2020 was a tough year for the arts.
And with no live performances or public gatherings, the University Musical Society (UMS) had to completely rethink how to keep the arts present in the lives of Michigan audiences. UMS has been presenting artistic performances on the University of Michigan campus for 142 years – one of the oldest organizations of its kind in the country. In a normal season, UMS presents around 60-70 performances and over 100 free educational activities.
But 2020 was not a normal season.
UMS received the National Medal of Arts in 2014 in recognition of its cultural impact. During the pandemic, they continued to set the bar even higher, providing more performances to more people in incredibly creative ways. Corporate funders who continued — and increased — their support for their arts through UMS, were essential in helping make these digital performances happen.
How UMS pivoted during the pandemic helped set the tone for the arts community in Michigan, with renewed commitment to arts education, performance production, and accessible performances – and many of the practices put in place will remain long after live shows return.
These examples of UMS’s creative digital transformation, which happened in large part because of critical corporate funding, serve as a testament to the best that can happen when we work together to support important organizations.
“Companies are also helping us to look forward, making sure we are in a position to resume in-person activities as we emerge from the pandemic. Not only did they continue to support UMS through our digital programming this past year, they are also helping us approach the return to in-person performances through a position of strength.”
Companies continued to make a positive impact on our community by continuing their support of UMS programs, even as those programs pivoted online.
Ford Motor Company Fund, DTE Energy Foundation, PNC Foundation and the UMCU Arts Adventures Endowment all continued to provide flexible support for UMS’s K-12 programs, as UMS pivoted to Digital School Day Performances and Digital Classroom Workshops. The traditional workshops bring students to a variety of performances, provide teachers with learning guides to facilitate connections between performances and classroom curriculum, and offer workshops behind the scenes for students and teachers. During COVID-19, UMS received support to help pivot these programs to a virtual setting.
While digital experiences can never replace live performance, some positive outcomes emerged. Because digital performances are less costly to present, UMS was able to offer them free of charge, eliminating a financial barrier that even a low-cost ticket can present. School busses, which can also be a barrier, were not needed. In addition, more students from a larger geographic area were able to view the performances because they were offered over a two-week period, distance to/from the venue was not a factor, and overall attendance was not limited by the number of seats. Programs were also captioned for accessibility.
UMCU Digital Arts Adventures
Many UMS corporate and individual sponsors continued their support of UMS performances, even as those performances pivoted to the digital sphere. UMCU helped create six diverse Digital Arts Adventures, performances by artists ranging from classical chamber music to Mexican Folkloric dance to traditional and contemporary Arab music. Access has been an important priority for both UMCU and UMS, and all Digital Arts Adventures were offered free of charge.
DTE Energy Foundation Teacher of the Year
DTE Energy Foundation’s consistent and flexible support for K-12 programs has been a backbone of the educational offerings for youth in the region. UMS recognizes their generosity by naming this award after them. The Teacher of the Year award is given annually to an educator who inspires their students, recognizes the value the importance of arts education, and provides a space for art community to thrive.
Like everything else, the 2020 award presentation went virtual, with UMS and DTE surprising honoree Rachel Bomphray, a high school English teacher in the South Redford School District, at a staff meeting over Zoom.
Digital Experiences: A Teachers Perspective
Companies supported new, accessible, and creative performances through UMS.
DTE Energy Foundation was a primary sponsor of James Anthony Tyler’s Some Old Black Man, starring Wendell Pierce and Charlie Robinson. Pierce, the 2020 UMS Digital Artist in Residency, signed on with UMS to produce this piece for digital audiences. UMS’ first in-house produced performance, the wildly popular play had particular challenges of being safely produced during COVID-19.
Pierce also serves DTE Energy as the voice actor in their commercials, so the two are familiar with each other. He commented, “Arts play a vital role in society… It’s the place where we collectively come together, reflect on who we are, where we’ve been, where we hope to go…, decide what our values are and then go out and implement it in your life. Just because we’re in a pandemic, we should not give up that pursuit.”
Planning for the Future
Companies are also helping us to look forward, making sure we are in a position to return to resume in-person activities as we emerge from the pandemic.
The Forward Fund
Knowing we would face increased costs and a smaller audience, UMS launched the UMS Forward Fund to help address funding gaps over the next 1-2 years that are a direct result of the pandemic. As concert houses and performance halls find their way back to pre-pandemic capacity levels, the Forward Fund will be there to help sustain expenses so UMS performance quality, quantity and service doesn’t miss a beat.
Bank of Ann Arbor provided a $25,000 challenge grant to match gifts of first-time donors to UMS through June 30.
Dancing in the Streets
Every year visiting dance companies offer special workshops at the Ann Arbor YMCA in conjunction with their performances at UMS. These popular programs are an important part of UMS’ community outreach program, one they wanted to find a way to continue during the pandemic. Masco helped UMS make that happen by providing a a $10k sponsorship toward You Can Dance – Outside!, the only in-person experience UMS was able to offer in the 2020/21 academic year.
The program was wildly popular and UMS is planning a second program in the fall of 2021.