Matthew VanBesien: UMS president discusses future of performing arts, planning new season during a pandemic

April 23, 2020
Written By:
Sydney Hawkins

Image of Hill Auditorium stage.


Matthew VanBesien

Matthew VanBesien

Matthew VanBesien is the president of the University Musical Society, a National Medal of Arts recipient and one of the oldest performing arts presenters in the country that is based at the University of Michigan. Along with commissioning new work and sponsoring artist residencies, UMS presents about 60-75 music, dance and theater performances and over 100 free educational activities each season in Ann Arbor and southeast Michigan.

Prior to joining UMS, VanBesien served as executive director and CEO of the Houston Symphony, managing director of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in Australia, and most recently the executive director and president of the New York Philharmonic.

In the wake of public response to COVID-19, he can discuss current impacts and challenges facing performing arts organizations, launching a new season in the midst of a pandemic, and the future of both live and digital arts presentation.

What do you predict the next year will look like for the performing arts sector?

I have been talking to a lot of my colleagues in the U.S. and around the world, and we all know that this next year is going to be a roller coaster. We really don’t know what to expect, however we do know that there are going to be some real challenges that require us to think differently about what we do and who we serve.

We need to remember that most arts organizations are actually quite fragile—no matter how big or small, famous or how legendary they might appear. When 9/11 happened and then the financial crisis in 2009, those were real stress tests for organizations. This is a stress test that I don’t think many organizations have ever faced before, and we are going to have to work together, across disciplines and divides to find solutions. It’s going to require flexibility and dynamic thinking from presenters like UMS; flexibility from great ensembles, dance troupes, theater companies, orchestras and artists of all different kinds; and, of course, flexibility and trust from our audiences. We’re all going to have to make the best of this new situation and acknowledge that it likely won’t resemble the ‘good old days’ only two months ago.

How do you believe the pandemic will change the work of performing arts presenters like UMS and other similar organizations?

There’s the economic impact component that is concerning and will be potentially devastating for many organizations, but there is also the ‘operational’ piece—the way in which art forms are both delivered and consumed. Without being overly optimistic, I think that the sector needed some disruption in this area and it is forcing us to really think about our audiences, about the ways that we collaborate with artists and other institutions, about issues of access and the use of digital media. When things are OK—or normal—it is really hard to make those changes, even though we know they should be made. It is going to require organizational agility, dynamic thinking and some real ingenuity throughout all of next year—and likely beyond—to get through it.

With many performances and seasons being cancelled, how did UMS adjust? What do the next few months look like for you?

Most arts companies are used to having some disturbances—an artist canceling last minute, a snowstorm, or in my personal experience, a large hurricane in New York City. Those are mostly localized crises. We deal with them and then go back to normal very quickly. What feels different about this is that over the course of just a couple of days, we lost 18 mainstage performances and countless other educational and community events that were scheduled over a final six week period in our season. Some of our peer institutions and other organizations, like orchestras, whose seasons go until the end of June, are losing a great deal more. Most of the summer festivals worldwide have already been canceled. Right now, at UMS, we’re extremely focused on September, October and the entire fall season, which appears to be the next opportunity we’ll have a chance to present public performances—however that may unfold.

How has COVID-19 impacted UMS’ plans for next season?

We’re forging ahead and announcing our new season on April 30, and are keeping that as our “true north.” We have been working for months on scheduling and programming and we’re asking our audiences to come along on this new journey with us. We know it will most certainly be disrupted or altered in various ways, and that there will be additional and unforeseen changes along the way. We’re pouring our energy now into preparing to create an environment that’s safe for everyone from a public health standpoint, but that’s dynamic and still allows for artists and audiences to have great artistic experiences together. Some performances may come off as originally intended, many will not. We’re looking at the possibility of decreased audience sizes, either from public health mandates or demand, increasing the number of performances and activities that an artist offers while they’re here in Michigan, and we’re looking at making digital experiences available if people might not feel comfortable coming into a venue. Having an artist on-site longer also opens up opportunities for teaching and learning and community engagement, so there are a lot of potential silver linings. This pandemic is full of challenges, but it is also a catalyst for us to develop some really creative solutions.