Third Place [MusicFest] returns to unconventional Ann Arbor venues

Ann Arbor's Third Place [MusicFest], happening May 25-28, ranks third to none. But it might take first place for utilizing local "third places" – spaces where people gather other than their homes and workplaces – to host musical performances.

This year's festival will bring music to unconventional spaces like Argus Farmstop, Bløm Meadworks, and Cahoots Cafe. Another of this year's venues is TeaHaus, where Third Place cofounder and cellist Wesley Hornpetrie played a 2017 show that inspired her to launch the festival. Hornpetrie was part of an eclectic lineup of local musicians who came together at TeaHaus to play and raise funds for those affected by Hurricane Harvey.

"It was such a special night," Hornpetrie says. " … We just all came together for this moment of magic and energies intertwining: a local business, students, and community members sharing the space."

Hornpetrie says she saw bringing music into third spaces as "a really good way for people to talk and meet each other and integrate."

"It makes the community richer to have everyone know each other instead of staying in their own lane," she says.

Third Place [MusicFest] cofounder Wesley Hornpetrie.
Hornpetrie was so inspired by the experience that she, along with baritone saxophonist Kaleigh Wilder, hatched a monthly Third Place Concert Series in early 2018, giving local musicians of all stripes the chance to perform in a number of beloved hangouts around Ann Arbor. 

"The arts community in Southeastern Michigan is special," Hornpetrie says. "We knew the product would be good. It's not a gimmick. We want to put amazing art into local spaces, and in my view, I think there's nothing better than that – experiencing the art of your own community in a local space and feeling like you're really home."

The concert series was a grassroots venture, driven by flyers on lampposts and social media posts. But after a year or so, Hornpetrie and Wilder, along with pianist and composer Clay Gonzalez, shifted all their attention to launching a four-day, multi-site, eight-concert annual music festival in May 2019.

"It started with a really, really tiny grant for our first festival," Wilder says.

A University of Michigan EXCELerator grant provided funds for the second festival, but the COVID-19 pandemic prevented the event from happening in 2020.

"We kind of went dark, honestly, because place-making in person – it's not like it functions that well online," Hornpetrie says.

Gnostikos performing at Third Place [MusicFest] in 2021.
"We pushed everything back, and in the meantime, we were strategizing and coming together on Zoom and trying to figure out: how can we do this better?" Wilder says. "In an ideal world, what does this look like? With everything going on, with social and civil unrest, how do we create the world that we want to see through the lens of this festival?"

The second Third Place [MusicFest] was originally slated for May 2021, but then COVID numbers spiked in Michigan, causing the Third Place team to postpone until August – which gave organizers even more local artist options.

"The call for artists started in 2020, and then we closed it in 2021, so we had so many submissions from people who submitted before the pandemic," Wilder says. "And then once there was the chance to perform again, it was a great opportunity for people to get out there and maybe play some stuff that they'd been working on and hadn't had the chance to perform yet."

The overwhelming size of last year's artist applicant pool led to the formation of a curation team for this year's fest. Other recent developments include the hiring of a festival photographer and videographer, as well as a sound tech. Wilder did all the sound for last year's festival and says the team wanted to hire a professional so that artists feel "comfortable" and "taken care of."

Another change is that Third Place now has a fiscal sponsor – the nonprofit tech company Fractured Atlas – and organizers aim to raise enough money to pay their artists more than they have in the past.

Third Place [MusicFest] cofounder Kaleigh Wilder.
"A string quartet playing Beethoven – they will not have trouble getting paid for their work, but we want to honor new music and fringe genres that don't always get to be on concert stages because of gatekeeping concert presenters," Hornpetrie says. " … Not just one type of art needs to get paid well."

The fest is structured so that a single local venue will host shows on Wednesday, and two venues on Thursday and Friday, while on Saturday, five different shows in five different spaces – often in walking range – are scheduled.

"It's like a little treasure map that you can follow," Hornpetrie says.

The represented music styles can range from classical to jazz to experimental to electronic to folk – and everything in between.

"It's like a music festival tasting menu of Southeast Michigan artists," Wilder says. " … Part of the reason Wesley wanted to do this in all these third spaces, local businesses, is to take away that pretension that a typical concert venue has, where there is a fourth wall of, 'We're the performers on stage. You're the audience. You don't cross that boundary.' So having these intimate concerts does remove that boundary and really allows for people to connect and build that community. That's a huge part of this festival."

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).