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The Ark

Posted in: General by David Nantais on February 11, 2013

The Ark in Ann Arbor, MI is a unique concert venue with a fascinating story.  In 1965 four Protestant churches collaborated to establish a space for college students that was similar to the popular coffee houses that were sprouting up around the U.S. at that time.  Acoustic folk music soon became a regular offering at the Ark and has been ever since.  In the mid-70s when funding from the churches dried up the Ark became a nonprofit organization and remains so to this day.  More about the history of the Ark can be found here.

The Ark has experienced a number of different incarnations over the years–it is now an intimate 400 seat room with superb sound.  The venue has hosted hundreds of folk and rock acts over the past 5 decades,  both world-famous and local artists.  I have seen some amazing shows at the Ark: The Jayhawks, Fairport Convention and, just recently, Marc Cohn, as well as numerous local bands.  Before he was famous, a  young Iggy Pop played the Ark when he was the drummer in a band called The Prime Movers.

The Ark’s nonprofit status means that their board and members need to raise funds.  One way to support the Ark is by becoming a member (I discovered the first time I attended a show at the Ark that only members are allowed to purchase alcohol–a compelling incentive to become a member!).  Approximately seventy percent of the Ark’s costs are covered by concert revenues, so they rely upon the generosity of their supporters to make up the difference.  All of the ushers, ticket-takers and concession workers are volunteers/members.  The annual Ann Arbor Folk Festival serves as the Ark’s biggest fundraiser.  This past year’s festival attracted Lucinda Williams and Colin Hay (Men at Work, now solo artist), among others.  A few years ago, Jeff Tweedy from Wilco played the Festival:

YouTube Preview Image

There are more than a few theological threads I could explore here.  Let me start with the name, The Ark–obviously referring to the story of Noah in the book of Genesis.  Having been originally founded by a group of Christian churches, it is not surprising that this concert venue would be given a biblical name.  But why “Ark”?  Could it have something to do with being a “safe” space, protecting those within from the turmoil occurring outside?  Ann Arbor in the mid-60s was no different than many places in the U.S. during this time: many students were experimenting with drugs, the sexual revolution was emerging, there were several protests in opposition to the Vietnam war–all of this may have seemed frightening to some and the churches sought to help students who needed a break to escape from the social chaos.

I also want to hold up the Ark’s non-profit status: it is refreshing to attend a show here.  The volunteers are friendly,  you can tell that they care about the mission of the institution, and the artists acknowledge it too–every national act I’ve seen perform at the Ark has mentioned that they really appreciate what the place means–what it stands for in the local community and around the country.  This all leads me to wonder if there is something different about seeing a show at the Ark?  Are the listeners and performers transformed in some way when occupying this space together?  It is a space that has, in large part, resisted the growing commercialism of the music industry.  This is romanticizing a bit, but the Ark exists to bring the people music, not to make money.  It is a sacred musical space.


Dave Nantais, Detroit, MI

1 Comment »

  1. Dave, I hope I get to see a show at The Ark sometime; thank you for letting those of us outside of Michigan know about this special place. Some thirteen years ago, I was giving a lecture in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and was told by some people there that a recording studio was being built with the sponsorship of the Catholic Church there, and would be open to all. I don’t know if this was true, or if this idea ever came to fruition, but I think there are some pretty sound theological reasons for such church-based investing in the creation of local art. Just think of what those Protestant churches that founded The Ark set in motion.

    Comment by TB — February 12, 2013 @ 10:27 pm

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