All live music venues are vital. That’s our starting point for this series. The stories we’re sharing here demonstrate that local establishments hosting performances by local musicians should never be taken for granted— particularly in a post-pandemic world.
When it comes to the Ark, you could argue that there’s been a dedicated constituency that has never taken it for granted. When we say “venue,” you might imagine a bar and bright lights and loud amplifiers, but when we talk about The Ark, the accurate category would be a “listening room.” And over the decades, this nonprofit organization has been sustained by contributions from its membership program. These donors prove how deeply they care for this local institution for hosting aspiring and established artists in the realms of roots, folk, and Americana.
New ways to keep people engaged
“People have supported us for 55 years now,” said Barb Chaffer Authier, The Ark’s Marketing Director. “We have this history and this sense of being a community for a lot of people, but obviously, now, everyone’s financial situations are different, and we get that— we get that people might not be able to give and support on the same types of levels as normal, but people have been responding very positively. And we have been trying to find new ways to show that we are here for them, and finding ways to keep people engaged with the music.”
An impressive lineup was curated rather quickly for it’s new Ark Family Room Series— live virtual concerts streaming through Facebook Live. Artists revered around the state (and the nation) such as The Accidentals, Nora Jane Struthers and May Erlewine have linked up with The Ark for exclusive and intimate performances that sustain that aforementioned sense of connectivity. If you’re reading this in time, Jill Jack performs TONIGHT at 8pm, and upcoming performers include Graham Young (of Michigan Rattlers) and Carise Blanton. (The full lineup for June can be found on The Ark’s website here.)
“We’ve used that terminology, ‘Ark Family,’ to refer to our artists, patrons, and people that are close to us. And we don’t use the word ‘family’ lightly, we mean it! So, we’ve been doing a goodwill virtual tip jar (for these virtual performances) because we don’t want to take away from the artists’ abilities to keep themselves supported— so we’ve split the proceeds directly with them. Still, obviously, it’s not sustainable in the longterm for artists or venues.”
How to be “virtual”
And sustainability is what we have to call in to question with this series. Not that we purposely want to sensationalize the potential direness of the situation. But as Authier says, “…even though we are a nonprofit, a large portion of our operating budget is based on ticket sales. Some venues are finding ways to do events, but how do we do that in a way that provides the spirit and experience of the kinds of programming that The Ark has done in-person? It’s weird putting all of our energy into figuring out how to be ‘virtual.’”
The Ark is prevailingly considered to be a ‘venue.’ But Authier would counter that by saying that, first and foremost, this is a community organization. It has hosted upwards to an average of 300 concerts annually from local and national touring artists, as well as being the presenter of the Ann Arbor Folk Festival. So, yes, live music is a key component. But as a nonprofit, the Ark has its mission statement, and ‘live music’ is not the first thing mentioned. “The first thing mentioned,” Authier said, “is that we’re dedicated to the enrichment of the human spirit, and it also says that we’re providing a safe and welcoming environment for people to access this music, to learn about music, to be a part of this music.”
Authier said that many supporters of The Ark’s programming (lovingly referred to as “Arkies”) might not be able to put into words exactly what’s special or different about the experiences they’ve had here compared to other places. But they can sense it! Just as Authier had sensed it when she went to her first Ark show 30 years ago. After grad school, she moved back to Ann Arbor to work at U-M and it wasn’t long before she started volunteering. “I went for the music, but I stayed for the community!” By 2005, she was a full-time employee.
Having been closed for two full months, now, has driven home how important the organization’s mission really is, said Authier. It’s also, she said, driven home “how important live music is to me. But, personally, I can’t feel like everything will be hunky-dory in two more months because I don’t know when any of this is gonna go back to ‘normal.’ I love this organization. It’s become a part of me! I met my husband at the Ark! So, there’s not been a single day where it’s not occurred to me how important it is.”
“You walk into this place, and you feel known, you feel seen. You’re part of something. Part of that is, for sure, the music— new music discovery, and folk music, and all the kinds of music that we’ve presented— but it’s also something that just brings people together. And it can forge this sense of common experience— a connection.”
Music is sacred
We know this sounds cliche, but we’re going to go ahead and say it: The Ark, when you arrive, feels kind of sacred. And there’s a number of reasons why, but the primary one is that the folks who work there, volunteer there, and perform there, believe that music is sacred. But it’s also where people gather— and the future of that proposition is in question right now.
Venues like the Ark draw people into the downtown area. There are, of course, myriad experiences one can have downtown, from retail to restaurants, to street festivals— but live music experiences, Authier said, tend to create some of the most vibrant and cherished memories. Here at the Current, we’re hoping that the live music we all experienced as recent as January and February of this year will not remain a memory— but hopefully return in some fulfilling form. But these are admittedly tough times, and maybe the toughest times for venues. Hopefully, the Ark lives up to its namesake and weathers this formidable storm.