What's Next for UMS?
It's hard to imagine who might replace Ken Fischer.
by Linda R. Benson
From the December, 2016 issue
The 2016-2017 season is the end of an era for the University Musical Society. Its president, Ken Fischer, is retiring after thirty years, and the season's schedule was curated with his departure in mind. There are the usual heavy hitters: an entire Beethoven string quartet cycle, symphonies played by the Berlin Philharmonic and Budapest Festival orchestras, and renowned soloists such as trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. There are some unexpected performances too: professional skateboarders performing with DJs celebrating improvisation in sports and music; a dance presentation, "Idiot-syncrasy," that bills itself as "beyond the limits of common sense"; and an intense one-person show exploring gender identity presented at a boxing gym in Detroit. The mix of classic and iconoclastic presentations showcases Fischer's stamp on the UMS as a presenter of "uncommon and engaging experiences."
Fischer's vision, organization, people skills, and boundless energy have won UMS widespread acclaim and the 2014 National Medal of Arts for "a lifetime of creative excellence." Nationally recognized foundations have awarded UMS millions in the past decade to support its innovative programming and far-reaching community engagement.
Now the challenge is to find Fischer's successor. "I can't think of a job I would like worse than the committee to replace Ken," says UMS board member David Herzig. "Replacing an iconic leader is a tough job."
Presenters like Fischer direct traffic at the intersection between culture and commerce for sophisticated and risk-taking audiences. "We're lucky to have the commitment, in this town, at the university, and the expectation of the best," says Fischer.
UMS has been on the classical road map ever since president Charles Sink brought Enrico Caruso to Ann Arbor on his first American tour in 1919, selling three-year advances on the UMS series to underwrite the renowned tenor's fee. That reputation continued under Gail Rector, a tall, dignified impresario who epitomized the genteel ivory tower atmosphere of Ann Arbor and its audiences. "Under Rector, a typical series consisted of about twenty-five, thirty concerts, with
about 70 percent of revenues coming from ticket sales," says John Reed, a past president of the UMS board. The difference was made up with private donations.
Fischer inherited that world-class reputation, but he is unabashedly proud of expanding it--always championing the importance of distinguished artists. He likes to point to the Berlin Philharmonic's 1999 tour, which included performances in New York, London, Moscow, Paris, Boston, Chicago, Bonn, Washington, D.C.--and Ann Arbor. "We were the smallest city with the largest crowd," he says, with 4,200 people turning out for the concert at Hill Auditorium. The ultimate validation came in 2014, when President Obama awarded UMS the National Medal of Arts in a White House ceremony.
Since Fischer arrived in 1987, however, the arts world has undergone seismic shifts in culture, economics, and technology. Audiences for traditional classical concerts have aged, and engaging younger attendees is challenging. Music programs are among the first to go when public schools cut expenses. The traditional categories of European music--Classical, Romantic and Baroque--are often now perceived as elitist and do not resonate with younger audiences. Digital downloads and streaming music deliver endless choices, at a fraction of the cost of a live performance, while super-sized television screens deliver the illusion of standing next to the world's greatest musicians. And the decline of newspapers leaves fewer opportunities to advertise and concertgoers with fewer reviews to read. Securing grants, endowments, and corporate support and engaging local communities are more important than ever.
"We have to be nimble in our ways of doing business," says Mario Durham, president and CEO of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters. An APAP survey of its approximately 2,000 members found that ticket sales cover only about 30 percent of costs. "It is a tough field and you have to be committed. Back in the day, even Bach was kvetching and moaning about the economics, but you have to love the work."
That sense of commitment and love of the work has defined Fischer's tenure. A self-described "people person," Fischer was not an obvious choice to succeed Rector, who graduated from U-M music school and was groomed for the job by his predecessor, Sink. Fischer majored in religion at the College of Wooster and left U-M before completing a doctorate in education to move to Washington, D.C. with his wife, Penny, a flutist, to further her career. When Rector announced his retirement in 1986, Fischer was freelancing as a management consultant, advising clients on organizational planning and fundraising.
But Penny Fischer had worked as Rector's secretary as a student, and Ken had eagerly helped out, shuttling artists like guitarist Andres Segovia and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich to and from the airport. As a youngster, he attended Interlochen, and in D.C. he'd been part of a group of businesspeople who'd organized a free lunchtime chamber music series.
When he heard from contacts in Ann Arbor that Rector was retiring, he wasn't sure he was ready for the job, but he sent in a resume. When he didn't get a response, he boldly called John Reed, head of the search committee. He announced that he was passing through Ann Arbor on his way to Interlochen--and the committee really ought to talk to him.
UMS was having its own reckoning. Despite its national prestige, the venerable series was falling out of sync with the changing arts scene. Some university-affiliated presenters were including dance and drama in their series; others were pooling their resources to commission new works; and marketing, community engagement, sponsorships, and fundraising were all taking on a more important role.
"Gail tried to break out and do some other things, but we were losing money," says Reed. Pressed by former regent Gene Power, who hated to see his namesake Power Center sitting idle, UMS had extended its classical series into June and July in the first Summer Festivals. But audiences yawned, and the fiasco had left the group $400,000 in debt.
U-M president Harold Shapiro, who was active on the UMS board, felt it was time for a change. "We didn't know about headhunters, and we had no particular job description," Reed recalls. Rector had given them a list of people around the country who presented concerts on college campuses, and at first, Reed says, the committee was looking for someone much like Rector. But "we didn't sit back and say we knew what we needed--there was a lot of serendipity.
"Over the course of two or three months we had several discussions about how to expand and who could do it," Reed recalls. "We interviewed three, and Ken seemed the most unlikely of all of them. He didn't know the agents the way Gail did, and we didn't know if he could put together a full series. The question was whether he could persuade us, even though he didn't have any of those credentials. But the more we talked about it, he seemed like the logical way to go."
In Fischer, the committee saw another skill set. With his solid frame, rich baritone, and plus-sized personality, he makes an instant connection with people. He seems to draw extra reserves of energy from interacting with others, and those who know him remark on his gift for remembering the names of seemingly everyone who has ever attended a UMS concert--and making them feel wonderful about attending.
"You feel his presence when he walks into a room," says Aaron Dworkin, dean of the U-M School of Music, Theatre, & Dance. They met in the 1990s when Dworkin, then a U-M undergrad, was launching the Sphinx Competition for young black and Latino classical musicians. "Everyone said, 'Talk to Ken.'" Dworkin remembers. "The last person he needed to be meeting with was me, but he took my idea seriously and played an extraordinary role in connecting me with key people and then advocating for me."
While UMS was a well-known brand, Fischer was not. "I learn best by listening to people," Fischer says of his early years on the job. "I began going to conferences and seeking out people sitting alone. I'd ask them, 'Who are the ten best presenters in the U.S.?' A couple of names kept cropping up with regularity, and I set out to meet with them. They became my faculty."
The "faculty" offered some common threads: praise for Hill Auditorium and the long-running success of UMS. But to Fischer's dismay, they also described it as an organization that was playing it safe, classical, and privileged. "We weren't doing much dance, and we weren't smart about what we were doing," Fischer says,
Fischer began actively seeking other projects to add to the traditional classical lineup. Peter Sparling, U-M professor of dance, had been a member of the Martha Graham Dance Company and alerted Fischer to the troupe's upcoming fifty-year anniversary in 1994. Fischer negotiated a three-week residency in Ann Arbor and combined it with the fiftieth anniversary of Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring, which was written for the group. It was innovative, particularly in integrating performances with the dance department through classes and workshops. And its success gave UMS a blueprint for a much bigger undertaking--the residency of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Again, it started in Fischer's frequent mode of operation--connecting with his grapevine. Then regent Phil Power (Gene's son) told Fischer of a luncheon he attended with the British ambassador in Washington, where he heard the RSC was looking for an invitation to come to the U.S. They wanted to do four history plays but couldn't get any coproducers in England.
Fischer instantly saw the possibilities. "It was the kind of thing a university should do," he recalls thinking. "Think of all of the contextual programming you can do to augment it." But first, he had to educate the RSC, whose leaders had no idea what an American public university was like and thought Ann Arbor was a girl's name. RSC director Michael Boyd came and approved the Power Center venue--and then Fischer heard their seven-figure fee. It was a far bigger commitment than UMS had ever attempted.
To get U-M president Lee Bollinger on board as a guarantor, Fischer planned "a dinner to die for" in a private New York City club surrounded by several RSC luminaries. At the end of the evening, Fischer and Bollinger quietly had a drink and sealed the deal: three residencies of three weeks each with the history plays in 2001, an original production of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children in 2003, and three more Shakespeare plays in 2006. Fischer attracted additional support from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and was indefatigable in promoting the productions, reaching beyond UMS's core audience in southeast Michigan to draw theater fans from Chicago and engaging U-M departments to tie in academic lectures and community outreach.
Fischer sustained and revitalized UMS, but like the rest of the university it has become more corporate in the last three decades. Instead of a small team of faculty members taking suggestions from friends, the search for the next UMS president is carefully orchestrated and international in scope.
"The UMS footprint is enormous in the arts world," says former research VP Steve Forrest, who chairs the UMS board and heads the search. Spencer Stuart, a well-established executive search firm, has been hired to publicize the position and give the twelve-person committee guidance.
"We are not looking for a fortune-teller, but we have to see what chances we can take," Forrest says. Interviews are underway, and he expects the committee to announce its selection before Fischer's last season ends next spring.
"No one can replace Ken, but someone will succeed him," says Dworkin, who's on the search committee. "They will do their own definition" of what UMS needs next.
David Cantor, who recently left the UMS board, points out that while Fischer has made himself an institution, "when he was hired, UMS was taking a big risk. He was untested."
While the process this time is more formal, Cantor hopes there's still room for the kind of serendipity that brought Fischer to Ann Arbor thirty years ago.
"We should be prepared to start anew, with someone with great potential but [who] carries some risk," he says. "I would prefer that we bring someone who freely admitted that they don't know it all."
[Originally published in December, 2016.]
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