Challenging Times Require Challenging Art
When I was announced as the new president of the University Musical Society (UMS) at the University of Michigan a year ago after five years as president of the New York Philharmonic, some people thought I was crazy. Why on earth, they asked, would a former professional musician and successful orchestral executive who led three different major orchestras on two continents want to move to a relatively small university town in the Midwest?
Certainly the chance to come to one of America’s most charming and livable cities, to collaborate with one of the best research universities anywhere, and to work with an intellectual and culturally adventurous populace were all important factors.
But another answer for me was something quite potent and simple, and that I know will continue to define our work at UMS moving forward. Coming to UMS offered artistic diversity as a performing arts presenter (not just music, but also dance and theater — and maybe much more), but also the latitude to think more broadly about the arts as a vehicle for both cultural and social change. We are now at the end of a three-week theater festival titled “No Safety Net,” using theater and creativity as catalysts for exploring viewpoints that we, as individuals and as a community, long to understand better.
This is no easy time for university campuses across the nation, including ours, where the community is grappling with how to respond to a speaking request from a white supremacist who slyly foments protests with hateful words and singular ideas; where students have encountered racist flyers and ethnic slurs in prominent locations on campus; and where issues of identity, gender equality, and sexual harassment are ever-present.
And, of course, these issues transcend the public university environment and are symptomatic of larger cultural divisions, threatening to engulf our entire society with mistrust, anger, and fear.
But as artistic leaders, we have the privilege—and the imperative—to help change that.
A few weeks before his death, President John F. Kennedy spoke at Amherst College, at an event honoring the late poet Robert Frost. He spoke of art serving as a touchstone of our judgment as humans, noting that “We must never forget art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth…If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes [them] aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential.”
As a performing arts institution, and as a major public university, we endeavor to help people understand the breadth of the human experience and to reach our highest potential. This comes about by creating an environment for courageous conversations across areas of commonality — and difference.
In an increasingly polarized world, it’s tempting to take complicated issues and turn them into reductive problems that lack both substance and nuance. But as the American actress and playwright Lisa Kron has said, “If there’s only one point of view, there’s no drama. Drama only occurs when people come up against situations outside of themselves and are changed by them.”
As someone leading an arts institution, I can no longer ignore the imperatives for social consciousness, for empathy, and for moving beyond superficial representation and into meaningful and substantive dialogue. One of the most powerful pathways for doing so is to engage with culture and creativity, embracing free speech and an unfettered exchange of ideas.
These imperatives are manifesting themselves with increasing frequency — Robin Bell creating protest art against President Trump’s immigration policies, and Oskar Eustis’ production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar at the Public Theater causing a stir last summer with Caesar styled as a present-day Donald Trump.
And last year, shortly after the election, Vice Present-elect Mike Pence attended a production of Hamilton and was admonished by the cast to work on behalf of all of “the diverse America who are alarmed that your administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights.”
Shortly afterwards, President Trump demanded an apology, tweeting, “The theater must be a safe and special place.” Special? Absolutely. Safe? Maybe. Maybe not.
At UMS, we took an alternate approach, purposely calling our concentrated theater festival “No Safety Net” to signal that we are intentionally placing major societal issues on the table: slavery and race in America, terrorism and acts of violence, non-binary gender identity, and recovery from addiction and depression.
We programmed this festival for those eager to engage with some of the thorny issues of our time. But it’s also intended for those who are hesitant, or even anxious, about doing so, providing an honest but nurturing environment for civil discourse. What happens off the stage during No Safety Net is as important as what happens on it, with many opportunities to spark and facilitate debate around the relevant, interesting, and sometimes troubling issues contained therein. While sometimes controversial, the four theatrical works on stage provide a concentrated period for both reflection and action, bringing people together to think about how we move forward as institutions, as a country, and as a global society.
No Safety Net asks us to embrace complexity and ambiguity—the artists we are hosting provoke thinking that can unsettle, challenge, entertain, but also hurt. At the same time, tackling these issues through their artistic lens has the real possibility to expand our own thinking as audiences, granting us both the intellectual and emotional space to consider others’ points of view.
When we step back and remember that one person’s provocation may be another person’s reality, we are also reminded that it behooves all of us to move out of the echo chamber and expose ourselves to environments where people may disagree with us.
Our communities will once again thrive upon returning to the basic tenets of our democracy — respect, decency, and a commitment to both seeking, and acknowledging, truth. The University of Michigan and the University Musical Society believe the arts are uniquely positioned, now more than ever, to help us with this journey.
Matthew VanBesien has been president of the University Musical Society at the University of Michigan, a 2014 National Medal of Arts recipient now in its 139th season, since July 2017. He has previously served as president of the Houston and Melbourne Symphony Orchestras and the New York Philharmonic.