens now that COVID has canceled Folk Fest?
Since 1976, the Ann Arbor Folk Festival has helped keep The Ark afloat, raising $50,000-$150,000 each year to fund the nonprofit Ann Arbor music club's operating costs.

However, COVID-19 hasn't been kind to the festival. The pandemic forced the event to go virtual in 2021. And while the initial plan was for the 45th Ann Arbor Folk Festival to return in-person at Hill Auditorium on Jan. 28-29, 2022, The Ark's team announced on Jan. 14 (after a headliner pulled out, and while Omicron case numbers spiked) that this year's fest would not go forward after all.

Where does this leave The Ark, financially speaking? 
The Ark Executive Director Marianne James.
According to Executive Director Marianne James, the answer isn't as dire as you might expect. Pre-COVID, she says gross revenue from the event represented 15-20% of The Ark's annual operating revenue.

"We actually budgeted very conservatively for this year's festival, expecting that attendance and ticket revenue would be down, while expenses would be on par with pre-COVID levels," James says. "We had some upfront costs that we couldn't recover when the festival was canceled, but … we also had generous support and donations from patrons and corporate sponsors. In the end, we expect to be very close to meeting the conservative net income goal we set for this year's Folk Fest."

The Ark's team began planning the 2022 Folk Fest last spring and summer, when COVID case numbers were down and a future in-person event seemed viable. But as with so many things during the pandemic, the festival seemed increasingly risky as its show dates drew close. Ark staff had to adapt quickly.

"The first few days were the hardest, when the staff had to undo all the good work they had done over the last few months," James says. "… We were especially looking forward to being back in-person following last year's virtual festival, and we really wanted to be able to bring live music at that scale to our community right now. When the Omicron variant hit, we knew that anything could happen, so although it was disappointing, it wasn't devastating."
The Ark staff at the 2020 Ann Arbor Folk Festival.
The Ark's decision was largely met with support and understanding, which has also helped. Over half of those who'd bought tickets through The Ark opted to donate back at least part of their purchase price to the venue. James says most corporate sponsors also shifted their support to other 2022 Ark programming.

Though James and her team had to pull the plug on this year's Folk Festival, The Ark has nonetheless continued hosting regularly scheduled in-house (and sometimes virtual) events, with some COVID precautions in place. Admittedly, the club's calendar has not been as jam-packed as it was before the pandemic, but that's more a function of artist availability than finances.

"The industry itself is dictating the volume, based on who's touring and available to book," James says. "We've taken a lot of our cues from that. … Now, when a show's canceled, we're not trying to fill that, because we need the break too. Our ranks are down, just like audience numbers are down, because not everybody's ready to come back yet."

So, as the pandemic creeps up on its second anniversary, what's the state of The Ark's fiscal health more broadly? According to James, it's a good news/bad news situation. Before COVID, 65-70% of The Ark's annual operating revenue came from ticket sales and concessions, while donations made up the rest.
Nathaniel Rateliff at the 2020 Ann Arbor Folk Festival.
"During the pandemic, that balance has flipped," James says. "Right now, audiences are not back to pre-COVID levels, so earned revenue is down. At the same time, our operating expenses are at pre-COVID levels. Other venues report that they're in the same situation. So the bad news from an operating standpoint is that we're losing money in the current scenario, and that's not sustainable long-term. The good news is that The Ark is getting strong support from our members, donors, and sponsors to help us get through this period."

In addition, The Ark has received some COVID-specific grants to help it weather the pandemic's financial impacts. But James says "bigger questions loom post-pandemic."

"How will venues and presenters respond to the yet-unknown long-term impacts of the pandemic on the touring music industry, as well as on audience behaviors and expectations going forward?" she asks. "... What does The Ark community look, sound, and feel like going forward, and who helps shape that? How do we expand to become a musical home for more voices and more communities?"

Jenn McKee spent more than a decade covering the arts for The Ann Arbor News and is now a freelance journalist and essayist. Follow her on Twitter (@jennmckee) and Instagram (@criticaljenn).

All photos by Doug Coombe.