“We had never seen this kind of economic meltdown that the state of Michigan was faced with,” says Robb Woulfe, executive director of the four-week festival. Ticket sales for the Mainstage series dropped $250,000 last year, to $600,000, and corporate and foundation funding took a $100,000 hit. Yet traffic at the free Top of the Park (TOP) hit 3,000 people on busy nights, double the number five years ago.
“It became this issue of us competing with ourselves,” Woulfe believes. To reduce its financial risk, the festival will have twelve Mainstage shows this year, down from fifteen last year. Concerts–which range from singer-songwriter Patty Griffin on June 17 to kitsch punkers Devo on July 6–will also be spaced farther apart to create “breathing room for ticket buyers,” he says. The final Mainstage act, Chris Isaak, will perform on July 30, weeks after TOP ends.
TOP itself will go dark on Mondays, saving band and movie fees, while starting earlier the rest of the week, at 5 p.m. (For details on all shows, see Events.)
Meanwhile, Woulfe says, the festival has “turned up the volume” on its fund-raising efforts. Community generosity and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts replaced some of the money the festival lost. Last year, a “give $3, keep Top of the Park free” campaign increased public donations from $14,000 to more than $40,000: a successful year-end donor challenge raised another $50,000.
Woulfe thinks that TOP is so popular because outdoor events are “social–like neighborhoods of Ann Arbor coming to the lawn and engaging with each other.” The free event, he laughs, is “Ann Arbor’s front porch.” Even if the festival’s piggy bank was overflowing, he hypothesizes, something like this year’s changes still would have been implemented gradually, over three to five years. “What was comforting about it [the financial crisis] coming at that time was that I felt like we already had this plan” to reshape the event.
“Mainstage isn’t going away, but it’s just becoming less prominent under the umbrella of the festival,” Woulfe assures. He is also continuing to spread the festival around town by adding new venues and community partners, including the Michigan Theater–which on July 2 hosts the Fringe series event “Cinematic Titanic,” a live version of the cult TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000.
The Fringe series highlights more experimental or eclectic events–like Devo. The series also features rock ‘n’ roll marching band Mucca Pazza, at TOP on opening night, electro-swing band Caravan Palace at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre on July 3, and Berlin punk band Die Roten Punkte at the U-M Museum of Art on July 10.