Into the post-impresario age
by James Leonard
Twenty-five years ago, the University Musical Society was drowning in debt.
Since its founding in 1879, the group had presented classical music in Ann Arbor under only four leaders: Henry Simmons Frieze through 1889, Francis Kelsey through 1927, Charles Sink through 1957, and Gail Rector from 1957. Tradition ran deep: Sink had trained under Kelsey, and Rector had trained under Sink.
Like his predecessors as president, Rector led the UMS as if it were his own private kingdom: setting budgets, signing contracts, coddling artists, seducing donors, and hiring and firing staff. As an autonomous nonprofit, the UMS received no support from the U-M and was thus entirely responsible for its own finances. So long as ticket sales covered expenses, the president was king.
Then, in 1984, philanthropist Gene Power enlisted Rector to help launch the Ann Arbor Summer Festival. The UMS put on a full roster of classical music and dance concerts--and lost so much money that in just two years, it piled up a $400,000 deficit. Only a huge loan from the university kept the UMS in business.
The Summer Festival regrouped and found its niche presenting popular music and hosting the free Top of the Park festival. But the UMS had deeper problems. Its flagship Choral Union concert series featured a mix of expensive international stars and inexpensive Eastern European orchestras, but few new artists and little new music. Its aging audience continued to buy tickets, but younger listeners weren't coming up to replace them.
Another problem was the May Festival. Dating back to 1894, the annual concert series brought big-city orchestras to campus for as many as four days of back-to-back concerts. It had once been the UMS's biggest attraction--but it had fallen out of step with the academic calendar in the 1960s, when the university moved its graduation from June to April. By the 1980s it was losing money.
If those difficulties weren't enough, the group's accounting was literally stuck in the past: monthly financial reports were
ten months behind. Financial manager John Kennard says that when he arrived in 1989, "the outside auditors expressed doubt that the business could even continue!"
By then, though, UMS was already beginning to adapt. When Rector retired in 1986, the UMS board knew it was either change or die. They went in search of Gail Rector's successor--and found Ken Fischer.
The son of a Ford executive, Fischer grew up in Plymouth. He was a long shot for the UMS job--and he knew it. "I was very lucky to get this job," he says in his gruff-but-warm baritone. "I'd not been in a performing arts organization before, though I'd done some shows in Washington, D.C., where we were living. But music was in my bones. I was a horn player and singer, two of my siblings are professional musicians, and I'm married to a professional musician. Plus we had ties to the UMS. Penny, my wife, was Gail's secretary, and I'd been an intern when I was here as an undergraduate."
When he started in June 1987, Fischer knew the job would be tough. "The UMS had to right itself financially, and to do that, we had to increase audience and revenue. There are several ways to get to fiscal responsibility. One is to be prudent with your resources and cut whatever you can. Another is to go out and raise money with a vision," he says--as usual, with plenty of emphasis.
"I'm best at promotion and persuasion, at connecting people with their dreams," continues the silver-haired sixty-six-year-old. One of his first meetings was with a local bank president. "I asked what really mattered to him," Fischer recalls, "and he said supporting the community, the Ann Arbor Symphony, and the School of Music.
"So I said, 'How'd you like to sponsor our annual Messiah? It's the oldest thing we do, and the chorus is the community, the Ann Arbor Symphony is the orchestra, and the soloists come from the School of
Music. And a sponsorship check remains with us a very short time. We write a check to the symphony, and they write checks to the musicians, and they deposit those checks in your bank. Think of all the good you'll be doing--and the money comes back to you!' And he sponsored."
The story is prime Fischer: parting people from their money for the greater good while making them feel good. But Fischer knew it'd take more than consummate salesmanship for the UMS to survive. And he knew the old way wasn't the way forward.
"Gail was highly respected in the presenting field, but there was a shift in the model," Fischer explains. "The impresario model ... was seen as less effective, and the team model was seen as more effective. And it was my good fortune to get really good people early in my tenure."
One of his first moves was to promote intern Michael Kondziolka [Cond-jol-ka] to director of programming. "He's knowledgeable and passionate, and he's got good negotiating skills, which is not a combination you often find," says Fischer. Kondziolka became the go-to guy for signing artists, dealing with agents, and arranging the season. Programming is the UMS' aesthetic heart, and Kondziolka has overseen it ever since.
Fischer succeeded in getting the May Festival entirely underwritten by local arts supporters in 1988. But thereafter it lost an average $100,000 a year--until 1995, when Fischer and Kondziolka cancelled it. Some patrons feared that UMS was retreating from classical music--a charge Kondziolka rejects. "The retirement of May Festival was not about losing classical music," he insists. "It was about repurposing the resources to the season proper, so we could have a deep, concentrated experience when it actually made sense: when school was in session.
"Instead of Philadelphia [Orchestra] concerts after classes were over, we could now have Chicago [Symphony] concerts plus forty events around it during the regular season. It just makes more sense from a business point of view: more people are here and more orchestras are touring."
Though classical music didn't disappear, it did become less dominant. With the board's blessing, Fischer and Kondziolka have greatly expanded and deepened UMS's roster of dance and non-Western music performances, and added theater.
Not everything they tried worked, at least not initially.
"Theater we did first in '93," says Fischer. "The Stratford Festival, then the Shaw Festival, then the Guthrie Theater. Stratford was successful. Shaw didn't make costs. The Guthrie's costs were underwritten. We realized we needed to step back and think--and we did--and after we brought the Royal Shakespeare Company here in 2001, it proved so successful it became the model for how to present touring classical theater." UMS surrounded the RSC's plays with dozens of lectures and workshops, creating a "residency" that touched the entire campus--and persuaded the university to underwrite part of the cost.
UMS also sharpened its marketing. Like Fischer and Kondziolka, Sara Billmann had interned at the UMS as an undergrad before getting an MBA from Stanford and working as a financial analyst for the San Francisco Opera. Returning to UMS in 1996 as marketing director, she brought a new approach to ticket sales.
"The first season was tough, because much of the money was already spent on trying to sell subscriptions," says Billmann. "The audience had started to shift to single-ticket buyers. Twenty years ago, it was fifty-fifty subscriptions versus single-ticket buyers for the Choral Union Series. Now subscriptions are 20 percent." Today's audiences, especially younger ones, don't want to commit to attending a whole series of events months in advance.
Because subscriptions sell whole concert series, they minimize the number of audience members marketing has to reach. Single tickets exponentially increase that number, but Billmann "had a computer ticket system in place with a wealth of information that I used, and still use, for audience projections and pricing tickets."
Ticket sales are up only slightly over the past thirty years, from 101,764 in 1981 to 105,352 last year. But ticket revenue has grown from $775,000 to $2.8 million--and while tickets provided 80 percent of the group's revenue in 1980, today 60 percent of the budget comes from other sources.
The reason, Fischer says, is that "we added a significant number of non-income-producing activities that are critically important to UMS's mission and provide great value to artists and audiences. We fund these activities through contributed income"--grants, gifts, corporate underwriting, individual concert sponsorships, and ad revenue.
Gifts are the responsibility of Susan McClanahan, who joined UMS in 2002 to run the development department. "The UMS is very traditional in its fundraising," says McClanahan. "We get substantial support from Ford and the U-M Health Center as well as contributions from $50 to $50,000 from individuals for whom the UMS is everything."
McClanahan says her plan "was to create a capital campaign and to increase individual gifts." The campaign, a first, raised $25 million--and despite the recession, individual gifts jumped from $668,106 in 2000 to $939,650 in 2010. Though corporate support took a hit, grant and foundation support also rose significantly. The money goes to fund education programs, community engagement, artistic commissions, artist residencies, and other outreach activities.
Another big part of McClanahan's job is coordinating the UMS's many volunteer groups and working with their thirty-member board--whose members do much more than volunteer. "To be nominated, you have to make a meaningful gift," McClanahan says. In addition to the board, "there's also an eighty-member advisory committee who have to have two significant fund raising events a year."
They've recently added two more advisory groups: the twenty-member UMS National Council of alumni, with residents in New York, California, Florida, and Chicago, and the nineteen-member UMS Corporate Council, for heads of corporations in southeast Michigan. Again, it's the UMS version of "pay to play." "They all make their own contribution," says McClanahan, "and we leverage their contributions to get contributions from others.
"The UMS is a family," McClanahan sums up, "and once you're part of the family, we never let you leave." Presumably that will be true for McClanahan, too--she retired at the end of August.
Still on the job is the man who manages all that money, John Kennard. Kennard bluntly describes UMS's financial state when he arrived in 1989 as "dismal." He says, "The UMS had not had a business manager for years--Gail did that, but then, Gail did everything--and financial systems simply didn't exist." Kennard "designed and implemented a system that generates monthly reports within two weeks of the month's end. It really helps to make prudent business decisions if you know what's going on!"
The programming and financial changes stopped the bleeding, and on his last day in office, in 1996, then-president James Duderstadt forgave the group's $400,000 Summer Festival debt. Since then, Kennard says, they've been profitable all but two years. "Nine-eleven was one. After the planes hit the towers, that killed us for the year. And the other was the crash in '08."
"The UMS is unsurpassed in its field," says Mike Ross, director of the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and chairman of the Major University Presenters, a group of twenty-one college- and university-based presenters to which the UMS belongs.
"There might be people who would argue it's a tie among two or three institutions," Ross continues, "but Ken himself is unsurpassed as an executive director ... There are still plenty of presenters out there operating under the impresario model, but the programs with the collective leadership model stand head and shoulders above the others."
That collective model is exemplified by UMS's Wednesday morning programming meetings. In the old days, programming was done by the president, who seized opportunities based on his gut instinct about whom Ann Arborites would pay to see. Today, Kondziolka oversees it--but it's very much a team effort.
Chaired by Kondziolka, the meeting includes his staff, plus Billmann, Kennard, McClanahan, and Fischer. The entire group evaluates potential performances. Billmann, for example, may discuss preliminary attendance and ticket revenue projections--which, Fischer says, are amazingly accurate: "Her projections in the aggregate have had a less than 1 percent differential from the actual results."
Kondziolka and Kennard's departments do "risk assessments" for each performance, while Jim Leija's education department lists community engagement opportunities and the development department looks for individuals, foundations, or corporations that might be interested in supporting the event.
When, after a year of internal discussion, the UMS formally presents the season and the budget to the board of directors, Fischer says, "we all are knowledgeable about the season, the repertoire, and the pronunciations!"
Where is Fischer is all of this? "He always has the big vision," Kennard says, "and he's so successful because he can make the big vision a reality."
Ross, from Major University Presenters, agrees. "He's one of the very rare people that has such a joy of life and is so generous in his spirit that everybody feels better when they're around him. I know I do. In fact, I don't know anyone who doesn't love Ken Fischer!"
That certainly seems true of his teammates. "Ken's great to work for," Billmann says. "He hires good people and he trusts them. He's there if you need him, but otherwise he stays out of the way."
"It's a major reason why he's so successful," agrees Kennard. "In our field, it's rare for management teams to last three or four years--and look at the length of time we've been here!"
"We're a great team," says Kondziolka, sitting cross-legged in a chair in his office surrounded by posters of opera singers, "and we're a great team not because we're smart people but because we've committed to being a highly functional team--where the impresario is embedded in the organization.
"The key to understanding Ken is to know that when he was young, he wanted to be a minister, and that he spent seventeen years working in D.C.," Kondziolka says. "If you put his diplomatic skills and his pastoral-ness together, you'll know what kind of man he is."
When asked to describe his philosophy of life, Fischer replies, "I see power in the Golden Rule. I was raised Presbyterian, and it was only later on when I met Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus that I started looking for a guiding principle that could bring people together.
"The Golden Rule is part of the thinking of every religion, and as a principle, it transcends them all. It's about how people treat each other--because life is all about relationships."
It certainly is at the University Musical Society.
[Originally published in September, 2011.]