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Straight from The Source, a regular interview series taking you behind-the-scenes to Southeast Michigan’s cultural destinations to hear from the curators, programmers, leaders, doers and makers.

What are you best known for?

I think what people seem to say more than anything is I’m a connector of people. I’m always bringing people together through email introductions, pulling people at a meeting from one end of the room to another. Also a collaborator, and those two are related. Working together with others is so critical in our business. Some time ago, we were an organization whose MO was to go it alone, and I just never thought that way.

What would you like to be known for?

I was very lucky to be mentored in Washington, DC by a man named by Patrick Hayes. He was the great impresario of Washington, DC, but was also the man who had the lead in desegregating the theaters in DC, was a friend of virtually everyone, and had an inclusion policy called ENIO—Everybody In, Nobody Out. When I came to UMS, I was so infused by this inclusion policy that we adopted it here in Ann Arbor, and it’s really been a kind of mantra for us. So I’d like to be known for someone who took the mission of his organization and its inclusion policy and tried to live it everyday he was on the job.

What are some of the accomplishments you are most proud of?

It was really critical to get out of Burton Tower where the UMS offices are, and into the communities of Southeast Michigan. It’s such a rich set of communities of shared heritage. Once we got out of the tower, we began building relationships with the Arab, African and African-American communities, and with the diversity of Asian communities that are here, each of which have important cultural contributions to make. 

As we took time to build relationships, break bread, and learn, we became enriched as a presenting organization, and then diversified our programming significantly to reflect the cultural communities in Southeast Michigan. 

I would also say collaboration. When you get out of the tower and into the communities, it’s also the educational communities. We began programs with K-12 all throughout the region, including Detroit, Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor and Jackson. We built relationships with universities, not just our own. So there were the communities of shared heritage, educational communities and nonprofits, where we built partnerships and began to do a lot of collaborative programming, such as the Harlem Nutcracker. 

I’m also really proud of the staff that we have here. I’ve worked with three of my colleagues, John Kennard, Michael Kondziolka and Sara Billmann, for 25 years or more, which is really rare in the arts. People just don’t do that. We’ve become a real team, we make our decisions collectively, and that’s part of the reason why I feel so good about moving on. 

4 1 16 Ken Fischer BTS Hill Auditorium 16 17 video capture by Jesse Meria 2 1Ken Fischer in Hill Auditorium. Photo courtesy of Jesse Meria and UMS.

What does a vibrant arts and cultural community mean to you?

"When you’re stretching people, when you’re moving people, you’re getting to their emotion in some way that another kind of experience might not be able to do."

A vibrant arts and cultural community is one that is connecting artists, audiences and important experiences. We define that by uncommon, really memorable experiences that engage people. That to me is vibrancy, when you’re stretching people, when you’re moving people, you’re getting to their emotion in some way that another kind of experience might not be able to do. Connecting them with the best in the human experience that touches the human spirit, and that’s what I think arts and culture are able to provide. 

What are the biggest changes you have witnessed in Southeast Michigan’s cultural landscape throughout your career?

I think this change from competition to collaboration. I remember a time when people wouldn’t share information very well.

Our arts community really needs to bind together to support one another to celebrate the achievements of one another, to work together, to be advocates for all of us. CultureSource is really the embodiment of the evolution, moving from everybody acting independently and working on their own, to joining forces, to where we are now. It’s an ever-evolving and ever-improving sector. 

Another example is the Detroit Symphony. As the members were on strike in 2010 and 2011, the community was expressing itself, saying, why don’t you do something for the community besides just playing concerts. One of the outcomes was symphony members shifting the way they looked at what their role was. They changed their way of thinking—lots of organizations did. 

A critical component is engagement with the community outside your venue. Certainly it’s been a critical thing for UMS. It’s in our schoolwork, it’s in our work with the university, it’s what we do with adults. Cradle to grave engagement with the community.

What local cultural destination have you visited recently (besides your own)?

I went to the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra season opener at Hill Auditorium. I just love the Ann Arbor Symphony, my wife Penny was the principal flutist there, and they’re a first-rate symphony.

I was also recently at the Michigan Theater. Each are partners of UMS, and together, we are doing things that none of us were doing things 30 years ago. The people running them, Mary Steffek Blaske and Russ Collins, are also great friends and colleagues, and UMS’ programming is so much richer thanks to these partnerships.

Who, to you, epitomizes arts and culture in Michigan?

How lucky we’ve been in the state to have John Bracy heading up the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, this guy is a 24-hour-a-day advocate for the arts, so he’s one.

Rich Homberg, with his influential position with Detroit Public Television, rarely have I seen someone embrace everyone and show up for meetings. He’s always talking up arts and culture.

And the newest kid on the block, Wayne Brown, head of Michigan Opera Theatre and Detroit Opera House, coming back home after a long and extended tenure with the National Endowment for the Arts, and what’s the first thing he does, he’s calling other arts leaders saying how can we work together? He understands it’s about how you work together with others. And the outcome of that is that we brought an internationally renowned ballet company, American Ballet Theater, to town that neither of us could afford separately. 

When you have visitors in from out of town, what is the one cultural destination you make sure they see during their visit?

My office in Ann Arbor is in Burton Memorial Tower right next to Hill Auditorium. At the top of it is housed the fourth-heaviest carillon in the world, the Charles Baird Carillon. These historic bells were a gift from the University of Michigan’s first athletic director.  

I’m always taking people up to the bells, and I always give them a chance to play the bells so that when they go back home, they can say that they performed in front of 114,000 people in Ann Arbor. We give them a certificate of bell playing, photograph them, make a video, plus it’s on the 10th floor of Burton Memorial Tower so they have a view of the campus. 

There’s also no place like The Henry Ford, I’m always recommending it for our region. Go to The Henry Ford, one of the great cultural destinations in the world. Patricia Mooradian is a critically important cultural leader and cultural ambassador for the region. 

What excites you most about the future of SE MI’s arts and culture scene?

I see a spirit within the leadership of these individual organizations a desire to work together, to become more engaged in the communities within our region, and this just goes right along with the renaissance we see in Detroit and in the region. It’s really what CultureSource embodies right now, which is a place where all of the arts and cultural groups from Southeast Michigan are able to come together.

"That arts and culture are seen as critical elements to this revitalization of the city, I find that exciting."

The infusion of younger people, the tech and manufacturing initiatives that are being undertaken, the spirit of commitment to Detroit on the part of the mayor, people like Dan Gilbert and Mike Ilitch, all of this is really encouraging, and that arts and culture are seen as critical elements to this revitalization of the city, I find that exciting. 

I’m also excited to see that there’s serious talk about light rail, not just in the city, but transportation between Ann Arbor and Detroit. Anything that’s going to encourage folks going to Detroit and making it easier to do so is encouraging. 

As you embark upon your final season at UMS, what are you most looking forward to? Photo of Jordyn Barratt skating over Ken at Ann Arbor Skatepark 9 11 16Skateboarder Jordyn Barratt and Fischer at Ann Arbor Skatepark on September 11, 2016. Photo courtesy of UMS.

I’m really touched that my colleagues here have recognized that, over the 30 years, there have been artists and ensembles that have particularly touched me in a personal way, and they invited these artists to come back for my final season as President of UMS.

Yo-Yo Ma, Chris Thile and Edgar Meyer, these three guys are coming the last week of April. Yo-Yo been a friend, and of course there’s nobody like him. 

I grew up in a family of chamber musicians, and the Takács Quartet is doing the complete Beethoven Quartet Cycle this year, and to have chamber music as one of the important components of this year’s programming means a lot to me.  

Wynton Marsalis has a long and special relationship with me and UMS, and he’s coming back for his 19th performance on March 4th. 

And I couldn’t think of a better way for the season to begin than with an absolutely unique presentation bringing together skateboarding and jazz on September 11th for Falling Up and Getting Down. Two disciplines that are all about improvisation, it was just fantastic.