The Summer Festival at thirty
"Settled shows" help adapt to a changed ecosystem
by Jeff Mortimer
From the June, 2014 issue
When the first Ann Arbor Summer Festival was held in 1984, new executive director Amy Nesbitt points out, "The Ark was still a house concert in Linda and Dave Siglin's living room. The Michigan Theater was not a venue for Live Nation to bring in a concert, certainly not in the summer. Fast forward thirty years, and there's so much more happening on the arts and culture landscape. That's part of why we all love living here."
But that "very different ecosystem" also makes it tougher to pay the bills, especially for a nonprofit reeling from the loss of major corporate sponsors.
Nesbitt, who succeeded her longtime boss Robb Woulfe in February, says one response has been to book more "settled shows." Instead of working for a flat fee, she explains, more performers now receive a smaller guarantee against a share of the profits, if any, when ticket sales and expenses are settled after the show.
"It shares the risk," she says. "Not all artists are interested in that. Some say, 'I want my festival flat [fee] or I'm not coming.'
"Good luck. Back in the days when we had Pfizer buying blocks of tickets and Borders underwriting performances, it wasn't as crucial for the festival to operate with that kind of a model. The landscape has changed with those businesses going away."
The festival now gets funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and the state. It's also broadened its donor base and it's building both an endowment and, literally, a rainy day fund.
"If we have a good surplus year or a family leaves us a bequest, that's where it goes," Nesbitt says, "so if there's a calamity, like some crazy season full of rain, the board can steady the ship. But it works in two directions. If we have an amazing opportunity to do something fantastic and magical that isn't in the budget, the board can authorize the use of some of those funds for it."
[Originally published in June, 2014.]