Maria Van Laanen: Center Stage

Whether it’s your first time at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center (PAC) in downtown Appleton or your 100th, you can’t help but say “wow” when you walk through the doors. And, no matter what show you come to see, the performance is sure to leave an impression on you long after you’ve left your seat.


Maria Van Laanen, president of the Fox Cities PAC, explains she has always believed in the power of the arts.


“I’ve seen time and time again the power of the arts to lift you up out of your current circumstances and help you envision a better reality. I wanted to share that power with other people so when I considered my career I knew this was something I could always be passionate about,” says Van Laanen.


Early days and career growth

Van Laanen joined the Fox Cities PAC in October 2001 when the structure was in construction. She had been working in Minneapolis with a company that presented touring Broadway shows all over the country. Van Laanen was recruited to be the PAC’s director of marketing.


“What excited me was sitting with those initial leaders and hearing about their dream to build this performing arts center where everyone could engage in the arts. They really wanted it to be more than just a place to see great shows but a place where we could change people’s lives,” she says. Excited for the opportunity to start with the PAC at its inception, Van Laanen slowly oversaw more parts of the organization. When she became executive vice president, she was running the day-to-day operations. In July 2014, Van Laanen accepted the president position when Susan Stockton retired. Reflecting on her career to date, the 41-year-old appreciates the inspirational teachers and leaders that took a chance on her. “I have been able to learn from so many wonderful people who have touched my life,” says Van Laanen. “I want to learn more every day to make the most of their investment in me.” The Performing Arts Center reaches milestones The mission of the Fox Cities PAC is to serve as a gathering place for the community to engage in educational opportunities and enhance the understanding and enjoyment of life through the creation and presentation of the arts. They do this by presenting the best of Broadway, a cultural enrichment series, a daytime education program and various other community engagement experiences. Since opening its doors in November 2002, the community has strongly supported the Fox Cities PAC. By late 2013 they reached a milestone two million ticketed patrons. Each year, the PAC has 4,500-5,000 season ticket holders for the Broadway shows. Van Laanen explains the number of season packages sold is especially high for a venue its size and the population base in the Fox Valley. The Fox Cities PAC holds 350-400 events each year. Some are productions on stage; other events are held in spaces throughout the building — a business launch could be in the Kimberly-Clark Theater or a wedding reception may be in the lobby. “It is a very busy place. We have more event days than non-event days,” adds Van Laanen. The PAC has approximately 30 full-time staff. Add in the part-time employees — concessions, valet parkers and ticket sales — and they are up to 120. An impressive 500 fully trained, active volunteers ensure every patron is pointed in the right direction and leaves with a smile on his or her face. A day at the office, a night at a show As president of the Fox Cities PAC, Van Laanen is responsible for overseeing the day-to-day operations as well as ensuring the organization reaches its fundraising goals. Van Laanen describes a typical day as meeting with her staff as well as members of the community. “I am often meeting with donors and having conversations out in the community about what the Performing Arts Center is doing, working on partnerships to bring the mission to life or working on community initiatives that are focused on the arts and creative placemaking,” she says. On a show day, Van Laanen comes in the office in the morning as usual and stays to the end of the performance. “We do have our normal business hours and there is a lot that needs to get done during the business day and as the artist is coming into the building. They are getting everything set so you want to make sure you are accessible and available,” she adds. “I stay through the entire performance and then I’m able to leave, but our stage crew and house managers still have work to do — there is a lot that needs to happen after the last curtain goes down.” Van Laanen explains the Fox Cities PAC raises between 25 and 30 percent of its budget thanks to contributions from businesses and individuals. These fundraising efforts support and subsidize programs including the Boldt Arts Alive! Series and the Bemis Company Education Series. She has a hand in putting together the season’s lineup. Van Laanen works with a programming support committee to discuss the best artists and performers to put on stage. “I will look at ‘Can we afford it?’ and ‘Is there something that will throw off our budget?’ I’m also wondering are there opportunities to engage our audience — that is something important to me. It’s more than putting an act on stage,” she adds. Involvement and balance outside the PAC While Van Laanen is passionate about the arts, she also has an overall concern about maintaining and improving the vibrancy of the Fox Valley. To support community initiatives, she serves on several boards, including the Appleton Education Foundation, YMCA and Fox Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau. Her family is also a priority. Van Laanen has been married to husband Chad for 19 years. He’s a high school teacher and football coach. Their daughter Alexa, 14, is an avid swimmer and grew up right alongside the PAC. With a busy and demanding job comes the need to balance. While Chad and Alexa catch shows at the PAC whenever possible, they have a busy sports schedule. “I personally think balance is a lot about your perspective,” says Van Laanen. “I want to make sure I’m spending my time where my passion is and that is with my family and the Performing Arts Center. We just make sure as the demands pull — swim meets, swim practice and football games — we are there for each other as much as we can be.” Proud past and excitement ahead When asked to reveal one of the most impactful performances she’s seen at the PAC, “The Lion King” instantly comes to mind. Van Laanen was part of the team that helped launch “The Lion King” Broadway performances in Minneapolis so being the home of the Wisconsin premiere was important to her. “It was a very big moment for me and for the community. The community demonstrated its ability to host such a big musical for such a long run was important. It was a turning point for the organization as well,” she adds. She states “It Gets Better” was another unforgettable performance as it tackled the topic of bullying. “For me personally, it brought together my passions and my belief that the arts can start a conversation in a non-confrontational way to help bring people together from different viewpoints and to share ideas in a respectful way,” says Van Laanen. As far as highlights for the 2015-2016 season, Van Laanen is excited to kickoff the season with “Kinky Boots.” “I think it is a great opportunity to continue the community dialogue about what makes each of us special,” she adds. And, after many patron requests, Van Laanen is pleased to bring in Disney’s Newsies. Looking forward Van Laanen always has her eye on artists and shows that would be a good fit for her audience. She’s brought many of the Broadway legends to the PAC and keeps in touch with New York producers and partners as new Broadway shows open. As popular artists consider smaller theater tours, she looks to bring them in. Van Laanen explains the Fox Cities PAC is a nonprofit but has always operated like a business. Because of this, she’s always looking at improving efficiencies and finding ways to bring in new performances. Van Laanen reveals her focus is currently on the Kimberly-Clark Theater and how to get more performances in the smaller space. “The space provides some interesting opportunities and unique challenges that we are working our way through,” she says. “In the next five years we will have figured that out and we’ll have some great, different art forms for people to experience in that space.” As Van Laanen ponders what’s next for the PAC, she considers what’s happening in the community. “There are so many exciting opportunities with the way Mile of Music is blossoming, the construction of the Expo Center and the conversations about how we can work together to fill the community’s needs when it comes to a library,” says Van Laanen. “I really value that the conversations are holistic and big picture.” In the next five years Van Laanen will experience dramatic changes in her personal life as she gets her daughter through high school and off to college. “It is an interesting journey as we are looking at this transition we are about to face. Our daughter is getting more independent, finding her way and I am preparing for what that means for our family. Right now we are making the most of having her in our everyday lives.”

Women Magazine   |   © 2015, All Rights Reserved

Women Magazine   |   © 2015, All Rights Reserved