This year, the much-loved local venue The Ark will have treated Ann Arbor to fantastic folk and roots music for 50 years. As a nonprofit organization, a great part of The Ark’s funding comes from its annual Folk Festival. This weekend’s lineup will feature different artists on Friday and Saturday nights, including some big names such as Amos Lee, Ani DeFranco and Brandi Carlile.

Ann Arbor Folk Festival

Dates: 1/30-31/15 @ 6:30pm
Hill Auditorium

The Ark was created in 1965; yet by 1977 the venue was having a hard time making ends meet. The idea for a fundraiser was conceived, and the format of a music festival was decided upon. The first Folk Festival took place at the Power Center in 1977, and, due to the proceeds from the fundraiser, The Ark was able to stay open another year. The Folk Festival quickly became an annual event that is still necessary for The Ark as an organization to survive. As a non-profit mostly staffed by volunteers, The Ark puts on over 300 shows a year. Barbara Authier, The Ark’s current Marketing Director, began as a volunteer herself.

“The Ark presents a pretty broad range of genres. We have blues and bluegrass and singer/songwriter, and that whole gamut of rootsy Americana kind of music,” Authier said. “That’s a lot of different things and we want the (Folk Festival) bill each year to have a balance of those different styles. You want people to have a taste of what the whole range of stuff is that we do throughout the year.”

The Folk Festival now takes place at Hill Auditorium, as The Ark only seats 400, and the Festival has grown much larger than that. Originally only one night, when Hill Auditorium was being renovated and the Festival had to be moved to the Michigan Theatre, The Ark expanded it to two nights to accommodate the usual audience. Now, each evening features separate artists, and the Festival usually sells out, with over 7000 guests attending.

“We do book a couple of big name headliners that help draw people in that don’t know The Ark, and might not have heard of the other artists, but will come to see the big name and then discover something great,” Authier said. “So one goal is to bring in those big names to raise the money for the fundraiser. Then the other goal of the festival is to introduce those smaller artists, the emerging artists or just lesser known people who play The Ark through the year. We try to achieve a balance between those big names, the unknowns and also local Michigan artists.”

This year the Folk Festival will serve as a sort of homecoming to some of the headlining artists who were featured at The Ark before they were famous. Amos Lee played at The Ark’s “Take a Chance Tuesday” Series before he was even signed to a label, and Ani DeFranco’s first show at The Ark hosted less than 20 people.

“We knew they were good, we know good music and we see it and then we put them in front of an audience. That’s part of our mission,” Authier said. “We work with these unknown artists and then we stay with them through the arc of their career because the music is the most important thing.”

The Ark receives over 1200 demos a year, and their programming staff takes the time to listen and rate every single one. The Ark also hosts events like Open Stage where, once a month, artists can put their name in a drawing to play a few songs. Some artists are selected to host their own showcase or even to play the Folk Festival.

“It’s amazing music,” Authier said. “If you like music chances are there’s going to be something at the Folk Festival that you will like. Not everybody likes the same kind of music, and we’re a folk venue, it’s a folk festival, and everyone has this small idea of what that means to them, but our perspective on it is that it’s really huge. Folk isn’t a small thing, it’s a really wide range of different styles, so we’ve been talking about it as full spectrum folk, its every kind of thing. Our slogan for the last few years has been ‘Find Your Folk’ because whatever it means to you, you’ll probably find it at the Folk Festival. Find the music that you love.”

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