Member Spotlight: Maria Van Laanen

Located in Appleton, Wisconsin, the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center presents the best touring Broadway and performing arts productions from around the world. As president, Maria Van Laanen leads a dynamic team dedicated to delivering the Center’s mission of serving as a gathering place for the community to engage in educational opportunities and enhance understanding and enjoyment of life through the creation and presentation of the arts.

You’ve been with the organization since 2001, first as director of marketing, then vice president of communications and external relations, executive vice president, and eventually became president in 2014. How have you seen the organization grow over the past two decades?

Maria Van LaanenIt has been wonderful to see this organization come to life from its early days as a community dream of creating a gathering place for people to enhance their appreciation and understanding of life through the arts. Through incredible support and a passionate team, the Center has been able to become an organization that focuses on creating opportunities that inspire and build a more connected and compassionate community. Our programs have grown in their focus to give voice and provide a welcoming atmosphere for all. We are constantly striving to identify segments of our community that we haven’t yet reached and improve partnerships to build more relevant and impactful programs. Before the pandemic, we were hosting 400-450 events every year that ranged from top touring Broadway and commercial artists to a robust education series, a dynamic arts and culture series, and an exciting place to host community events of all shapes and sizes, including serving as the home to our local symphony orchestra.

How would you describe your role as president?

On the best days, I am engaging with the staff, volunteers, and community to reinforce the Center’s vision and expand our connection points both locally and within the industry. We are an organization that focuses on continuous improvement and that requires a lot of measurements, benchmarking, and learning and sharing best practices across many platforms and industries. I love connecting with and learning from others to improve our service to our communities.

Lately my focus has had to shift due to the pandemic. My days have been filled with meetings with epidemiologists; public health officials; elected representatives at national, state, regional, and local levels; as well as regular contact with our regional chambers of commerce, convention and visitor’s bureau, partners, and peers throughout the industry to navigate the everchanging landscape of this pandemic. The goal, of course, is to find the safest and most prudent way to protect the health of our staff, volunteers, artists, and potential attendees while also mitigating the impact on the financial health of the organization.

How did you get involved in the arts and arts administration?

The arts have always been a passion of mine and I had the great fortune to get connected through a dynamic leader to the administrative side of the business early in my college years. Through that opportunity, I was able to gain experience with nearly every aspect of the theatrical presenting business.

I am a passionate believer in the power of the arts to inspire and uplift an individual to see and reach for a life beyond their current circumstances and to gain a sense of community and belonging. When you scale that up to a community level, the arts have the power to bring people together in a unique way where they are willing to experience different viewpoints or ideologies in a way that might lead to understanding and acceptance.

This industry is exceptional in the fact that there is always something new to learn and new challenges in need of creative solutions. The people I get to work with in this industry are so passionate and driven to creatively excel every day. I can’t imagine this kind of energy anywhere else.

Performing arts venues have been hit hard by COVID-19 and the inability to gather. How has Fox Cities responded to the challenges of the pandemic and adapted to the world of virtual theater?

We worked to quickly create ways to keep the community and our furloughed staff informed with updates about performances and reopening plans when the pandemic first caused the Center to close its doors.

As it became evident that we were going to be in this virtual mode for a longer period, we revisited our mission and embarked on a focused, intentional path to create engaging programs that could reinforce meaningful connections. We wanted to continue to challenge perceptions and provide opportunities for appreciation and growth through the arts. One thing we knew right away was that we were not going to simply attempt to replicate a live performance experience virtually. We wanted to find new, creative ways to bring the Center’s mission to life, even if it had to be delivered on a screen. This work had to be very efficient and targeted to make the best use of our limited staff and financial resources.

We reached out to educators to reinvent our education programs in a way that would be useful to their unique learning environments and easily consumable so that we were not adding to their already taxed time. We engaged donors in virtual events of all shapes and sizes to maintain the types of connections they are used to and recreated them online—from conversations with staff in our Partners Lounge before a show to intimate performance experiences. And we created a weekly virtual program for the public to learn more about the business behind the business of theater from industry experts, artists, and leaders.

We are so grateful for our community’s patience and support as we all work through the trials of this time together.

Over the summer, Fox Cities solicited submissions on social media for art to place in the Center’s windows in support of Black Lives Matter demonstrators. Tell us a bit about that work.

Window art, photo courtesy Fox Cities Performing Arts Center.As the nation and our community grappled with the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and too many others, we wanted to provide a way to give voice to the pain, frustration, and reckoning while also finding hope and inspiration. The Fox Cities Performing Arts Center is in the heart of downtown Appleton and each day the protesters marched past our building. We did a call out to the community to submit art that was reflecting their feelings about the moment and giving them hope. We ended up displaying 20 pieces of found and created art in our front windows that provided inspiration to members of our community during challenging times. Collectively, the submissions demonstrated how art can give us an outlet for expression while also helping us feel heard and understood.

We have presented many programs over the years that challenge the community to thoughtfully engage in conversations surrounding the areas of prejudice and injustice. We continued these discussions during the pandemic through virtual programs such as the John Lewis Project in which performing arts centers across the country provided early access to watch the film, John Lewis: Good Trouble, and attend a national virtual panel discussion on his legacy. We turned this program into a three-part series by adding a local panel discussion around racism in our area and how we can all get involved in creating a little “good trouble.”

The weekly Show Must Go On Show provides opportunities to talk about social issues. We talked with Karen Nelson, diversity and inclusion coordinator for the City of Appleton; Pa Lee Moua from the Appleton Area School District; and Kev and Wil from Black Violin to give viewers different perspectives of how social injustice affects people in our communities and in the arts.

What are you most looking forward to in 2021?

The obvious answer is getting back to being able to safely engage in the arts with our staff, volunteers, and communities. There is nothing like the feeling when you enter the theater as a collection of individuals and then magically become connected through the shared live experience. It’s such a powerful moment. I truly think we will all have a much deeper appreciation for the transformative and healing power of that experience.


Americans for the Arts Membership

This series features the many Americans for the Arts members doing transformative work for arts education, public art, advocacy, arts marketing, and more. An Americans for the Arts Membership connects you with this network of more than 6,000 arts leaders and gives you access to latest professional development and research. You can become a member by visiting us online, sending an email to membership@artsusa.org, or calling 202.371.2830.