Matthew VanBesien – waves of influence

Matthew VanBesien, the former president of New York Philharmonic, is now president of Michigan’s University Musical Society (UMS). With 25 years of orchestra life under his belt, he writes for IAM about how swapping his seat on stage as musician for life as an arts manager was the best decision he ever made. 

My colleague and friend, the jazz musician and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, challenged me recently by asking: “You have such a great series and organisation at University Musical Society (UMS) – one of the best in the country. Now what are you going to do with it?”

It was a daunting question and formidable challenge from Marsalis, the managing and artistic director for Jazz at Lincoln Center, who also happens to be one of the music world’s greatest innovators. Mulling the question over transported me back to my first job as second horn with Louisiana Philharmonic, a cooperative orchestra in New Orleans.

When I was 22 years old, I found myself performing for Louisiana Philharmonic; it had been a personal dream to play for a professional orchestra since I picked up the French horn at age 12. But I quickly grew restless, and one question kept running through my mind: “We have this special orchestra, now what do we do with it?”

Marsalis reminded me of this idea, which propels me to this day. A perpetual search for improvement (something a musician never loses), truth, and progress, coupled with an insatiable hunger to evolve, has not only influenced my career choices, but also provided the fundamental motivation in my daily work.

My leap to arts administration cannot be neatly explained, though I can say that it was partially driven by my experiences in New Orleans, and a need to have a more purposeful impact on society through the arts. Was I thinking about how orchestras and classical music organisations could operate differently, evolving into cultural and civically-minded ensembles even back then? Yes. Did I have any sense of what I could do about it? Not in the slightest.

Pursuit of these goals has been constant in my career: it is what motivated me, two years ago, to announce that I would be leaving the New York Philharmonic to lead UMS at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Why would someone leave a leadership position at such a storied institution in New York City for Ann Arbor, Michigan, you ask? In UMS I saw an opportunity to not only run an ambitious series in one of America’s most charming, liveable, and intellectual cities, but also to think about artistic, educational, and community-based programming more broadly and intentionally and how it could be a vehicle for cultural and social change.

Straight up, the arts need to be more civic-minded and conscious of social dynamics today. We live in a particularly complex moment, one in which it feels our country [for me that is the US], the world and, to some degree, the cultural landscape around us, is unravelling right before our eyes.

No matter how each of us came to be an arts manager, we must understand that our task today is to ensure not only that artistry can be nurtured and protected, but that it helps push against the forces that work against truth, free expression, and the civil society we all believe the arts help maintain. If arts leaders don’t take up this important mantle and work towards society’s ideals, who will?

Now in our 140th season, UMS is an elder among performing arts presenters, while being ambitious and daring in its approach. At UMS, my colleagues and I care deeply about “what” we present, but also about “how” we present it, and it’s this sentiment that permeates our thinking each day.

San Francisco Symphony performing for UMS at Hill Auditorium © Peter Smith
San Francisco Symphony performing for UMS at Hill Auditorium © Peter Smith

One way we approach this ideal at UMS is through No Safety Net, a biennial festival launched in 2018, with a programme embracing many of the thorny issues of our time and of the past: race, power, sex, slavery, terrorism, transgender identity, and healing. The festival confronted these issues head-on, creating a dynamic environment, inclusive of our wider community, where people who were hesitant, or even anxious about participating, could take part.

What happened off stage during No Safety Net was as important as what happened on stage, and we made sure there were numerous opportunities to spark and facilitate debate around the relevant, interesting, and sometimes troubling issues contained therein. During a time when the breakdown of rational discourse in society feels debilitating and downright alarming, what better way to reverse that trend than by actively facilitating open discussion?

One of the topics discussed during No Safety Net was transgender identity, in which UMS created a space for patrons who have had little exposure to this community to learn more about it and develop a more empathetic understanding of what it means for someone to identify as transgender. For a performance of the Underground Railroad Game, a cleverly inventive play that exposes the raw and troubling history of race in America, we convened post-performance discussions to help audiences process the intentionally uncomfortable, sometimes shocking events of the play, and also led a day-long workshop exploring systemic racism.

Embracing a departure from the field in which you’ve trained or have spent much of your career can seem like a terrifying, insurmountable obstacle; moving from a musician to a management role felt the same for me (and still does). I am grateful each day for the opportunities I have, and encourage arts leaders to overcome their own hurdles, not just in terms of their specific profession, but in the larger call to action. We succeed if we recognise that there are certain universalities in presenting the arts, however different the genres.

The full length version of this article appeared in IAM volume 14 issue 12.