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Michael Kaiser: wisdom or bromides?

0 Robert Levine

An article in the June 28th edition of the New York Times discussed Michael Kaiser, the advice he gives, and some negative reactions from the field:

At a time of many questions in the world of culture, Mr. Kaiser is regarded by many as the man with most of the answers, a miracle worker credited with having saved the Kansas City Ballet, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, American Ballet Theater and the Royal Opera House in London, when he ran those organizations. At the Kennedy Center, which he took over in 2001, he has more than doubled donations and has run a surplus every year.

Just how transformative his message is for others, though, can be hard to gauge. No one, including the Kennedy Center, tracks the long-term outcomes for the organizations helped through the Arts in Crisis program. One might be tempted to dismiss Mr. Kaiser as a well-meaning cheerleader if he did not have such a solid track record of repeat successes, and if there were not such a long line of arts executives he has counseled, often far from the spotlight, who speak of him with gratitude approaching devotion…

Mr. Kaiser has many admirers, among them Marc Feldman, the executive director of the Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra, who sent an e-mail message to the Arts in Crisis Web site last year that described how his board, anxious about the economy, was pressuring him to make cuts. He was amazed, he said, when Mr. Kaiser called him within 24 hours and subsequently agreed to meet with members of the board, whom he convinced that strong, well-marketed programming would attract an audience and keep the orchestra on a steady course. The result, Mr. Feldman said, was a season with the strongest ticket sales ever: 27 percent over predictions.

Mr. Feldman said he felt empowered by Mr. Kaiser’s message, which he described as: “It’s O.K. to be passionate. It’s O.K. to be out there and pushing for your company. You don’t have to be just cold and numbers driven.”

Critics, though, say that for a man who says arts management must be taken more seriously, Mr. Kaiser can approach the topic rather simplistically and make turnarounds sound too easy.

Ted Legasey, the president of the imperiled Charleston Symphony Orchestra in South Carolina, said he was disappointed in Mr. Kaiser’s remarks there in February, which he called too general and removed from day-to-day realities.

“He operates at about 30,000 feet,” Mr. Legasey said, adding, “As someone who is trying to navigate a pretty tight set of wickets here, I said, ‘Well, not much we can do with this.’ ”

Russell Willis Taylor, the president and chief executive of National Arts Strategies, which runs leadership seminars for arts executives, said that she respected Mr. Kaiser but found his approach somewhat one-dimensional.

“Just putting on shows and just putting money into marketing isn’t going to do it,” she said. “The biggest problem the arts face is not financial. It’s, ‘Why do they matter?’ ”

No one who’s been following events in the Charleston Symphony will find it surprising that Mr. Legasey is not impressed by Kaiser’s message; after all, he heads a board that, as I wrote about here,

[doesn’t] have an executive director (Kathleen Wilson, the orchestra’s harpist, is currently the interim ED), [hasn’t] had a development director for a while, and their music director quit (or was pushed) without the board having any idea how to replace him in a timely fashion. It’s hardly surprising that they had a 60% drop in major donations; who would want to support an organization whose board looks that feckless?

Russell Willis Taylor’s criticism is more philosophical. But I think she misunderstands what Kaiser is about. If arts groups successfully execute what Kaiser recommends and sell lots more tickets, they have proven beyond a doubt that “they matter.” I see nowhere in Kaiser’s writings (at least the ones I’ve read) where he suggests that selling more tickets will fix a group’s financial problems all by itself. If anything, he emphasizes the positive effect that selling tickets, and programming in ways that will sell tickets, will have on fundraising, which of course is an core competency for any non-profit.

That’s also part of the problem with the positive reaction that orchestra musicians have to what Michael Kaiser says. I also don’t find anywhere in his writings where he suggests that artists should be paid any particular amount, or that cutting artists’ compensation is necessarily bad tactics or bad strategy. He talks and writes eloquently about the need to put forward a better and more interesting product. He says nothing about the proper compensation for those actually doing the art.

Orchestra musicians believe deeply that paying us better results in artistically better orchestras. I believe that too. But I also believe that compensation trends, especially in the short term, are only one factor in artistic excellence, as well as that that what orchestra musicians see as “artistic excellence” - excellence in execution - is only one part of what Michael Kaiser sees as artistic excellence.

It’s not that I think that Kaiser is hostile to artists; rather, I suspect he distinguishes, especially in the short term, between the art and the artists who make it.

My problem with Michael Kaiser is more fundamental. While what he says is undoubtedly good advice, it’s not what’s known in the software business as “self-documenting.” “Pay musicians more” or “cut expenses” or “spend more on marketing” or “spend less on marketing” are all very clear statements of advice, regardless of whether any of them are good advice. To be told that the way forward is to do ” strong, well-marketed programming” is a little like being told that the way to make money in stocks is to buy low and sell high. It’s reminiscent of the quality of advice that Polonius gave Hamlet.

I have no doubt at all that Michael Kaiser knows how to put together wonderful programs and to market the hell out of them. His track record allows for no other conclusion. That doesn’t mean that he can teach others how to do so, however. I strongly suspect that the ability to put together programs that are both innovative and crowd-pleasers is a gift (or perhaps a skill involving a great deal of intuition) that he has in rare abundance. Unfortunately, one quality of such gifts is that they are hard to pass on to others.

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