Ann Drinan  

Michael Kaiser's Arts in Crisis Symposium

Ann Drinan
June 11, 2019

Editor's Abstract (Click to Hide)

Michael Kaiser, CEO of the Kennedy Center, has been touring the country, visiting all 50 states (69 cities all-together - New Haven CT was number 58), offering his advice about how arts organizations can weather the current economic downturn. Thursday, June 10, 2019 was his day to be in Connecticut - he gave two presentations: one at the Yale Art Gallery in New Haven and one at St. Joseph's College in West Hartford. The session was moderated by Diane Smith, a well-known CT television and radio personality who has recently done a lot of award-winning work with CT public television.

Michael Kaiser has been called "the turnaround king" because of his success with several arts organizations, including the Kansas City Ballet, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, American Ballet Theater, and London's Royal Opera House. Indeed, his 2008 book is titled The Art of the Turnaround: Creating and Maintaining Healthy Arts Organizations.

In 2001, Michael created the Kennedy Center Arts Management Institute to provide advanced training for young arts administrators, and has developed a series of programs to help train others in the field. He created a Capacity Building Program for Culturally Specific Arts Organizations, which offers mentoring services to the leaders of African-American, Latino, Asian-American and Native-American arts groups across the United States. In February 2009, he created Arts in Crisis: A Kennedy Center Initiative, a program that has provided free arts management consulting to 650 arts organizations around the US.

While he has some very serious advice to offer, he is also very entertaining and inspiring. Many of the points he made in his talk this morning are discussed in much greater detail in his book, but this article provides a summary of some of his main points. (Comments in quotes are in first person and are close to what Michael or Diane actually said, but may not be verbatim.)

Diane started the session off with a big laugh as she complimented him on his wonderful photo on the cover of his book. (It's actually a very striking photo of a dancer from the Alvin Ailey troupe!)

- Ann Drinan

Diane Smith asked Michael Kaiser to explain his 10 commandments of how to create and maintain healthy arts organizations. He replied that these are ten rules that help him run arts organizations, whether they are sick or healthy. “There’s a thin line between the two: no arts organization is that healthy, and you can’t get too sick because no one will lend you that much money!”

Rule # 1: Someone must lead. In most troubled arts organizations there are usually many different people who think they can solve the problems. Everyone has a favorite strategy, but someone must be in charge.

Rule # 2: The leader must have a plan. He commonly hears that “we’ll just work harder, raise more money, and get bigger audiences” – this is not the answer. The organization’s plan must relate to a cycle for healthy arts organizations, where they create interesting work, in terms of programming, education, or service; this work must be aggressively marketed, so that people will come and support the organization. When they get excited about the work, they’ll want to join the organization. Healthy organizations constantly welcome new people into the family; sicker ones hold onto the same small group of supporters. When the revenue increases, put it into more good programming and you’ll get more revenue, your family will grow, and the cycle continues. The trick is to get this cycle to hum – everyone feels it when it’s working.

Rule # 3: You can’t save your way into health. You cannot get healthy by cutting programming. When you cut it, you cut marketing as well and your family almost always gets smaller because it goes elsewhere. When the revenue falls, you do less work, you market it less, and the family gets smaller. When the market crashed two years ago, everyone responded by cutting programs: they had a smaller season, less ambitious art on display, etc. Michael saves every penny he can in his own budget: he “squeezes the nickel until the buffalo poops!” but he doesn’t cut the programming.

When people have less money to give to the arts, they have to make serious decisions. Organizations that do more innovative programming attract the gifts. “We are successful by doing our art well.” Arts managers get so scared about money that they've gotten very conservative and do only accessible work. “No, do interesting and important work!” There was only a 2.4% drop in arts funding nationally last year.

Rule #4: Focus on today and tomorrow, not yesterday. He talked about so many arts organizations who constantly fight over something historical – who started it, who’s fault is it, when did it start, etc. When he took over the Kansas City Ballet, he was the 6th CEO in 5 years, and he found them arguing about a set for Nutcracker that had been built years before. Organizations must look forward and stop the historical analysis.

Rule #5: You must extend your programming planning calendar. Everyone tends to plan their art too close to the event – 6 months or 18 months out. Organizations need to plan 3-4-5 years out. This will make the art better because you can take your time and think about it. You can do big transformational project – the big exciting projects you’ve always wanted to do, but it takes time to find the resources. Organizations don’t embark on big events because they’re afraid they won’t have the money for the next project.

“I always have 5 years of projects in my head. When I meet a donor, I listen to see what they’re interested in – what will excite that donor. I don’t make a project for a donor, but rather I pick from the 5 years of projects I’m planning. This will raise a lot more money.” The Kennedy Center recently had a festival of Arab culture, which was a huge project – they had 800 artists from 22 Arab countries. It took 5 years to put it together, they had to raise 10 million dollars, and they had to prepare the audience to see this art. It was not really accessible art, but because of the 5 years of preparation, they sold 92% of seats.

It’s particularly crucial for troubled organizations to excite their audience. When he joined the American Ballet Theater, they had done the same Romeo & Juliet ballet for 7 years, with the same set, costumes, and choreography. It was safe but probably pretty boring for the audience. Despite the ballet’s deficit, he announced a new ballet, with new sets and costumes, and announced it 3 years ahead. The best strategy for now is to talk about the projects you will do 3 or 4 years out.

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