UMS cutbacks won't affect quality of schedule

The University Musical Society, one of the oldest performing arts presenters in the country, is striving to maintain its internationally renowned productions, even as reduced government, foundation and corporate support forces it to cut costs and lay off staff.

"Quality trumps quantity," says UMS Marketing Director Sara Billmann, explaining the society will offer four fewer shows in its 131st season, which starts in September, but that it will continue to bring in prestigious names such as the Berlin Philharmonic and Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.

"One of the goals that we had was to be true to our mission and make sure the programming was incredibly distinctive," Billmann says. "We would rather do less quantity of exceedingly high quality rather than compromise on quality."

Overall, the 2009-10 season will go from 64 to 60 performances, a 6 percent reduction. The dance season was cut from five to three events, and the five jazz offerings are one fewer than in 2008-09.

But top names such as conductors Pierre Boulez and Michael Tilson Thomas, singer/actress Patti LuPone and sitar legend Ravi Shankar are on the schedule. Classical violinist Itzhak Perlman kicks off the season with a concert Sept. 13 at Hill Auditorium.

The cuts were made necessary by an economic climate in which corporate giving is expected to fall by 25 percent, and funding from the state of Michigan is likely to go away altogether. Support from foundations is down as well, Billmann says.

UMS' budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1 is $6.6 million, 12 percent less than for the season that just ended. The society recently eliminated five positions through layoffs, attrition and job restructuring. Four people were let go and many of those remaining took pay cuts of between 2 percent and 7 percent.

"We're now cutting into muscle and bone. There's no fat to trim out," Billmann says.

While institutional support reflects the economic pinch, Billmann says that impact is not being felt in ticket sales, which account for about half of UMS' revenue. The society met its 2008-09 sales projections, which were slightly higher than the year before, and it expects audiences to respond well in the coming year. Additionally, the university increased its grant to the independently affiliated UMS from $600,000 to $750,000, in recognition of its student-discount ticket programs and its work with individual academic units, as well as the impact of the difficult economy.

The big hit is being seen in state funding. In 2008-09, the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs gave UMS $206,700, of which $89,000 is still outstanding. Gov. Jennifer Granholm's recommendation to eliminate state arts funding means UMS must plan for nothing from that funding source next year.

Billmann says such a forecast forces everyone in the organization to think more innovatively about how it spends its money and how it engages its audiences.

"Fortunately, we were in a position of relative strength to be able to weather these developments of the past year," Billmann says. Looking forward, "We're going to have to be smart about what we don't do as well as what we do."