Like most entertainment venues in the state and, indeed, across the country, The Ark in Ann Arbor has struggled to find its footing in the midst of a pandemic that continues to rage.
“Ever since The Ark shut its doors in March to help flatten the curve of the pandemic in Michigan, our focus has been on how we can continue to deliver our mission and maintain the connection with our music community,” said Marianne James, The Ark’s executive director. “It became clear that holding a live in-person event on the scale of the Ann Arbor Folk Fest would not be possible for January 2021. But our staff was all in agreement that a folk fest was needed now as much as ever.”
So, said James, canceling the event, which is scheduled for Friday, Jan. 29 and Saturday, Jan. 30, was not an option.
“For 43 years the festival has been a constant and it felt too important to skip this year. A virtual festival was going to be our opportunity to have the show go on.”
In many regards, one might imagine that producing a virtual event would be somewhat easier than a live show. Still, the format comes with its own challenges.
“Our first task was to find the right platform to host the livestream that could handle the technical needs of an event with multiple performances originating from different locations,” explained Barb Chaffer Authier, The Ark’s marketing director. “We needed to be able to deliver it in a way that matches the high quality of sound and video that our audiences expect from The Ark and the Folk Fest.”
Then there’s finding the right talent.
“Presenting virtually relies on the artists to provide their own sound and video, so we knew that there would be some limit to who could participate depending on access to filming resources and other technical issues,” Anya Siglin, The Ark’s program director, said. “We wanted to produce a program that would feel familiar to our audience with a mix of bigger names and emerging artists and showcase the full range of the genres The Ark presents, as we always do, but considering the state of the live music industry due to the pandemic, we really did need to re-envision everything.
Among this year’s featured performers will be Kiefer Sutherland, Raul Malo, Dar Williams and more, with Jeff Daniels serving as MC.
“In some ways, putting this lineup together took on more of a personal tone,” Siglin said. “Our theme, if you will, since beginning of the pandemic has been to focus on our ‘Ark Family’ of artists that we’ve had a relationship [with] over the years. So many Ark artists have been vocal about how important The Ark is to them, and so many have been eager to support us and lend their talents. So this festival has really shaped up to be like no other. We have twice the number of artists on the bill as we usually do, both because so many great friends of The Ark wanted to be involved, and because the virtual format allows for it.”
It won’t be the same as the traditional in-person festival, but it will be as close as possible.
“Of course the livestream experience will never be the same as the live and in-person concert experience,” Authier said. “But we’ve found that people are really needing and craving the connection that comes through a shared music experience.”
So The Ark will continue its mission however it can.
“Like everyone across the live music industry, we’ve lost most of our earned revenue due to the pandemic closure. We are, frankly, fortunate to be able to function at all. Because The Ark is a nonprofit organization, we have some resources that for-profit venues do not,” James said. “Our members and donors have been generous and supportive. They’ve made it clear to us that they want to see The Ark survive. We continue to do everything we can to deliver our mission of enriching the human spirit through the presentation, preservation and encouragement of folk, roots and ethnic music.
And after the Folk Fest, The Ark has plans to continue its virtual performances.
“We will continue presenting our Ark Family Room Series, which is presented free via our Facebook page and YouTube channels,” Siglin said. “Donations to our tip jar during family room shows support both our venue and the Family Room performers. We will also continue to present other tickets livestream until we can reopen safely.”
For the complete lineup of the Ann Arbor Folk Fest or to purchase tickets, visit theark.org/folk-festival.