It’s a typical weekend afternoon at the lofty Hill Auditorium. Every single seat, up into the nosebleed section, is filled. The audience is as diverse in age as it is race. Students and residents, new Ann Arborites and blue-blooded Wolverines flip through programs and dig in their pockets to turn off cell phones. When the lights begin to flicker, they’re summoned to their seats.
A confession. It’s not, in fact, a typical afternoon. Typically, at this early hour on a Friday, the professional musician performing later that night would be rehearsing in the echoing hall. Instead, an early-afternoon appearance by the author Maya Angelou has ousted Louis Lortie and filled Hill to capacity. Organizers moved the event from Rackham Auditorium to Hill, a venue more than twice its size, to accommodate the huge demand.
Hill is primarily the stomping ground of the University Musical Society, a not-for-profit organization associated with but not funded by the University. The ambition of its programming is often on the scale of the Angelou performance. It schedules perennial crowd-pleasers like Yo Yo Ma and Youssou N’Dour as well as unusual groups coming straight from venues in New York City and from The New York Times’s culture pages. Incredibly popular professionals return annually to Ann Arbor, frequently their only stop in the Midwest. Not Chicago, not Detroit – Ann Arbor.
This ambition makes UMS indispensable. It offers fare you can’t get anywhere else and it caters to more than one (potentially throwaway) crowd.
So why, when I take a seat at one of the University’s illustrious and determinedly ambitious venues on a typical weekend night, do I find myself in an aisle populated exclusively by white people who would qualify for the senior discount at the Quality 16, but who instead choose to spend four times more to watch a Cambodian dance version of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”?
For the most part, attendance at Hill, the Power Center and Rackham is disappointingly narrow in its breadth, even when every seat is filled.
Sarah Billmann, UMS’s marketing and promotion director, told me that about 20 percent of the ticket sales over an entire season are sold at the student-discount price. Enthusiastic participation by the student body comes in spurts, depending on the familiarity of the featured performer and the alternative entertainment available that day.
From my experience at events, demographic diversity appears in spurts as well. The usually undisturbed sea of gray heads was punctuated by variety in last November’s performance by Korean-American violinist Sarah Chang. Although by no means the majority, Asian Americans and international students dominated sections of the auditorium. Angelou’s event was remarkably diverse, attracting Ross School alums (it was the keynote speech of the 2007 reunion) as diverse as University admissions would have them be, in addition to Angelou’s fans who’ve been reading her books for decades. Then there was the clincher – the tickets were free.
Charles Isherwood, The New York Times theater critic, recently analyzed the effects of broadly discounted tickets on theater attendance. When the off-Broadway Signature Theater Company got Time Warner to underwrite the cost of its tickets, reducing prices from $45 to $15, the demographics of the audience changed dramatically in terms of age, income level and ethnicity.
UMS carries clout as the oldest university-based arts presenter in the country. Its long-standing relationships with managers allow it to book professionals dependably. And as a presenter, rather than a producer, UMS hosts only professionals on tour. Since the University does not fund it, UMS needs to be savvy to survive at such a spectacular scale.
With economic incentives for students (a low-income, fairly racially diverse crowd) already in place, I wondered if the student attendance UMS had already reached was the de facto limit. Was UMS somehow at capacity?
Billmann described the non-economic ways UMS encourages student attendance – marketing through Facebook and related e-mail groups, for instance. She believes there are more students who might become interested in UMS events, but she isn’t sure what button they need pushed.
While UMS has hammered out its economic parameters under such constraints as scarcity of time and money and the choice between featuring a household name versus a debut performer, the University’s students have not stepped up. Students require a sense of urgency and attentiveness to the unequaled opportunities here. Their time in college is scarce, and UMS offers such potent excellence within the constraints of eight months, three venues and one campus, that to attend should be a regular occasion.
For all their understanding of supply and demand, of efficiency and of how to make the most for your money, University students had yet to apply their hard-won education to one promising field.
A word to the wise: When you can see a performer who spends her time in the pursuit of excellence for a 10th the price you could in any other city, in a building constructed on the ideals for which a public university stands, that seat is your homework.
– E-mail Colodner at email@example.com.