Interview: Matthew VanBesien
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Q: How did you begin your artistic journey?

I started my career wanting to be a professional musician. I started playing french horn in junior high and thought I would do it for the rest of my life. I did all the things you do to become a professional musician. I went to summer camps, I had private lessons, and was in a youth orchestra. I went to Indiana University to study music — I was there for 4 and a half years. Then I was lucky to get a job playing french horn for 8 seasons for what was then called the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra and is now the New Orleans Symphony. So I really entered into the field as a french horn player.

Q: What has music taught you that you have applied to your everyday life and how you engage in the world?

I think I was probably a pretty average kid. I did okay in school and didn't have a lot of direction. For me music opened up a whole new world and sense of possibility for me. It gave me an unbelievable focus and an emotional and heartfelt passion for the music I was discovering. I ended up being a manager of orchestras and now for a performing arts series. And many people wonder how I made that shift from being a professional musician to arts administration—I will say even when I made the change, I still think of myself as a musician in many ways, and still draw on so many things that music taught me about life, how to view the world, and how to operate not just with humanity but emotional intelligence.

Q: Can you talk a bit more about the shift from being a performing musician to arts management?

It was scary. I knew for many years I wanted to transition. I played for an orchestra professionally, which was always my goal, and I thought I could have some other impact on the performing arts world––It took me a long time to figure it out. I began to be frustrated a lot, and then one day, I realized it was important for me to work more behind the scenes to help and affect the art form. It is a hard decision when you finally make it. It wasn't like I woke up one morning and decided. It was a process of about three years, and finally I did leave the orchestra. I took a job working on the administrative side for another orchestra. I had been really working on the idea for a while, and when the opportunity presented itself, it made sense. It’s hard, to practically make that decision, because you invest so much of your life operating in one way, and then you have to change that and operate a different way. I think it is also hard because a lot of artists don't give themselves permission to think what more they can do with their talent.

Q: What have been some challenges in pre professional and professional career?

It is interesting being here at UMS. I have always had interaction with university students but here I have a more regular chance to see university students, seeing what they pursue. You come from a much more holistic program than I remember myself having. We were narrowly focused on what we thought we wanted to do artistically. I think some of it was good and some of that didn't give us exposure or permission to think about the broader world, and how we may affect it. I have been at Michigan for a couple of years now and I am always so impressed with Michigan students on how they think about how they will use their craft to make the world a better place. I think as a pre-professional, that opportunity wasn't as readily identified for me when I was first starting off. We were also not encouraged to explore other things. I don't know that we were discouraged from exploring other things but we certainly were not encouraged. When I got my job in the orchestra I thought I would be happy because it was what I wanted to do, but quickly I realized that wouldn't be all fulfilling. I had to understand what responsibility I have in my own artistic life and in my professional life—taking responsibility for not just happiness but what you think will be satisfying. You can not rely on someone else to provide that for you. Just like you are finding, or you will find, there are certain things people will help you with and there are certain things you have to discover for yourself. For me, I think I had to discover that no one would give me the perfect situation where I could be happy. I had to figure out what would make me satisfied as an artist. I tell young musicians that they have to go in knowing they need to have a sense of ownership and to think about their artistic life and what that means.

What other interests and passions do you have outside of music that influence and inspire your artistry?

I really wanted to be a chef in New Orleans, it's an unbelievable food city. I really got interested in cooking there. I really felt passionate about it. When I thought about what transition I might make, I thought long and hard about going to cooking school. Luckily someone intervened—who I am married to now—she said, “Before you decide to do that, you should get some experience professionally.” So I did that and it was a great experience. I also learned from people who were professional chefs and helped me understand how fortunate I was to be an artist. They couldn't believe I got paid to play the french horn and on my off hours I would work in their kitchens. They told me to just enjoy cooking as a hobby and not as a living. I understood what they meant. For me cooking is wonderful—there is so much in the artistic world that is never complete, and cooking is something for me we can do in its entirety, and sometimes in one evening and as a gift for others. I like doing that for someone. We cook a lot at home and we really enjoy cooking for others. Having the gift to open your home and sharing a meal together. I personally think that is not so far off from what we do in the artistic realm. Artistry is wonderful but when you can share it with others it is so much better. 

Q: How can performing the performing arts be a platform for social justice issues

I think the performing arts at one time were more of a platform for social justice. I think this is a blanket statement, but it seems to me in the last half of the twentieth century, the arts became very insular and inward looking. And we’re really thinking about what we can do for ourselves as artists, institutions and companies. I see now the recognition that people realize the arts can in fact operate in a social justice realm and how the arts help other people. Not just exposing people to the arts but using the arts as a vehicle to help people. I remember at the New York Philharmonic I was trying to do a project and I couldn't get it over the line. It was actually a project about turning one of our Central Park concerts into a huge concert for humanity—a concert to help raise the profile of the refugee crisis at the time, in the spring of 2016, when it was exploding in south Sudan. I couldn't convince our board at the time that that was a good idea because they thought it was confusing and maybe a conflict of interest. What I learned from that is you can't just present an idea and expect people to accept it—you have to do the work to build the case, spend time with them, and invest the time. When I went back and looked at the history of the New York Philharmonic, I found that in the early twentieth century it was constantly giving benefit concerts for hunger relief and other things like this. Famous composers would do benefit concerts after WWII to feed hungry children in Europe. There was this incredible concert in Madison square garden, in 1947, celebrating the relationship between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. After doing this research, I realized there was a history of the orchestra doing these shows that pertain to social justice just not in the same way we think of it today. I think somewhere along the line organizations just don't do this anymore. I think now is the time, the moment we are in now I think we need to challenge ourselves to think about how we as organizations and artists can help others outside of our immediate circles.

Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected you as an arts administrator? (community, financially, initial reactions, company shift, online class, emotions, initial cancellation)

We are having this conversation while we are all in shelter in place here in Michigan. All of us at UMS are working from home and that is fine. Our staff is still fully employed and working—we are not laying people off or stopping, just working in a different way. We are luckier than many organizations. At UMS we don't have a huge team; it’s 32 people plus student workers and part time staff. One of our goals is to keep everyone employed. We had to cancel the last five and a half weeks of the season—everything, from ABT [American Ballet Theatre] in Detroit to Milka Djordjevich’s ANTHEM. We lost a lot of presentations and a lot of companies won't be able to come and perform here. I feel like we have certainly been disrupted by this, but we are quickly working to get our arms around our own challenges right now so we can redirect our efforts as quickly as possible to help artists and people who were employed by UMS, like stagehands and caterers. First order of business: make sure our house is ok and hopefully we will be in a position to be helpful with our partners. It is hard to cancel shows—we have tried to compensate artists that we can, and especially those who have less of a firm footing financially. We are also trying to announce next season, and with all the uncertainty right now, that is a complicated thing. I think all of us here are in an organization that is incredibly supported by the university and the community. The reality is we are protected in many ways. Figuratively, we are in a more protected environment than a lot of free standing arts organizations. So when we canceled ABT, we called the company and said, “How is the company, how are the dancers, what are you doing with touring, what are you looking at?’” We all agreed the ABT April performances could not happen, but we wanted to figure out how to get ABT back here as soon as possible, and if there are ways for us to lessen the financial pressure on ABT. 

Q: How are you as a production company helping support the companies and artists who had to cancel their shows?

Every conversation is specific. We have a duty to protect our organization but no one wants to enter a conversation where we say we don't care. Most of the decisions we have come to have been mutual. Even if we want to move forward, the company or artists may not be willing or able. Could you imagine if we brought ABT dancers to Detroit, Where Detroit is a big hot spot? We try to respect the artists and companies with whom we work with. It is rarely a one-time relationship. It starts with a very open conversation and where we all are. If we feel we can reschedule them we will. The issue is we already have a season planned next year. We try to go back and re-book as many of those things as possible. I think there are certain instances where we try to offer the artists compensation, and their out of pocket costs for preparation. It is not enough, but it is what we can do right now. I hope in the coming months we can do more. At the end of the day it has to be born out of a sense of openness and respect between UMS, the artists and companies. Sometimes we are dealing with the artists directly and those are relationships we really cherish here at UMS. The vast majority of the time, people who come here have a great experience and we want to protect that as best we can. I think that as we think about next year, we don't know what will happen, and we have to prepare for the fact we may all lose performances again if the virus comes back. 

Q: How do you think we can make the performing arts more sustainable at a larger scale?

The problem with the arts is they are not well capitalized—we don’t have a lot of financial reserves. Smaller companies are not just operating on a shoestring, they operate on half a shoestring. One thing in terms of funding—I think we can’t reasonably expect the government to do much here, especially not now. I will say this last stimulus program has been made available to non-profit organizations, not to individual artists, and I'm hoping that will help as much as it can. Foundations like MORAN will help support artists. The reality is the arts need reserves and money set aside for when things like this happen, and that it is not the artist’s or organization’s fault that stems from the fact funding and funding sources and individual givers have not been convinced to help organizations build some money for the rainy days—and rainy days come in the arts more often than they should. In the U.S., we are not a publicly funded arts system, so if we want that, we need to build it ourselves and in collaboration with donors, and that would take a huge shift in mindset. Someone said to me organizations in particular are more fragile than we think they are. I thought at the time that was a weird thing to say. How can the MET be fragile? In reality it is fragile. Just because they have $370 million, it doesn't mean they are strong—but it means they must raise that every year to make it work. There are hundreds that work for that company. And everyone sees the MET as this successful thing, and the reality is, within a two week period most people that work for the MET are furloughed right now. The vast majority of all of the orchestra and stage hands are all unemployed. This is an example of organizations big and small are fragile. The biggest opera company in the world can be brought to its knees relatively quickly. We need more ability to respond to a more volatile world, as well as more sustainability. I am not pointing a finger at the MET I am saying organizations big and small are fragile.

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