“Steve Martin will be selling out in a couple of hours,” Ann Arbor Summer Festival director Robb Woulfe predicted in late April.
After a rocky couple of years, Woulfe is again daring to exhale. After the economy tanked in 2008, both ticket sales and donations plunged by about 30 percent.
Woulfe was forced to eliminate two out of four full-time positions in his office, leaving just himself and general manager Amy Nesbitt. He reduced the number of Mainstage (Power Center) productions from fifteen in 2009 to its current ten. And a “give $3, keep Top of the Park free” campaign nearly tripled donations from visitors to the popular free outdoor music and movies, rising from $14,000 in 2008 to last summer’s take of $50,000.
This year, the Festival has added a low-budget “Fresh Ink” program of free literary and music events held at Arbor Brewing Company and other places. And for the first time the Summer Festival will have its own brand-name beer, “Festival Saison,” sold only at ABC. “One dollar from each pint sold goes back to the festival in support of Top of the Park. So drink up!” says Woulfe. (He describes it as a “light summer beer flavored with lemon zest and orange peel and a hint of ginger.”)
Actor/banjo player Steve Martin and singer k.d. lang are the top headliners of the Mainstage series (which also includes two returnees, the multilingual musicians Pink Martini and the satirists the Capitol Steps). But the most talked-about attraction will probably be the Amococo luminarium, a 10,000-square-foot “walk-in art installation” that will be set up on Palmer Field from Thursday, June 23 to Sunday, June 26 (see Events). “Up to eighty people at a time (for $5 admission) can explore the intricately designed inflatable structure, which, on sunny days, transmits a stunning stream of color. (In case of heavy rain, the luminarium will be deflated.)
The recession exacerbated problems caused by the disappearance of Pfizer and the erosion of Borders, two once-important donors. The Toyota Technical Center is currently the largest corporate donor; it’s pledged $25,000 a year through the 2014 festival season. Bank of Ann Arbor and Howard Cooper Imports remain generous givers.
“The past two years have been very challenging. I don’t try to hide that,” says Woulfe. “Just tweaking the model based on the economic climate … We’ve been forced to embrace that.” But Woulfe stresses, “I love this event and I love what it represents in the community. I’m honored to be director of such a well-loved community tradition.”
As Woulfe predicted, the last tickets for the Steve Martin concert were snapped up the day he was interviewed. “We sold out later that afternoon,” he reported afterwards, “which was quickly followed by phone calls from all the grumpy people who didn’t purchase their tickets sooner.”