Weekly Zoom Meeting - July 15: How An Impresario In the Arts Adapts to Covid-19

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services identified the first two presumptive-positive cases of COVID-19 in Michigan on March 10, 2020. That same day, invoking the Emergency Management Act [1976 P.A. 390, as amended] and the Emergency Powers of the Governor Act [1945 P.A. 302, as amended], Governor Whitmer issued Executive Order 2020-4 declaring a state of emergency across the state of Michigan. Its core “shelter in place” provision essentially provided, subject to certain exceptions, that “all individuals currently living within the State of Michigan [must] stay at home or at their place of residence. Subject to the same exceptions, all public and private gatherings of any number of people occurring among persons not part of a single household [were] prohibited.” Persons leaving home for a permitted purpose had to observe proper “social distancing.” All non-essential businesses were directed to close immediately. This State of Emergency has been extended several times; it currently is in force until May 28. How to restart the economy once the State of Emergency is lifted in whole or in part is a question fraught with difficulty. In the absence of a vaccine, how can public health and safety be assured? Will public confidence return that large scale gatherings are safe to attend again?

Our speaker, Matthew VanBesien, succeeded Ken Fisher as President of the University Musical Society in 2018. Prior to assuming that position, he served as President of the New York Philharmonic since 2014. A former French horn player, he spent eight years performing with the Louisiana Philharmonic before joining the League of American Orchestras’ management fellowship program. He worked with the Houston Symphony for seven years after that and rose to Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer for the final four years of his tenure there. He spent two years as Managing Director of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in Australia before returning to the United States to become Executive Director of the New York Philharmonic in 2012.

Most major performing arts organizations market themselves on a season subscription basis. The challenge that the public health necessity of “social distancing” poses in that setting is particularly acute. For these organizations, most seats are presold. Reopening once “shelter in place” restrictions are lifted is not just a matter of reduced ticket revenue from blocking out seats on a seating chart to enforce “social distancing” going forward; where tickets are sold to events on an individual basis, doing that theoretically could allow performances to resume even though ticket revenue contracts severely. The subscription model, on the other hand, might require already sold tickets to be cancelled in order to maintain “social distancing” in the auditorium. The logistical obstacles that would have to be surmounted if such a policy were implemented are daunting.

The University Musical Society announces its 2020-2021 season on April 30. Our speaker will talk about leadership in the arts during a time of volatility.  In addition to sharing some updates and forward plans from UMS, Matthew will talk broadly about the role of the arts in a period of a global pandemic and social unrest, what the coming months may hold for artists and performing arts companies, and what civic leaders can do to help ensure the health and vitality of the arts and culture in their community.