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November 07, 2013 - Image 9

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily, 2013-11-07

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' -



hat do the Whirling
Dervishes of Damas-
cus, Celia Cruz,
Ladysmith Black
Mambazo and the
KODO Drummers of
Japan have in com-
mon? Outside of being world-renowned musical
acts, this seemingly random combination of artists
has performed at Hill Auditorium with the help of
the University Musical Society. For most of UMS's
history, however, classical musicians and white
performers and composers have dominated the
program, with little room for cultural and musi-
cal diversity and nearly no community outreach.
Everything changed, though, in 1987, when Ken
Fischer came to Ann Arbor.
A deeply engrained attitude
Founded in 1879, the University Musical Society
is the one of the oldest collegiate presenters in the
country. Hosting about 60 to 75 performances per
eight-month season in three University venues,
UMS is easily the leading musical authority in Ann
Arbor, if not all of southeast Michigan.
Before Fischer's arrival, UMS was "mainly
white, mainly classical, with barely any commu-
nity outreach," said Joetta Mial, a former UMS
board member and former principal of Huron
High School. Fischer's predecessor, Gail Rector,
had strong relationships in the campus communi-
ty and with local classical musicians, but not much
Fischer's mentor, Patrick Hayes, who spear-
headed the movement to desegregate the theaters
of Washington D.C., instilled in Fischer his per-
sonal and professional policy of inclusion, called
EINO: Everybody In, Nobody Out. With this in
mind, Fischer arrived in Ann Arbor in 1987 as
UMS's next president. The basis of his hiring by
the board at the time was to "get us out of debt
and to put people in seats," he said. As a result, the
first few years were tough. The board was excru-
ciatingly careful of whom it collaborated with,
and Fischer soon found himself fighting against a
deeply engrained attitude of artistic and cultural
In the first year of his tenure, Fischer traveled
to conferences across the country in order to seek
advice from his contemporaries. Over a six-month
period, Fischer asked nearly 70 fellow musical
directors whom they considered to be the top
musical presenters in the United States. He then
traveled and met with more than a dozen of these
top presenters to ask one simple question: How do
you do it?
A meeting in San Francisco with Ruth Felt, the
founder of San Francisco Performances, proved

to be monumental. Instead of providing Fischer
an answer, she gave him some questions to ask of
himself and his program: "How do you define your
community? How well are you serving it? How are
you diversifying the program?" Fischer remem-
Suddenly, his entire scope changed. Fischer
understood that though UMS served the Ann
Arbor community, there was a large part of south-
east Michigan that had been ignored since the
program's founding in 1879. If UMS's goal was cul-
tural expression, Fischer realized, there was a lot
of work to do.
Communication, cooperation,
vulnerability and reciprocity
What happened next would later make up what
Fischer calls the "10 Lessons Learned in Diversify-
ing a Performing Arts Organization." In addition
to having an overarching policy that guides the
work, and learning from the experience of leaders
in the field, Fischer also listed, among other les-
sons, "starting where you are, getting out of the
tower (Burton Tower, where UMS is housed) and
into communities of shared heritage, building rela-
tionships with community leaders and practicing
Sharon King's four relationship principles to cre-
ate authentic partnerships."
King's principles - communication, coopera-
tion, vulnerability and reciprocity - are defining
characteristics of UMS's gradual diversification.
Fischer first debuted the 10 Lessons at a forum
for SphinxCon, where he was invited to speak.
Founded17 years ago by Dr. Aaron Dworkin, a Uni-
versity alum, Sphinx promotes youth development
and diversity in classical music by hosting com-
petitions for African American and Latino string
players across the country while also running edu-
cation programs and conferences.
Dworkin, who was a 2005 MacArthur Fellow
and a former member of the Obama National Arts
Policy Committee, started Sphinx as a gradu-
ate student at the University after becoming fed
up with the lack of diversity in the orchestras he
played in as a violinist. He approached Fischer,
who immediately joined the cause and helped
Dworkin launch what is now one of the premier
programs for musical diversity.
However, Fischer's biggest impact came in
the work he did directly with -UMS. In the early
'90s, Fischer said, his first instinct was simply to
bring in ethnic performers and that people would
show up. In retrospect, not only was this approach
exploitative, it was a shallow shortcut. What actu-
ally needed to happen were two of the 10 Lessons:
Get out of the tower and into the communities of
shared heritage and, later, build relationships with

While King's principles of communication and
cooperation seemed easy enough, it was the latter
two, of vulnerability and reciprocity, that really
changed Fischer's attitude.
In regards to vulnerability, Fischer explained:
"What we eventually found was, the last thing the
Arab community wantedto hear was, 'I'm from the
University of Michigan, how can I help you?'What
they wanted to hear was, 'I'm from the University
of Michigan, and boy doI have a lot to learn.'"
As for reciprocity, Fisher said, "If you're build-
ing a relationship, it has to be win-win. Your part-
ner has to do at least as well if not better in what
they're gaining from the relationship."
With these ideas in mind, Fischer forayed into
establishing a relationship with the massive Arab
community in southeast Michigan, a community
that been quietly ignored by UMS for more than
100 years.
Unprecedented cooperation
Ismael Ahmed, head of the Arab Commu-
nity Center for Economic and Social Services
(ACCESS) and associate provost at the University
of Michigan-Dearborn, was the perfect person for
Fischer to talk to. Beginning in 1995, after various
trips between Dearborn and Ann Arbor, Fischer
and Ahmed slowly established a working relation-
"When you reach a level of comfort, trust, you
really like each other ... then you can ask three
questions," Fischer explained. " 'What do you
want?' 'What do I want?' art 'What do we want
together from this thing?' ":
Ahmed wanted help from+UMS in performing,
promoting and simply bettering the shows that
he and his community put on, which Fischer was
happyto do. For his part, Fischer wanted to learn as
much as possible about the Arab world. As a result,
Ahmed put together a couple of what he called
"immersion days," and, true to his word, Fischer
piled all of UMS - board members and staff alike
- onto buses and down to ACCESS. There, Ahmed
taught about Arabic music, culture and geography,
while also leadingtrips to the mosque and to meals
at a variety of Arabic restaurants.
Finally, after this was done, Ahmed and Fisch-
er decided that what they needed to do together
was something they couldn't do alone and, more
importantly, something that would benefit both
communities. In June 2001, Ahmed and Fischer
submitted aproposalto afundingagencyhopingto
bring the Palestinian Oud player Simon Shaheen to
Ann Arbor for a performance and residency. Being
that Shaheen was from Palestine but had played
violin at an American conservatory, he was the
perfect fit.
See HARMONY, Page 3B

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