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Ann Arbor 200

AADL Talks To: Sara Billmann, Vice President of Marketing & Communications, University Musical Society

When: October 26, 2023

Sara Billman
Sara Billmann 

In this episode, AADL Talks to Sara Billmann. Sara is Vice President of Marketing and Communications at the University Musical Society (UMS). She talks with us about how she got started at UMS and how her work has evolved as programming and marketing strategies have changed over the years. Sara remembers some of the stand-out performances she's helped bring to Ann Arbor stages and the people and events that shaped her career.

 

Transcript

  • [00:00:09] ELIZABETH SMITH: Hi. This is Elizabeth.
  • [00:00:11] AMY CANTU: And this is Amy and in this episode, AADL talks to Sara Billmann, Vice President of Marketing and Communications at the University Musical Society. Sara discusses her history working at UMS since the late 1980s. She talks about how marketing strategies have changed over the years, highlights standout performances, and discusses some of her favorite memories.
  • [00:00:36] ELIZABETH SMITH: Thank you for talking to us today, Sara. We usually just start by asking, Where did you grow up and what brought you to Ann Arbor?
  • [00:00:42] SARA BILLMANN: That's a great question. I actually grew up in a very small town in Wisconsin called Sheboygan Falls, and I came to Ann Arbor in 1987 as a music student at the University of Michigan School of Music Theater and Dance. I was an oboe major. Very quickly realized I did not want to spend the rest of my life scraping pieces of bamboo to make reeds. Ended up graduating with a degree in English, but during that transition, I also started working at the University Musical Society as a work-study student, and my career path was born in that moment.
  • [00:01:21] AMY CANTU: Did you know fairly early on then that this was an organization that you wanted to stay with? Or did that happen over time?
  • [00:01:30] SARA BILLMANN: I always joked that I wanted to retire in Ann Arbor and I ended up retiring at age 27 when I came back. [LAUGHTER] When I came to school here, I learned of UMS after the fact and I wrote Ken Fischer a letter saying I'd be interested in working for you, and it turned out that Ken's sister and my sister knew each other at the University of Wisconsin. Ken's sister told my sister, "No, tell Sara to go make an appointment because he doesn't respond to letters." I did and in 10 minutes I had a job. It was great advice and so I worked at UMS then for five years, and then I left and went to Stanford and did an MBA out there, and then also worked for San Francisco opera for a year, came back in 1996 to head up the marketing and communications at UMS. I think I always knew... The organization is so special that I didn't necessarily imagine at the time that I would spend basically my entire life working there. But it offers so much and it's so rewarding in so many ways that in retrospect, I'm not surprised it's where I've made my career.
  • [00:02:46] ELIZABETH SMITH: What was it that initially attracted you to UMS in the first place?
  • [00:02:50] SARA BILLMANN: Well, as a classically trained musician -- and again, this was in the late 1980s when that was the bulk of UMS programming -- and I remember my freshman year they had Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. That was the pathway in. But from there, it was honestly just a year of discovery and finding out new things. I remember sitting in the audience for a concert by the Munich Philharmonic with the great conductor Celibidache and I had no idea who he was and really just went on a whim and came out of that concert just... My mind was completely blown. They did a Bruckner symphony, and I'd never heard anything like it before in my life. It was just a confluence of more and more and more of those kinds of experiences. Hill Auditorium is so incredibly beautiful and I would always sit up in the balcony. I have so many memories that I can immediately call back that are really physical memories because you're in a space and you just remember how you feel. Hearing Jessye Norman, warming up backstage while the orchestra was performing and the percussionist having to slip offstage to tell her to tone it down a little bit. [LAUGHTER] All of these things and then, of course, she came out, and this was in 1989, she sang Strauss's four last songs as part of the closing concert of the May Festival. When she finished, a completely sold-out house, over 4,000 people there, it was just absolute silence for a full minute before somebody broke into applause and she finally put her arms down. Now, this was, of course, before cell phones, so we didn't have to worry about the cell phone interruption and everything. But there are just so many magical moments like that that I consider really core to who I am as a person today, honestly, because they've just been so important to me in my life.
  • [00:04:46] AMY CANTU: You are currently the Vice President of Marketing and Communications. Did you get that job soon after coming back from the San Francisco Opera, or did you have a different job and when did you evolve...?
  • [00:05:01] SARA BILLMANN: The position itself has just evolved. When I came back in 1996, it was as director of marketing. There wasn't a vice president then. I think probably four or five years ago, we just did an internal reorganization with titles and everything. At that point, those of us who had been in the leadership group were made vice presidents instead, which was probably, in all honesty, more reflective of the work that we were doing because it's really so comprehensive and wide-ranging. But it was a job that evolved, not a new position.
  • [00:05:37] AMY CANTU: You've seen a lot in your years. You've obviously had some experience with marketing and communications, and I know you're very interested in data and that your work is very data-driven. Can you talk a little bit about how marketing and communications in this field have changed over years?
  • [00:05:56] SARA BILLMANN: Absolutely. I really will say that two things have happened simultaneously. One has been the decline of newspapers and the journalism print news industry, and the other has been the growth of an interest in taking data and turning it into valuable information. I always like to joke, when I started here in 1996 as the Director of Marketing, we would be taking hard copies of photos and walking them down to the Ann Arbor News Office, and none of those things exist anymore. Everything happens digitally. It's actually been a big transformation for us working with artists to figure out how to get them to provide the kinds of materials that are useful. It's better now than it was five years ago. Now we regularly get videos and we regularly get just some of the tools that we need to be able to market successfully online. For me, the interest in the data, my dad was a math teacher, my mom was a music teacher. I'm absolutely the product of the two of them. [LAUGHTER] That's what I discovered on the marketing side -- that it was such a great fit for me because I could spend half of my time really working on the creative campaigns, working with designers, copywriting, all of those right brain skills. Then I could turn around and look at our database and who's buying tickets and where are they coming from and how many of them are first-time buyers, and what are some of the techniques that we can do to get people to come back or try something new or try something a little bit out of the box. What kind of offers work, we would do some AB testing sometimes on language if we were inviting somebody back for a second concert. Is it "redeem your free ticket" or is it "buy one get one free," and both of those have the same messaging in it, but how you frame it, and we would analyze that and look at that. We really tried to take a pretty strategic approach to marketing, and that became possible simply because we had a really robust ticketing database, and we were able to delve into all of those analytics. That has now become much more normal in the performing arts field writ large and most of the larger organizations. Some of them even have analytics positions on their staff, where that's all they're doing is digging into the data. We've also worked with students and faculty at Ross Business School to develop some tests and examples. I worked with a group of masters students last year in the Data Analytics Program who took a look at how people were coming back post-pandemic and were there any trends and things that we could capitalize on just in terms of understanding who was coming back and who wasn't coming back, and what might we do to get people to take a chance again. I find it all really, really interesting. I love doing surveys. I love digging into what makes people behave the way that they do.
  • [00:09:06] AMY CANTU: Well, that's fascinating. Can you give us some examples of what you learned? The pandemic, for example?
  • [00:09:12] SARA BILLMANN: One of the things that we learned post-pandemic was that people who subscribed in the past, pre-pandemic, if they hadn't come back, they were probably not likely to come back as subscribers. Frankly, some of them just moved away. But that was where we really saw the worry and the fear about health and safety come through. So from a single ticket standpoint, people buying tickets to individual events, that was less of an issue. But people were less comfortable subscribing to a full series when they didn't know what was going to happen down the road. Every year we make some inroads in that. Every year, we get more people coming back. But those first couple of years, that was a trend. UMS was very lucky post-pandemic, compared to a lot of arts organizations, or maybe it was great marketing, I don't know. Take some credit. But a lot of organizations really struggled to get their audiences back, and our '22, '23 season, our first full season back, we had a lot of really huge events. We opened the season with Trevor Noah. We had a big residency with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, where they even performed with Wynton Marsalis at the halftime show and did two big concerts. We had the Berlin Philharmonic. We had the plastic bag store. So we had a lot of really high-profile events that made people. I think it piqued their curiosity enough that they wanted to come out and check it out. And then once you've done it, you realize there are protections in place and you can protect yourself, and it's not maybe as scary as it seemed the first time. So that's one example. But we've certainly experimented a lot with really different behavioral marketing techniques too.
  • [00:11:06] ELIZABETH SMITH: I'm curious about technological changes over the years. You mentioned people have cell phones now so and the patron -- I don't know what you call them -- visitor experience has changed in that sense. But has it changed on the back end as well?
  • [00:11:22] SARA BILLMANN: Well, certainly on the audience side, it's changed a lot, and it's a constant struggle to remind people to turn their phones off. In fact, our tagline has always been, or for the last decade, has been "Be Present" and that really has the double meaning of, Come to the arts events and be a participant in the experience, but also get your mind in the right place so that you're really focusing on what the experience is and not be fooling around with your phone and texting people in between intermission and all of that. It's actually after intermission where it's often the hardest because people will be really good when they're reminded at the top of the concert to turn it off, and then they turn it back on at intermission to check the babysitter or whatever and then the second half, it's always at the most ill-timed moment too.
  • [00:12:11] ELIZABETH SMITH: Of course, always.
  • [00:12:12] AMY CANTU: Always.
  • [00:12:13] SARA BILLMANN: It's interesting because in some of the survey data that I've seen recently, even some of the younger audiences and the people who we think are connected at the hip to their phones are saying, "We actually like this experience of having to put it away, and we wish audiences use their phones less frequently than they do." That was an eyebrow-raising moment. From the marketing side, it's very different in that we've had to adapt so that tickets are now easier to buy online website communications or an email, everything that when you're having to zoom out to be able to read what content is, people aren't going to do that anymore. There's much less patience, I think, right now for ferreting out information and so you have to really grab people immediately with relevant content and relevant messaging. Again, we do quite a bit of advertising on social media platforms, which I'll say personally I'm ambivalent about just because I'm not one who loves what social media has done to our society. But it does actually reach a lot of people and sell a lot of tickets and makes that connection for people, and that's valuable.
  • [00:13:41] AMY CANTU: Are you in charge of the social media as the marketing and communications...
  • [00:13:47] SARA BILLMANN: I have a member of my team is in charge of it. I'm not the one directly creating the posts or anything like that. But they're really savvy. We work with a company in New York that only does digital marketing for the arts. What they do for the New York Philharmonic and other big institutions is all filtering to the work that we do so that we're really getting best practices. It's impossible to keep up with these changing algorithms and by the time we figure it out, they've changed again. By working with a professional company that only works with arts organizations, we're able to really get the best thinking about how to position things.
  • [00:14:28] AMY CANTU: I remember when you introduced UMS Rewind. How long ago was that now?
  • [00:14:34] SARA BILLMANN: That was 2015, '16. Yeah.
  • [00:14:39] AMY CANTU: Do you interact directly with that material -- the feedback -- and does that impact the work?
  • [00:14:46] SARA BILLMANN: Yeah. Absolutely. So two pieces of that. UMS Rewind is the UMS Archive of all of our concerts going back to 1879. I would say that I am probably on that website five or six times a week looking something up.
  • [00:15:03] AMY CANTU: Wow.
  • [00:15:04] SARA BILLMANN: Whether it's an artist or a piece of music that's been performed or we're in a programming meeting and trying to figure out when the last time X artist was here. We use it all the time. For a while, we had a platform called UMS Lobby, which was more of a conversation portal back and forth with audiences. As the commenting features got more and more common writ large, people really weren't engaging with that and so we actually turned that part off a couple of years ago. Having said that, we get a lot of people who write into the website, a lot of people who reply to emails with questions. I've set myself up to be that first line of review on that, partly because as a marketing and communications person, I need to know what audiences are thinking and I need to know what questions they have and what their concerns are so that we can be responsive to that. Just as one example, somebody wrote back on an email and said, "I had no idea that the parking garage was cash only, and I only had a credit card." This was a couple of years ago. Now, of course, they're card only. But it was a throw-away comment in a survey. But I was actually able to take that and say, This is something people don't know, and we now incorporated that into every pre-show email that we did. Just being aware of that really makes a huge difference in our ability to be successful on the communication side.
  • [00:16:40] ELIZABETH SMITH: What have you found that people actually want to know about?
  • [00:16:44] SARA BILLMANN: All sorts of things, concert-length, where to park, where to eat, and a lot of those things we just put in regularly. Eric and Miranda on our digital team are really great about putting together blog posts about the program. It used to be, you'd publish the program, what pieces were being performed, and then when you got to the concert hall, you would have the program book and you would read it in your seat. A lot of people actually like to read that in advance. That might be because they want to prepare for it. It might be because the lights are dim in the auditorium and they can't read it. I'm at that point right now where I can't read anything anymore.
  • [00:17:26] AMY CANTU: I hear you.
  • [00:17:27] SARA BILLMANN: We've sometimes turned that content into a blog post and tried to provide more pathways. Then, actually, we can use information about the events that we're doing that would normally be saved for the program and use it in advance to help market the materials as well. Last week (we're recording this in October of 2023), we had an Irish theater company that did three plays by Sean O'Casey, and they were all based on the Irish Civil War period and revolutionary period. We realize that our audiences, certainly some people know that history and know it well, but a lot of people didn't have that framing. We actually put together and license some content from Irish Repertory Theater and put together blog posts that really allowed people to dig into that period and history ahead of time so that when they got to the theater, the context of the plays would make more sense. That type of work is really what we're doing and trying to think about a full-rounded experience for audience members and how we can anticipate what kind of information people may need to be able to have the best experience possible.
  • [00:18:43] AMY CANTU: I have a question about... I know in the past, you've had some programming that's been pretty cutting-edge. You've had some incredible residencies. Was there ever a moment for you where you didn't know how to market this brand new thing that you were going to introduce to the community, and did anything catch you off guard, and how did you deal with it?
  • [00:19:16] SARA BILLMANN: Yeah, it happens. Absolutely. None of us is an expert in everything that we do. Frankly, that's part of the fun of working at UMS, is that we're always able to learn more each year about a different artist, a different art form, a different period in history, you name it. Certainly, some of those cutting-edge pieces were tough. I think with a lot of them, the visual images were very dark, so they didn't necessarily reproduce well for an ad. Things that you don't necessarily think would matter. But if a stage is all in darker lights with a little bit of color, it doesn't reproduce in a newspaper. It's better in a brochure, but trying to tease out the overarching themes, it can be really tricky. I've actually occasionally gone, particularly with theater, I think is where it tends to be tricky. I'll sometimes go and try to see a piece in advance. Not so much to see the piece because I could do that on a video, but to see the audience. Who's there and what are they saying, and what are they resonating with, and that can be really helpful. We don't always have that luxury, because with international tours, it might be in New York the week before we get it, and that's not enough time to make those kinds of assessments. It's tough and we just interrogate the piece from every possible angle. Our team every summer takes every event in the season -- and this is within the marketing and communications team -- each staff member takes one show for each meeting and really digs into it and finds video clips and finds press clips and talks to people who have presented the piece before or does that kind of Internet research. We all get up to speed very quickly, and then we brainstorm ideas about what are different pathways into the work.
  • [00:21:25] ELIZABETH SMITH: I'm curious about the organization. It's 144 years old.
  • [00:21:29] SARA BILLMANN: Hundred and forty-five now.
  • [00:21:31] ELIZABETH SMITH: Hundred and forty-five. How does that work keeping it relevant, timely, or is that something that's just on its own, has its own momentum?
  • [00:21:40] SARA BILLMANN: It's something we think about a lot and we feel a real responsibility to make sure that we're being responsive and resonant for what's happening in the world today and with our community. One of the things that I always like to say is that at UMS Innovation is the tradition. Back in the late 19 teens, after World War I, Charles Sink, who was then the president of UMS lined up Enrico Caruso to do his first recital west of the Hudson River. First time you've ever been outside of New York. The way that Charles Sink structured it was that the only way you could get tickets to Enrico Caruso's Recital was if you bought the Main Orchestra series, the Coral Union series for two years before that. That was how you could guarantee that you'd get tickets. That's really innovative for 1917. I love that way of thinking. Now, that's speaking about it more on the marketing side, not the artistic side. But I think what's great about the artistic side is that artists themselves are always trying to push boundaries and trying to force that layer of how can I be relevant today? We're always working with that kind of mindset among the artistic side and that's what helps us stay relevant. I'll say two things. One is that the irony about that Caruso recital is that it had to be rescheduled due to the flu pandemic. That certainly came back to us, 100 years later, and I forgot the other thing.
  • [00:23:29] AMY CANTU: If you think about it, it could come back. On the same topic, you've got the formidable history of UMS, and the community knows, by and large, I would imagine, and appreciates it. Is there anything that you can just take for granted in this community? For example, I would imagine that when you had those Shakespeare cycles that there was a built-in audience. It's a university, it's Shakespeare, I remember going to those. I remember they were really well attended. I'm just wondering how this community and the university here has contributed to your marketing campaigns and your expectations of what people want.
  • [00:24:24] SARA BILLMANN: I will say I don't take anything for granted.
  • [00:24:28] AMY CANTU: Probably a good move.
  • [00:24:30] SARA BILLMANN: I mean, there are certainly some events that we know that we don't have to worry about as much in terms of the effort that we put in. A Yo Yo Ma is always going to drive a huge audience. Berlin Philharmonic is always going to drive a huge audience, but it still takes work to get there. This organization could not exist the way it is without the University of Michigan. There's so much richness to what happens here. It's why when I was 27, I said, I wanted to retire here because there's just so much always happening on campus and in the community, and it's easy to get to. That's just such an important part of who we are, working with the faculty, working with the students. Students actually are somewhere between 20-25% of our audience every year. We always hear from people, "Oh, are young people going to keep coming to arts events?" We see it. Our average age has actually gone down in the last 10 years, and one might think that's because of students. But even taking students out, it's still lower than it was 10 years ago and certainly lowest among a lot of our peer organizations. I think just the university is absolutely core to the work that we do. The relationship that we have with the university and with the community, we're in that gray area between the two, where we're affiliated with the university but not a unit of it. Of course, we're a community-based organization, and that's a real sweet spot to be in.
  • [00:26:14] AMY CANTU: Isn't there some confusion, though? A lot of people think you are.
  • [00:26:17] SARA BILLMANN: Well, our name does, the University Musical Society.
  • [00:26:20] AMY CANTU: A lot of people might think, Oh well, they're fully funded because the university brings in so much money. But none of your funding comes from...?
  • [00:26:28] SARA BILLMANN: We do get some funding from the University. It's about 10% of our budget. But no, most of it, about 35% of our budget, comes from ticket sales and the rest is all private philanthropy from individuals, corporations, foundations, and grants.
  • [00:26:45] ELIZABETH SMITH: Do you do any campaigns for those or is it donors year after year the same?
  • [00:26:50] SARA BILLMANN: It's both actually, and we do connect--this is one of those gray areas where we do connect with the university and we're part of their big campaigns every year and have our own set of goals within that and work with them. Of course, it's equally confusing because a donor to UMS is also considered a donor to the university, so it's really a blurry line.
  • [00:27:14] ELIZABETH SMITH: You also teach at the music school, is that correct?
  • [00:27:16] SARA BILLMANN: I did for about seven years. I stopped teaching this year, actually.
  • [00:27:20] ELIZABETH SMITH: What was your curriculum like there?
  • [00:27:22] SARA BILLMANN: Well, it was a one-credit mini-course called DIY Marketing and social media. It was really intended for music students who were entering the field to figure out how to promote themselves and how to market themselves. The first few years, the class was really relevant and made a lot of sense. Increasingly the last couple of years, especially as I mentioned earlier, I've withdrawn from social media. I know enough on the back end to be able to strategize on how to use it and look at the analytics and all of that. But I'm not personally practicing it. A lot of the students now, they've been using it since they were in fourth grade, fifth grade. I felt the class had actually run its course, so to speak, and wasn't really as relevant anymore, just given who was coming in and they were doing things on TikTok. It's just not where we're focusing our attention, so I stopped teaching this year.
  • [00:28:20] AMY CANTU: You mentioned a couple of memories that you have, with Jessye Norman and some others. Can you highlight a couple of the events or series or programs that really stand out for you over the course of your career -- that you're particularly proud of?
  • [00:28:37] SARA BILLMANN: Wait, you said this is like a 30 minute podcast?
  • [00:28:41] ELIZABETH SMITH: 30 to and an hour plus.
  • [00:28:46] SARA BILLMANN: I will say that for me, initially starting off, those were almost all classical music events. But increasingly the longer I've been here, the ones that really continually blow me away are some of the dance events. Last year, we had Pina Bausch Company doing or a company doing Pina Bausch's choreography of the Rite of Spring. That was utterly breathtaking. We've had Ballet Preljocaj a couple of times. They did one performance. It was a version of Snow White, and all of the music was set to Mahler, and I will never forget that performance. It was just so spectacular from every detail, from the costume design to the rock wall that they had the seven dwarves climbing down in the middle of the performance. I'm a huge Mahler fan. It was the trifecta.
  • [00:29:48] AMY CANTU: Can't forget it.
  • [00:29:48] SARA BILLMANN: Can't forget. Certainly, those RSC that you referenced the history plays. I'll be honest, when we first presented those, I was a little bit worried about them because thinking about -- you may remember that we were selling those as a package. You couldn't just see Richard III without seeing Henry sixth Parts 1, 2, and 3 all in one day. That's a lot of Shakespeare in one day.
  • [00:30:18] AMY CANTU: I saw them all in one day. I was there.
  • [00:30:20] SARA BILLMANN: Everybody did. That was actually it sold out as it turns out on those immersion days, but we didn't know. It was a little bit risky. Certainly, the Royal Shakespeare Company has a huge name, obviously. But aside from Richard III, those were not easy plays.
  • [00:30:38] AMY CANTU: No.
  • [00:30:39] SARA BILLMANN: That people read and know and quote from. So that was definitely big. The English theater company Complicite has done some extraordinary work. The first piece that they did was The Elephant Vanishes, and I think that was in 2005, if I remember right. It was a series of Haruki Murakami short stories that they staged, and it turned me on to Murakami as one of my favorite authors to this day, and I read everything of his that I can because I just think he's such a curious, interesting and innovative writer. They also presented a piece that we did in, I want to say 2019, that every audience member had their own headphones. It was all with this sound that was designed through the headphones. It was a really interesting thing.
  • [00:31:40] AMY CANTU: That was.
  • [00:31:40] SARA BILLMANN: You were there for that one?
  • [00:31:41] AMY CANTU: Yes I was. What was that called?
  • [00:31:42] SARA BILLMANN: I can't remember. That's why I just punted it. That's okay. About the Amazon. I cannot remember the name it.
  • [00:31:53] AMY CANTU: That was great.
  • [00:31:55] SARA BILLMANN: I'll say -- it's embarrassing -- but I probably promoted over 1,000 events over the years.
  • [00:32:00] AMY CANTU: Have you been to most of them?
  • [00:32:03] SARA BILLMANN: I probably attend 80% to 90% of what we do every year.
  • [00:32:09] AMY CANTU: You must feel, well, really privileged for that.
  • [00:32:12] SARA BILLMANN: It is a huge privilege.
  • [00:32:15] AMY CANTU: When things go wrong, if somebody cancels last minute and you have to bring somebody in, I know that's happened many times, are you involved in the communication for that? Could you tell us about how you deal with that?
  • [00:32:29] SARA BILLMANN: Sure. I mean, some of it depends. Well, I'll say this. It's gotten a lot easier because we're a lot more practiced now that the pandemic has happened, and we've got the routine down. But in the early days before everybody was giving us their e mail address and that type of thing, it was tough. My first season back in 1990, I can't remember now if it was 1997 or 1998, we had Cecelia Bartoli come, and she ended up getting sick on 48 hours notice. Michael Kondziolka, my colleague, found a replacement artist who was not nearly as well known as she was, and we went into high gear. We called every ticket buyer that we could reach. We certainly alerted the paper and the radio stations, and just we were trying to do everything we could to get the word out because it was such a short time frame. But we still had people who showed up expecting Cecelia Bartoli who were not super happy about replacement. But she was great. The replacement was amazing. Actually, people we asked them to stay and said, if you're unhappy, we'll refund your money. We had people coming out of it saying, My gosh, that was extraordinary. I'm so happy to be introduced to this artist, and that was a pathway where we presented her. Her name was Ewa Podles.
  • [00:33:53] AMY CANTU: I was there.
  • [00:33:53] SARA BILLMANN: You were there. It was amazing, right?
  • [00:33:57] AMY CANTU: Oh, her voice. It was fantastic.
  • [00:34:01] SARA BILLMANN: Now, it's a little bit easier because we can quickly get out an e-mail to everybody. During the pandemic, we discovered a texting service that allows us to reach people that way. It's just a lot easier, and everybody's looking at the website, and we do the pre show email. We have ways of building in reminders, and we haven't had problems, knock onwood with people showing up who are, "But my ticket said..."
  • [00:34:29] AMY CANTU: Wow, I can imagine that would sometimes be pretty..."Ahhh!"
  • [00:34:33] SARA BILLMANN: It depends on the scale. A solo recital is easier to replace with a different artist. But if it's, for instance, this coming April of 2024, we were supposed to present the great Lebanese oud virtuoso Marcel Khalife with his nephew and his son. Marcel actually fell this summer on vacation and broke his hand, and so we just last week actually announced that we're going to be postponing that to the next season. That's not the concert where you can easily come up with a replacement because it's just so specialized and unique. But it's always fun.
  • [00:35:16] ELIZABETH SMITH: Can you talk about your co workers that you've worked with over the years, specifically Michael Kondziolka and Ken Fischer, who you both mentioned?
  • [00:35:24] SARA BILLMANN: Yeah. I mean, well, Ken, as I mentioned, Ken was the one who gave me my first job, and we worked together for I think it was pretty close to 30 years, if not 30 years, if you don't count those three that I disappeared, but Ken was amazing to work with. He's collaborative. He really just wanted to make sure that everybody's voice in the room was heard. There were four of us who worked together for over 20 years. Michael was one of them. Michael and I were actually interns together way back in the late 1980s. He started at UMS one year before I did. When I was an intern in the marketing department he was also working in the marketing department, and he actually dabbled in every area of the organization and ended up as our programming director in the early '90s. But we worked very closely together for many years. He would have these great artistic programs that he'd put in front of me, and then I'd have to come up with and figure out how many tickets did I think we could sell. We really worked closely together on both the financials of what that meant, but also on some of the marketing strategy and who's going to be interested in this concert and what do we need to know about this artist? Michael and I worked together for a very, very long time. Then the fourth member of that group that worked together for, I want to say it was close to 25 years, was John Kennard who was our director of finance, who sadly passed away about five years ago, right before he retired, unfortunately.
  • [00:37:06] AMY CANTU: Can you talk a little bit now about the new direction and the new leadership that you have, and where you think UMS is going in the next decade or two?
  • [00:37:17] SARA BILLMANN: Well, we're focused right now a lot on our 150th season, which will be in the 2028-29 season. It is just around the corner.
  • [00:37:31] AMY CANTU: What do you got planned?
  • [00:37:32] SARA BILLMANN: Well, we're planning to plan.
  • [00:37:36] AMY CANTU: You're planning to plan.
  • [00:37:37] SARA BILLMANN: No, we're really starting that process right now and we don't have anything concrete, but it's something that's very much in the forefront of everything that we're doing as we think about what do we want UMS to look like for the next 100, 50 years and what do we want it to look like in 2029. Just a few years after the Ann Arbor Bicentennial. But as I mentioned before we were recording, Matthew VanBesien has been our president this is now his seventh season. I think that what people are seeing in the programming is a continuity of the great art and the innovative art that's coming. Probably a little bit more of the pathway in as well to things that are easily accessible. For instance, in January, we're presenting The Godfather with live orchestra, and that's actually a partnership we're doing with the Grand Rapids Symphony. It's something that's closer to home and not necessarily only relying on international touring artists, which frankly, especially now with all of the focus on the environment and climate change, we're starting to see a little bit of a shift in the international touring landscape.
  • [00:38:53] AMY CANTU: That's interesting.
  • [00:38:54] SARA BILLMANN: The other thing that I think we're seeing more of is a focus on the community that supports us and how we can best serve the community. For instance, in April last year, we piloted a residency at the Ypsilanti Freighthouse, and that was the first of a minimum of four of these that are planned. The programming is not UMS artistic team sitting around and coming up with who are the international artists we'd like to present, but it's really being driven by the community. We had sessions with community members. What do you want to see? What will be helpful to you. That has all bubbled up and really driven the programming. The one that we just completed had a square dance, and it had a work by a jazz musician in Detroit named Marcus Elliot, that was for the Ypsilanti Bicentennial, actually, and really digging into Ypsilanti's history as a stop on the Underground Railroad. We had an open mic night so that we could put local talent on stage, and a lot more events for families too. All of that is really coming from programming that's relevant to the community, not just the international artists who are coming in. I think you're going to see that growth in really thinking not just about the artists that we want to present, but the audiences that we serve and how we really embrace who's here and who wants to be here.
  • [00:40:23] AMY CANTU: That sounds great.
  • [00:40:24] ELIZABETH SMITH: It does.
  • [00:40:25] ELIZABETH SMITH: What are you most proud of?
  • [00:40:28] SARA BILLMANN: I can never answer that question. It goes in so many different ways. On the professional side, I am super proud of the team that we've built at UMS and how committed every single person is to doing their very best and making it an organization that means something to other people. On a personal side, I'm super proud of the fact that I have an amazing family. I've raised two kids, one of whom is still in college, one of whom just graduated, and they have just opened my eyes to so much else that happens in the Ann Arbor community, but also just beyond. Of course, a great husband who also works in the performing arts and who together, we just really have a sense of so much of what's happening in the community and also just how meaningful and important the work that we do is to other people, and that keeps us going. That's really important.
  • [00:41:33] AMY CANTU: Thank you so much, Sara.
  • [00:41:34] SARA BILLMANN: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
  • [00:41:36] ELIZABETH SMITH: Thank you.
  • [00:41:39] AMY CANTU: AADL Talks To is a production of the Ann Arbor District Library.