Cayenne Harris, the University Musical Society
's (UMS) vice president of learning and engagement, says she and her colleagues frequently discuss who isn't
showing up for the Ann Arbor-based organization's events.
"We know that there are people who don’t feel comfortable coming to Ann Arbor or the University of Michigan campus," Harris says.
Those conversations have prompted UMS to launch a pilot residency program
at the Ypsilanti Freighthouse this April, highlighting Ypsi artists and residents through a week of free and "pay-what-you-wish" musical events. Events will include jazz and classical music performances, a DJ set, an open mic, a puppet show, and more. The pilot, running from April 22 to April 29, is the first of four residencies UMS will hold at the Freighthouse.
"We know that there will be people who come to the Freighthouse who also come to Hill Auditorium," Harris says. "But we hope that there are people who find their way who may not otherwise participate with us, and find something in the offerings that is accessible to them."
UMS' Cayenne Harris and Sara Billman at the Ypsilanti Freighthouse.
Founded in 1879, UMS is a "multidisciplinary arts presenter," meaning that it presents artists and performances in theater, dance, and music of numerous genres. Harris explains that UMS initially focused specifically on western classical music, but in the past 40 years has "drastically expanded" to highlight other genres such as bluegrass, experimental jazz, and dance styles from around the world.
"Our mission is to connect artists and audiences in engaging and uncommon experiences," says Harris. "We do a lot of work where the lines are blurred between the audience and the performer."
That mission extends to the Freighthouse residency. Through a series of community forums held at the end of 2022 and the beginning of 2023, the UMS team decided to improve accessibility for Ypsilanti residents by providing priority access to event registration or tickets, as well as experimenting with a "pay-what-you-wish" model. Sara Billman, UMS' vice president of marketing and communications, says that this "two-pronged approach" has been received enthusiastically by Ypsi residents. In structuring the Freighthouse residency, UMS similarly held a community forum earlier this year to gather resident input on its plans.
"We wanted to make sure the residency was focused on Ypsi residents and Ypsi city and township," Billman says. "The number of people who turned out for the community forum with generous ideas and feedback, all of that helps to make these residencies better for everybody."
Billman notes that UMS had previously attempted to host programming at the Freighthouse, holding a pop-up concert series around five years ago. However, she found that those events "weren’t necessarily being attended by Ypsi residents," which made prioritizing the Ypsi community all the more important to the UMS team.
UMS Vice President of Learning and Engagement Cayenne Harris.
While many of the upcoming Freighthouse events are free to the public, many still require registration. Ypsi residents were eligible to do so as of March 14, and access will open to the general public later.
Registration for these events will allow UMS to determine what types of events and artists are best received, influencing future programming decisions. Registration also ensures that attendees of public workshop events, such as Ann Arbor-based breakdancing teacher Maurice Archer’s family workshop on dance and graffiti
on April 23, have enough resources to get the most out of the experience.
"It’s a totally new space for us," says Billman. "We’re thinking of ways to get feedback from the people there so that we have that ongoing feedback loop that will help inform future residencies."
The residency begins April 22 with a free "Community Sing" led by Dr. Brandon Waddles from Detroit
. Attendees will be able to participate in "singing both familiar and new songs" and enjoy free food when the house opens at 6:30pm. No singing experience is required.
Among the performances the following week will be the Kaleigh Wilder Trio's "The Story Cuts Across What The Map Cuts Up"
on April 25 at 7:30 p.m. Detroit-based baritone saxophonist Wilder will lead the group in a performance focusing on "how the African diaspora plays a part in the unique Black American experience" through both music and dance.
UMS Vice President of Marketing and Communications Sara Billman.
"Dance and music are synonymous in West Africa, and those things don’t really go together anymore," Wilder says. "I’m excited to see what that will look like on our end, and how the audience will interpret that."
Wilder, who has played the baritone saxophone since 2014, was approached by UMS after she received a recommendation from fellow saxophonist and University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre, and Dance lecturer Marcus Elliot. She says the UMS team has been "very easy to work with," calling the experience of developing her performance a "choose-your-own-adventure kind of thing."
"You have the space and the time to really envision something you maybe can’t do at, say, Cliff Bell's
in Detroit or Kerrytown Concert House
in Ann Arbor. You could really make this your own," she says.
Wilder hopes other local artists take advantage of that freedom to experiment in future UMS residencies.
"UMS has a great base of resources financially, or even just media promotion resources. All of those resources are a huge benefit to artists," Wilder says.
Baritone saxophonist Kaleigh Wilder.
Wilder also admired UMS' focus on the Ypsi community.
"It’s really cool – taking care of the community that you’re entering into and considering them and seeing what it is that they need and removing that barrier to access," she says.
The residency's success will depend on a number of factors, particularly attendance and audience feedback on events. Harris emphasizes that three more Freighthouse residencies are currently planned for September 2023, spring 2024, and fall 2024.
"If you missed us this time, we’ll be back. I can’t imagine a time we stop partnering with Ypsi organizations," Harris says. "The residency gives us an opportunity for a regular presence in the community."
To register and buy tickets, visit the UMS website
Rylee Barnsdale is a Michigan native and longtime Washtenaw County resident. She wants to use her journalistic experience from her time at Eastern Michigan University writing for the Eastern Echo to tell the stories of Washtenaw County residents that need to be heard.
All photos by Doug Coombe.