What do the Whirling Dervishes of Damascus, Celia Cruz, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the KODO Drummers of Japan have in common? Outside of being world-renowned musical acts, this seemingly random combination of artists has performed at Hill Auditorium with the help of the University Musical Society. For most of UMS’s history, however, classical musicians and white performers and composers have dominated the program, with little room for cultural and musical diversity and nearly no community outreach. Everything changed, though, in 1987, when Ken Fischer came to Ann Arbor.

A deeply engrained attitude
Founded in 1879, the University Musical Society is one of the oldest collegiate presenters in the country. Hosting about 60 to 75 performances per eight-month season in three University venues, UMS is easily the leading musical authority in Ann Arbor, if not all of southeast Michigan.

Before Fischer’s arrival, UMS was “mainly white, mainly classical, with barely any community outreach,” said Joetta Mial, a former UMS board member and former principal of Huron High School. Fischer’s predecessor, Gail Rector, had strong relationships in the campus community and with local classical musicians, but not much else.

Fischer’s mentor, Patrick Hayes, who spearheaded the movement to desegregate the theaters of Washington D.C., instilled in Fischer his personal and professional policy of inclusion, called EINO: Everybody In, Nobody Out. With this in mind, Fischer arrived in Ann Arbor in 1987 as UMS’s next president. The basis of his hiring by the board at the time was to “get us out of debt and to put people in seats,” he said. As a result, the first few years were tough. The board was excruciatingly careful with whom it collaborated with, and Fischer soon found himself fighting against a deeply engrained attitude of artistic and cultural exclusivity.

In the first year of his tenure, Fischer traveled to conferences across the country in order to seek advice from his contemporaries. Over a six-month period, Fischer asked nearly 70 fellow musical directors whom they considered to be the top musical presenters in the United States. He then traveled and met with more than a dozen of these top presenters to ask one simple question: How do you do it?

A meeting in San Francisco with Ruth Felt, the founder of San Francisco Performances, proved to be monumental. Instead of providing Fischer an answer, she gave him some questions to ask of himself and his program: “How do you define your community? How well are you serving it? How are you diversifying the program?” Fischer remembers.

Suddenly, his entire scope changed. Fischer understood that, though UMS served the Ann Arbor community, there was a large part of southeast Michigan that had been ignored since the program’s founding in 1879. If UMS’s goal was cultural expression, Fischer realized, there was a lot of work to do.

Communication, cooperation, vulnerability and reciprocity
What happened next would later make up what Fischer calls the “10 Lessons Learned in Diversifying a Performing Arts Organization.” In addition to having an overarching policy that guides the work and learning from the experience of leaders in the field, Fischer also listed, among other lessons, “starting where you are, getting out of (Burton Tower, where UMS is housed) and into communities of shared heritage, building relationships with community leaders and practicing Sharon King’s four relationship principles to create authentic partnerships.”

King’s principles — communication, cooperation, vulnerability and reciprocity — are defining characteristics of UMS’s gradual diversification.

Fischer first debuted the 10 Lessons at a forum for SphinxCon, where he was invited to speak. Founded 17 years ago by Dr. Aaron Dworkin, a University alum, Sphinx promotes youth development and diversity in classical music by hosting competitions for African American and Latino string players across the country while also running education programs and conferences.

Dworkin, who was a 2005 MacArthur Fellow and a former member of the Obama National Arts Policy Committee, started Sphinx as a graduate student at the University after becoming fed up with the lack of diversity in the orchestras he played in as a violinist. He approached Fischer, who immediately joined the cause and helped Dworkin launch what is now one of the premier programs for musical diversity.

However, Fischer’s biggest impact came in the work he did directly with UMS. In the early 1990s, Fischer said, his first instinct was simply to bring in ethnic performers and that people would show up. In retrospect, not only was this approach exploitative, it was a shallow shortcut. What actually needed to happen were two of the 10 Lessons: Get out of the tower and into the communities of shared heritage and, later, build relationships with community leaders.

While King’s principles of communication and cooperation seemed easy enough, it was the latter two, vulnerability and reciprocity, that really changed Fischer’s attitude.

In regard to vulnerability, Fischer explained: “What we eventually found was, the last thing the Arab community wanted to hear was, ‘I’m from the University of Michigan, how can I help you?’ What they wanted to hear was, ‘I’m from the University of Michigan, and boy do I have a lot to learn.’ ”

As for reciprocity, Fisher said, “If you’re building a relationship, it has to be win-win. Your partner has to do at least as well, if not better, in what they’re gaining from the relationship.”

With these ideas in mind, Fischer forayed into establishing a relationship with the massive Arab community in southeast Michigan, a community that had quietly been ignored by UMS for more than 100 years.

Unprecedented cooperation
Ismael Ahmed, head of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) and associate provost at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, was the perfect person for Fischer to talk to. Beginning in 1995, after various trips between Dearborn and Ann Arbor, Fischer and Ahmed slowly established a working relationship.

“When you reach a level of comfort, trust, you really like each other … then you can ask three questions,” Fischer explained. “ ‘What do you want?’ ‘What do I want?’ and ‘What do we want together from this thing?’ ”

Ahmed wanted help from UMS in performing, promoting and simply bettering the shows that he and his community put on, which Fischer was happy to do. For his part, Fischer wanted to learn as much as possible about the Arab world. As a result, Ahmed put together a couple of what he called “immersion days,” and, true to his word, Fischer piled all of UMS — board members and staff alike — onto buses and down to ACCESS. There, Ahmed taught about Arabic music, culture and geography, while also leading trips to the mosque and to meals at a variety of Arabic restaurants.

Finally, after this was done, Ahmed and Fischer decided that what they needed to do together was something they couldn’t do alone and, more importantly, something that would benefit both communities. In June 2001, Ahmed and Fischer submitted a proposal to a funding agency, hoping to bring the Palestinian Oud player Simon Shaheen to Ann Arbor for a performance and residency. Because Shaheen was from Palestine but had played violin at an American conservatory, he was the perfect fit.

The funding agency started to review the proposal just as the Sept. 11 attacks took place. Stunned that Ahmed and Fischer had developed this relationship before the attacks, the agency was more than happy to fund Shaheen’s visit in order to promote relationships between the two communities, especially in light of the recent events. In 2003, Shaheen came to Ann Arbor, where he stayed for a few months as a resident artist, and culminated his visit with a piece he wrote titled “Arboresque” — instead of Arabesque — as a dedication to his time spent at the University.

This unprecedented cooperation between UMS and an established shared heritage community became a model for which UMS would continue to work with similar communities. The Arab Music World Festival followed, and with each subsequent outreach attempt by UMS, the Arab community was more and more responsive. Later, UMS began reaching out to programs within the University itself, like the Center for Middle Eastern & North African Studies, and worked with them to truly put into context exactly what UMS does. Fischer’s desire to bring in Arab artists was not only for the audience to experience a performance, but, more importantly, to learn about another culture.

Full-blown change
The very first community that Fischer thought of when he began to expand UMS wasn’t Arab, but actually African American.

“If I could get genuinely engaged in something that was important to them and of service to that community, and give without asking anything back, then we could really get things going,” Fischer explained.

This “something” turned out to be an annual fundraising dinner that supported one of the colleges of the United Negro College Fund. For two years, Fischer sold tables to the dinner, and through this he forged his first relationships with members of the African American community. After his second year, as the team behind the dinner was wrapping up its final meeting, Fischer spoke to the group.

“I really want to change the way in which we connect to your community,” he told them.

“And it was like, ‘You know what, Ken? About time,’ ” Fisher remembered. “They said it with affection and grace, but it was clear that they had been waiting.”

Around the same time, UMS received some funding to bring in a diversity consultant, Gwen Cochran Hadden. After spending the day sitting in on meetings and getting to know the staff, Hadden brought the UMS board together in the Michigan Union and provided a roadmap for action that would eventually become one of Fischer’s 10 Lessons: Start where you are. As Hadden explained, if Fischer took the time to look around his own organization to see who was already engaged, he would be amazed whom he would find just waiting to be asked.

That’s when Fischer met Letitia Byrd. Byrd had been a singer in the UMS choir and a loyal volunteer for years, but UMS had never really paid any attention to her. As Fischer began to develop a relationship with Byrd, he took a trip to her house, where he discovered that she was involved in about 30 additional organizations, all of which she volunteered for.

“Here was a woman that volunteered so much time and was so involved, and an organization that was so near and dear to her had not had any relationship with her,” Fischer explained.

Something needed to change.

In 1997, the Ann Arbor News decided it would start a Citizen of the Year award and deservingly gave it to Byrd. At the same time, Byrd joined the UMS board, and as a result her relationship with Fischer grew. Everything culminated one night in Byrd’s basement, where a group of some of the most prominent African American organizers and musicians in Ann Arbor and at the University joined, with Fischer, to discuss UMS and diversity.

Willis Patterson, the first Black professor on the staff of the University’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance and a Professor Emeritus of Music, told a story about his personal experience with UMS. He described how one of the greatest thrills of his life came from UMS, when he sang in the children’s chorus in the 1930s in Hill Auditorium, accompanied by the Philadelphia Symphony.

He then stated that one of the most disappointing experiences of his life also came from UMS and went on to describe the very same event in the exact same way. Fischer was confused, until Patterson ended his story: “Reason is, no one was in the audience that looked like me.” For Patterson and for many of the others in Byrd’s basement, this story was a way of relaying the unavoidable fact that, in years past, Hill Auditorium hasn’t always been welcoming to the Black community.

Deeply touched, Fischer asked those in the room what to do. Byrd introduced him to two groups of Black women that support the arts — the Deltas and Links Incorporated — and suggested that these women be placed on the UMS advisory committee, which at the time was mostly white.

Furthermore, for subsequent shows at Hill, Fischer had women from the two groups stationed at the various entrances to the auditorium, handing out programs and saying simply, ‘Nice to see you. You are welcome here.’

These first steps soon blossomed into a full-blown change to UMS’s structure, and subsequent meetings with Catherine Blackwell in 2005 established a stronger connection between UMS and the African American communities in Detroit.

“It was one of the most learning and exciting experiences to be on that board and to be on the inside,” Mial remembered. “UMS, the whole staff and people involved in it, makes a true effort not only to integrate performers and the audience, they do specific things to make it work and happen … they have staff, starting with Ken (Fischer), that really dig in there and do the work to make it a more diverse organization.”

10 Lessons
Today, though far from perfect, UMS is starting to take the shape that Fischer envisioned when he signed on to be president 26 years ago. In addition to strong relationships with the Arab and African American communities, Fischer has built connections with leaders such as Martina Guzman and Wei Shen, who have brought their own unique presence from their respective Latin and Chinese backgrounds.

The effects of Fischer’s “10 Lessons” are visible today. UMS’s budget has jumped from $2.34 million in 1987 to $7.5 million in 2012, while the number of volunteers has grown from 250 to 750 in the same period. Maybe most importantly, UMS’s 1987 goal of simply presenting the performing arts has evolved into connecting artists and audiences in uncommon and engaging experiences.

More, in any given season, 16 to 33 percent of UMS performers now come from Africa, Asia, Latin America, Israel and the Arab world. Artists as diverse as Gilberto Gil, Doudou N’Diaye Rose, Ravi Shankar and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater have all graced the stage at Hill, while UMS has been consistent in focusing on a variety of influences by taking turns theming certain seasons after specific cultures.

As a result of this increased globalization, UMS has become one of, if not the premier presenting university program, said Lester Monts, senior vice provost for Academic Affairs, who in addition to being University President Mary Sue Coleman’s special advisor for undergraduate education, diversity and arts, is a longtime UMS board of directors member who actually played classical trumpet at Hill Auditorium while in college.

“Some performers often say, ‘I will only perform in the great concert halls of Chicago, or New York, Philadelphia, etc.’ But with UMS becoming a global institution and encompassing so much musical culture, Ann Arbor has really become a highly desirable destination for world class performers,” Monts explains. “They know that they will perform before a very sophisticated audience in a stellar performance venue — Hill Auditorium.”

As for Fischer, his efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. Last year, he received the 2012 Mariam C. Noland Award for Nonprofit Leadership given by the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, which commended his work in “creating relationships with leading corporations, arts organizations, area public and private schools and community organizations.”

The work of involving everyone into UMS isn’t finished, as Fischer, Mial and Monts all acknowledge.

“The arts are for everybody,” Fischer stated. “It’s our job to embrace the entire region, to make them feel welcomed, and then encourage them to work together with others.”

That being said, UMS has come a long way from being a locally based program focusing predominantly on white composers and performers.

“Ken Fischer is an impresario,” Monts said. “And UMS brings serious pride and prestige to the University of Michigan — it is certainly one of the ‘jewels in the crown.’ ”

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