Ann Arbor Summer Fest offers three weeks of fun
This year the Ann Arbor Summer Festival will present a whopping 166 events over three weeks, ranging from concerts to movies to kids’ activities — and the vast majority of them are free.
The festival’s lineup includes 10 ticketed indoor “Mainstage” shows, featuring major talents like Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers and “Glee” star Jane Lynch. But more than 90 percent of the offerings are free outdoor events taking place in front of Rackham Auditorium on the University of Michigan campus, designated “Top of the Park” by the festival.
With a full schedule of events every day of the week except Mondays from June 10 through July 3, the 33rd annual festival covers a lot of bases. The fest opens each day at 5 p.m. for an “alternative happy hour” featuring a variety of fitness demonstrations and children’s activities. Evening musical performances include local favorites like soul ensemble Third Coast Kings and folksinger Chris Bathgate, alongside international visitors like Romanian brass band Fanfare Ciocarlia. Many nights close with an outdoor movie, ranging from classics like “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” to recent hits like “The Martian” and “Minions.”
The Ann Arbor festival remains unusually ambitious among metro-area summer festivals, most of which last a long weekend at most. Festival executive director Amy Nesbitt says the event’s lengthy format goes back to its roots in the early ’80s, when Ann Arbor was a very different town.
“There was zero happening in the market,” she says. “The Michigan Theater hadn’t been renovated yet. The Ark was just a house concert. There were no arts and cultural things happening during the summer in Ann Arbor.”
That’s certainly changed over the years, and the festival’s offerings have also shifted since the event’s early, classical music-oriented days. Nesbitt says the festival now focuses more on lively, family-oriented events and one-of-a-kind performances she describes as “spectacle.” This year those include acrobat David Dimitri’s “One-Man Circus” (unusually scheduled in late August, after the main festival) and the Dutch performance troupe Saurus, whose members appear on stilts costumed as giant dinosaurs.
The festival’s financial picture has also changed with time. Where the city of Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan initially funded the festival as a joint partnership, they now only contribute 2 percent of the festival’s operating revenue apiece.
“We absolutely appreciate those funding partners and they help us, but the public doesn’t really get it at all,” Nesbitt says. “The assumption is that tax dollars fund it, and it’s so not.”
The bulk of the festival’s revenue now comes from “Mainstage” ticket sales, concession sales, individual donations and corporate sponsorships. Among comparable festivals nationwide, Ann Arbor’s has notably low government sponsorship and a remarkably high proportion of free events. For example, in the Baltimore area the Columbia Festival of the Arts presents a comparable slate of events over a 16-day period in June. As of the festival’s 2014 tax filings, the festival received 23 percent of its revenue from government grants, but its free offerings are far more limited.
“I think Ann Arbor really is the prototypical model for what the Columbia festival strives to be,” says Columbia Festival of the Arts programming manager Dave Simmons.
Nesbitt expresses concerns that the festival might not be able to continue programming on the same scale “unless some of the financial components continue to ease in our favor.” She says she recently started the festival’s first reserve fund.
“At 32 years old, the festival didn’t have one,” she says. “It was everything the festival could do for the first few decades to keep going and keep the lights on ... It’s a really tenuous balance.”
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.
Ann Arbor Summer Festival
5 p.m.-midnight Tues.-Sun.
Assorted venues; most events take place at the Rackham Stage, 915 E. Washington, Ann Arbor
Most events free
6:30 p.m. Aug. 24-28
1414 Wells, Ann Arbor