Charting the cultural course at UMS
by Linda R. Benson
From the October, 2019 issue
When Matthew VanBesien arrived in Ann Arbor in July 2017 to head the University Musical Society, he engendered a lot of excitement and a bit of curiosity. Sarah Nicoli, who started her two-year term as president of the UMS board the same day, cites his high-profile experience in arts management, as head of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra for five years, two years as president of the Melbourne Symphony, and a stint in Houston before that. "He had a deep artistic network and great business acumen," she says.
But some wondered why he was leaving New York's cultural scene for a bucolic university town? Others wondered who could take the place of Ken Fischer, who for thirty years had kept UMS a powerhouse in the world of live performance with his world-class fundraising and schmoozing.
VanBesien has since settled into his office on the third floor in Burton Tower--and forged his own identity at UMS. Fifty, with a tall athletic build, he is dressed Ann Arbor casual--a bright turquoise polo tee and pale khakis--but the khakis are cut fashionably slim, and the shoes are leather loafers, not sneakers.
He speaks energetically about the 2019-2020 season, which includes both classics--the Emerson String Quartet, the American Ballet Theater's Swan Lake--but also "No Safety Net 2.0," the theater series UMS added last year "to foster timely conversations about timely social themes," in the words of its website. This season's themes range from the global refugee crisis to "masculinity and internet radicalization."
"It's artistry first, born out of interesting content," says VanBesien. "There's a place in our programming for this, and it points to a more interesting future."
Jeff DeGraff, a professor of innovation at U-M's Ross School of Business, met VanBesien in 2011, when he attended a National Arts Strategy conference in Ann Arbor. For cultural groups, DeGraff says, "there is always a challenge in maintaining the past and creating the next audience.
"Presenters like VanBesien have to find a road to connect
the classical tradition to a new model to complement it," he says. "The worst of all growth strategies is an increasing share of a decreasing market."
DeGraff says audiences nurtured on technological innovation and social media are a particular challenge for presenters. "The millennials have great appetites, and they have the opportunity to experience many things," he says. "But they are an audience that likes to move around. We have to be savvy about how we connect with them. Matthew is brave and creative, and he puts the puzzle together."
One VanBesien innovation grew out of a dinner conversation at Knight's with engineering dean (and UMS board member) Alec Gallimore. "Matthew asked me how I became a rocket scientist, and I told him I was influenced by the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey," Gallimore recalls. That led to a weeklong collaboration celebrating the movie's fiftieth anniversary. A screening with live orchestral accompaniment sold out Hill Auditorium.
"You're there to be in front," VanBesien says of his approach to leadership. "It takes confidence, self-assurance, and humility to know what you don't know."
His family moved frequently while he was growing up, following his father's work as a geologist for the U.S. Department of Energy. "The moves were trying at times, but they have made it easier for me to make a new life," he says.
He calls his five years in a rural K-8 school outside of Carbondale, Illinois, "empowering. I don't think they would have used that word there, but whatever it lacked in sophistication it made up for in experience." With only 100 students in the entire school, he did everything--baseball, basketball, track, acting. And one of the teachers gave him his first formal music lessons on French horn.
A bachelor's degree in music and horn from Indiana University, and an eight-year stint with the Louisiana Philharmonic, brought a different kind of clarity to VanBesien's career path. During that time he met his future wife, geologist Rosie Jowitt, and made the decision to move into management.
"For me, I was always looking for some way to make a difference and adapt art forms to uphold tradition but evolve as well," he explains. "I was always thinking about the future and how to make it more available to more people."
In Louisiana, the musicians manage the orchestra. He served on the executive committee and worked on the search for a music director. Then he moved on to a management position with the Houston Symphony.
He was CEO by the time he landed the top job in Melbourne. His involvement with the renovation of the orchestra's home there may have helped bring him to the attention of the New York Philharmonic.
Reportedly, at least six prospects had passed up the New York post before a search consultant found VanBesien. The orchestra faced deficits caused by declines in series ticket sales, and needed to raise hundreds of millions to renovate Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center.
"I knew about the renovation when I took the job," VanBesien says, "but most organizations don't have two boards involved"--one for Lincoln Center and the other for what is now David Geffen Hall, renamed in recognition of the media mogul's $100 million donation.
In New York, he says, "you need to navigate a lot of dynamics." So when he got a tip that the UMS job would be coming open--from Ken Fischer himself--he was interested.
"I knew he would be a perfect fit at UMS," says Anthony McGill, whom VanBesien hired as principal clarinetist at the Philharmonic. "He really had a nice leadership style: present, warm, and honest."
VanBesien shows no signs of missing the big-city experience. He and Jowitt--a U-M career counselor and independent contractor to energy companies--enjoy their home overlooking the Huron River, and he can still indulge his love of good food and wine.
"You have to feel compelled to live in New York," he says, "Our quality of life is much higher here."
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