21 December 2016

Michael Kaiser: Man of the Arts

[Michael Kaiser, director of  the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland, was, among other arts positions, president of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.  Here are two pieces focusing on Kaiser and his multifarious expertise in the performing arts.  First is the transcript of an interview by Jeffrey Brown from the PBS NewsHour (aired on 25 March 2015) concerning Kaiser’s book, Curtains? The Future of the Arts in America (Brandeis University Press, 2015), which explores the serious problem facing the performing and visual arts in the era of the Internet and other electronic media.  This is obviously a serious matter for artists and others who make their lives in the arts, but it also ought to be of great concern to all of us. 

[The PBS interview is followed by a Washington Post article by Katherine Boyle from 2013 about Kaiser’s arts management organization, a program that promotes the training of arts administrators.  It’s not a field to which most of us give much attention, but arts administrators are the managers and operators of theater companies, performing arts centers, dance troupes, museums, and orchestras both large and small all across this country, and audiences, communities, artists, and boards of directors all depend on these executives to manage, program, and budget their organizations efficiently and enticingly so that they thrive and bring in audiences and viewers as well as donors.  As the saying goes, it’s often like herding cats, and yet most arts administrators learn their trade in the school of hard knocks—because there are few programs that train people in the field.  The DeVos Institute is the exception.]

by Jeffrey Brown

When was the last time you went to the theater, or watched a modern dance concert? Why are Americans less connected to the arts?  In his new book, Curtains? The Future of the Arts in America, Michael Kaiser, a former chief of the Kennedy Center, American Ballet Theatre and others, considers what arts organizations can do to thrive and survive. Kaiser discusses his book with Jeffrey Brown.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: The plot thickens for the arts in America.

Jeffrey Brown has our conversation for the NewsHour Bookshelf.

JEFFREY BROWN: Have you been to the theater lately, seen a modern dance concert? Have your children? Will those theater dance and other arts institutions survive?

The questions are at the heart of a new book with a question in its title, “Curtains?: The Future of the Arts in America.”

Author Michael Kaiser has headed many arts organizations, including the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the American Ballet Theater and the Alvin Ailey dance troupe. He now heads the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland.

And welcome to you.

What’s the—if I say, what’s the essential problem, is it economic, cultural? What is it? How do you sum it up?

MICHAEL KAISER, Author, “Curtains?: The Future of the Arts in America”: We have faced many challenges in the arts for many years, but more recently, so much entertainment and arts are available online or in movie theaters. And they are becoming very important competitors to those who present live performances in their theaters.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just a new world of technology and entertainment and choices?

MICHAEL KAISER: Just as newspapers are challenged by the existence of online news, so are theaters and opera companies and ballet companies, particularly those in midsized cities, competing with the very large, famous organizations whose art is now available to people electronically.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re also writing though about a first generation of an audience that has grown up—I forget—you put it as without a kind of traditional arts education, without exposure to the arts in the media, for example?


We—I enjoyed a great arts education in the public school system when I was growing up, but children today, most children don’t. And so we have a generation of children who are coming out of high school without the kind of background in the arts that I had and that many of my peers had.

And as a result, as they age and as they would typically become our subscribers and donors and board members, we worry that they won’t be there for us and for the arts in the future.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, therefore, you write too many people feel like the arts are irrelevant to them.

It’s come to that. They just have no connection.

MICHAEL KAISER: Both because of the education, but also because of ticket pricing.

We used ticket prices to balance our budgets for so many years, our tickets have gotten so expensive, that many people have felt priced out of the market and thought the arts aren’t for them because they simply can’t afford it.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the things that struck me in the book is something we talk about on this program a lot, is the gaps in American society, the income gap, the wealth gap. You’re talking about a kind of arts gap.


JEFFREY BROWN: Arts for some, not for others.

MICHAEL KAISER: That’s true.

And we enjoyed over the last 50 years this explosion in arts accessibility to people all over America. We expect a theater company or a dance company or an opera company in our towns, even midsized towns, and I worry that that accessibility will change and diminish over the next 20 years.

JEFFREY BROWN: But can you give us some examples? What do you see around—you travel around the country a lot. Who is—where is this hitting? What kind of companies, for example, are being hit?

MICHAEL KAISER: It’s hitting orchestras first.

We read so many stories about orchestra union problems and union negotiation problems. That’s just a manifestation of a diminishment in ticket sales and in contributions. So when you look around the arts world right now, you see many, many organizations either doing less work or going away entirely.

This is true particularly of arts organizations of color, which is a very important part of our arts ecology that is starting to shrink.

JEFFREY BROWN: Which were fragile always. Right?

MICHAEL KAISER: Which is always fragile and is more fragile now.

And now we’re seeing it in midsized American cities and in their large classical organizations. And I worry that they will not be able to sustain themselves.

JEFFREY BROWN: But what you do see and you write about is—and again we see this in the rest of society—winners and losers.


JEFFREY BROWN: Some at the high end are going to do very well, you write, many at the low end, because they can get along basically on a shoestring. It’s the great middle.

MICHAEL KAISER: It’s the great middle that is at risk.

And the great middle is what made the arts accessible to all Americans over the last 50 years.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, what’s to be done?

MICHAEL KAISER: What’s to be done is arts organizations have to get more creative about the actual art they make.

I find that what happens is, so many boards and staffs feel the way you compete in this environment is to do what people want. So, we have lots of “Swan Lakes” and lots of “La Boheme”s.

But the problem is…

JEFFREY BROWN: Doesn’t that bring people into the theater?

MICHAEL KAISER: Well, not if there are great “Swan Lakes” and “La Boheme”s available in the movie theater, online from the Bolshoi or the Royal Opera House or La Scala.

Then you have to do something that’s really special. Artists have to get back to dreaming and stop planning their art to a budget. And an arts organization is doing great, including work consistently, even if it’s of modest size, it’s going to create and keep its audience and its donor base.

JEFFREY BROWN: But should arts organizations and arts managers be thinking of their institutions more as commodities, more as businesses or…

MICHAEL KAISER: We always had to think of ourselves as a business to the extent that we needed to balance our budgets to sustain ourselves.

But we have to think of ourselves more as creative enterprises who do really interesting work that engages our community. And those organizations that dream big and create amazing projects are going to do very, very well.

JEFFREY BROWN: I asked you for a negative example. Can you give me a positive example? Where are you seeing the kind of new thinking, or dreaming, I think is the way you put it?


The opera companies in Philadelphia, the opera company in Saint Louis both do great work and exciting work and interesting work. They get a lot of coverage. They’re both midsized art—opera companies. They’re not the size of the Metropolitan Operation or La Scala.

But they maintain the interest of their communities and their donor bases because their work is so interesting. So I think the organizations that do interesting work are the ones that are going to survive and compete well against online arts.

JEFFREY BROWN: And so your question in the title, “Curtains?” what’s—the answer is to be determined?

MICHAEL KAISER: To be determined, and I hope not.


JEFFREY BROWN: All right. On that, Michael Kaiser, thank you very much.


*  *  *  *
The Kennedy Center’s departing president will focus on another passion:
Teaching theart of arts management”
by Katherine Boyle

[The following article originally appeared in the Washington Post’s “Arts” section on 4 August 2013.]

Michael Kaiser starts his classes 10 minutes early, reminding students that they’re already late. Late in planning for a blockbuster ballet. Late to raise funds for a “Ring” cycle in 2017. Late in buffering their theaters and dance companies against volatile economic shifts. And though his students bring what seem to be insurmountable concerns — some worry that their governments will yank arts funding without warning — for the Kennedy Center president, it’s never too late for a turnaround.

The Kennedy Center hosted 36 international art managers for its annual month-long summer training program last month. The fellowship, now in its sixth year, brings together arts managers from 26 countries, including Argentina, Singapore and Pakistan. The intensive seminar is extra work for the Kennedy Center staff — all the top brass become teachers for the month of July — but for Kaiser, 59, teaching arts management is a labor of love, a passion he’ll devote his career to when he steps down as Kennedy Center president in December 2014.

“We spend so much money to train singers, dancers and painters, but we spend almost nothing to train and employ arts managers,” Kaiser says. “And as arts funding becomes more complicated, the need for these programs increases.”

Since his arrival at the Kennedy Center in 2001, Kaiser has led what could be called an overextended double life, managing the $200 million budget of the Kennedy Center while serving as president of the center’s institute for arts management. The institute began as Kaiser’s passion project but has since grown into the DeVos Institute of Arts Management, a $6-million-a-year nonprofit consulting practice that advises domestic arts groups and conducts seminars abroad. The project became the DeVos Institute in 2010, when Michigan philanthropists Betsy and Dick DeVos gave $22.5 million to ensure the growth of the arts training institute

Since then, the institute has flourished, providing seminars and at times, free arts management, as it did for 750 organizations after the 2008 financial crisis, despite its relatively small staff. Kaiser and his protege, DeVos director Brett Egan, 36, have taught and consulted in 50 states and more than 70 countries. Kaiser acts as the institute’s chief cultural diplomat, zipping to Ramallah, Muscat or Kampala for a few days at a time to teacharts management seminars. He also consults with institutions teetering on bankruptcy, taking on clients such as the Miami City Ballet and the Penumbra Theatre Company in St. Paul, Minn.

It’s a job he takes to naturally, glowing when he speaks of his work in Uganda or how his international fellows hosted festivals in Cairo during the Arab Spring. To some, it might seem as if Kaiser loves consulting more than his day job.

“I can’t say there’s one job I like more,” Kaiser said. “I’ll miss programming. But I know that I’m getting older. I can’t do both forever.”

There are few comparable figures in arts management, or even in the corporate world, who emulate what Kaiser is doing. For the director of a major performing arts center to spend his nights and weekends shaping the strategic plans of other institutions is rare, and perhaps it seems unrelated to the mission of a performing arts center president. Kaiser rejects this assumption, seeing the DeVos Institute as a central component of the Kennedy Center’s mission.

“It fits in perfectly with the nomenclature of the Kennedy Center, of being the nation’s performing arts center,” Kaiser said. “It’s one of the ways we’re known the best around the world, and it helps us with our international festivals.”

Indeed, the Kennedy Center’s 2009 festival “Arabesque: Arts of the Arab World” led to the partnership between the Royal Opera House in Muscat, Oman, and the Kennedy Center. Egan served as interim chief executive for a year when it opened in 2011.

Kaiser sees his arts management evangelizationas an important tool for cultural diplomacy, a mission that drives him to keep up a grueling schedule. How does one make the time for all this?

“I get up early and go to bed late, and I work seven days a week,” he quips.

The lessons of turnarounds

It’s arguable that the Kennedy Center never needed “the Turnaround King.” The Kennedy Center was not in crisis, although private fundraising has ballooned from a low of $27 million when Kaiser arrived to $80 million in 2013. The onetime opera singer began his management career in corporate consulting after receiving a master’s degree in management from MIT. He started his own consulting business for corporations and then switched to managing nonprofit arts organizations. In the ’90s, he was hired to direct the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the American Ballet Theatre and the Kansas City Ballet, companies that were deeply in debt. In 1998, Kaiser became head of the Royal Opera House in London and raised $100 million in 18 months. (He says that the British press called him “The Crass American,” not “The Turnaround King,” since asking for donations was considered to be poor form at the time.)

“Arts institutions fail for the same reasons, everywhere,” Kaiser says, noting that while cultures and circumstances differ, failure almost always comes down to a lack of resources. “You’re so worried about money, instead of talking about the great exciting thing you can do, you talk about what you’re going to cut. It’s done with the best of intentions, but it just doesn’t work.”

Kaiser has since developed a framework called “The Cycle,” a model that explains the interplay among art, marketing and fundraising as a cycle that grows over time. Every summer, it’s the first class he teaches when the summer fellows arrive in Washington. He and Egan co-authored a book by the same name that comes out this month [The Cycle: A Practical Approach to Managing Arts Organizations (Brandeis University Press)]. Kaiser has also written two books on arts management [The Art of the Turnaround: Creating and Maintaining Healthy Arts Organizations (University Press of New England), 2008; Conversation Starters: Arts Management Topics for Today (DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the Kennedy Center), 2011], and he regularly blogs about management tips.

His books led Lourdes Lopez to seek him out last year when she was named artistic director of the Miami City Ballet. She entered an organization that, she euphemizes, “had some problems,” after the forced resignation of longtime director Edward Villella. The company was said to be on the verge of bankruptcy. It was a precarious situation for a ballet company that had always had a stellar national reputation. Lopez and the board hired Kaiser to act as an independent consultant for the troupe.

“He interviewed every department head, did research, looked at revenue,” Lopez said. “Almost like a surgeon, he dissected the organization and gave us a comprehensive plan. It was so clear, and he took the board through it page by page.”

As for Kaiser’s attention to the company, Lopez said she’d send e-mails at 5 a.m. and Kaiser would respond immediately, saying, “Call me.”

“My guess is he doesn’t sleep,” Lopez added.

After a year spent implementing the plan, which focused on community outreach and engagement, Lopez said the company’s finances are improving.

“You can’t accomplish it all, but it gave us benchmarks,” Lopez said. “We owe him a lot.”

Kaiser notes that the Kennedy Center is one of the few institutions that provide comprehensive consulting for arts organizations. Since the institute is housed under the nonprofit umbrella of the center, fees are reasonable when compared to for-profit consulting fees. Kaiser says clients pay between $10,000 and $100,000, depending: “We’re not out there racking up the big bucks,” he said.

The Kennedy Center also benefits from having a massive fundraising operation to offset the costs of consulting and Kaiser’s travel.

“It’s a savvy investor that understand the utility of what we do,” Egan said. “I call us the plumbing behind the beautiful house. It’s hard for some people to get excited about what we do until you see summer fellows go on to create programs in Cairo or Alexandra [sic] in the midst of a revolution. Then you feel you’ve made a contribution that really matters.”

Bloomberg Philanthropies is among the foundations that have invested in DeVos to bring arts management courses to 245 arts organizations in New York City. For some of its grant programs, it has required organizations and boards to attend seminars on executive management or audience development with Kaiser.

“We sought them out because we care about providing tools for long-term success,” said Anita Contini, program lead for art and culture at Bloomberg Philanthropies. “These organizations have so few resources. . . . They often don’t think about managing operations for the long term.”

One-man cultural diplomacy

Foggy Bottom has long been the international hub of town, with the State Department as one of its most famous tenants. But in recent years, with reduced federal funding for cultural diplomacy programs, the Kennedy Center has taken on a greater international role of its own making — one where Kaiser acts as chief diplomat. It’s a self-assigned role that arose because so few countries have the history of private arts philanthropy that the United States does. And with governments across Europe, including Britain and the Netherlands, slashing funding for major arts institutions, fundraising prowess has become a sought-after American export.

“You’re truly investing in the strength of other cultures and not asking for much in return,” Egan said of the DeVos Institute’s growing international work.

While many countries welcome Kaiser’s help — he routinely meets with prime ministers or heads of states on his tours — not every country has welcomed him with open arms. Of all the places Kaiser has visited, France is among the most skeptical of his fundraising strategy. Kaiser recalls giving a speech at a theater in Paris where he doled out his usual fundraising advice. An official from France’s Ministry of Culture complained that his speech was about how the United States is better than France.

“Of course, that’s not what I was saying,” Kaiser said.

Kaiser’s international schedule won’t be lightening up when the Kennedy Center’s new season begins. In September, he’s launching a program in Croatia to teach strategic planning. In November, he’ll do the same in Vietnam. Kaiser admits that the travel is grueling.

“I spend a lot of time in airports,” he says. “It’s not just a time challenge but an emotional challenge, in a way, to have the emotional energy for all these assignments.”

Kaiser, who has always maintained his steely, workaholic demeanor, is clearly attached to his students, bragging about their work as a proud mentor would. He still advises former fellows via e-mail, such as Patrick-Jude Oteh of Jos, Nigeria, who ran the town's only theater amid violent insurrections. He’s quick with the names of current and past fellows, asking probing questions of them in class and remembering their latest projects when he calls on them.

On a bookshelf behind his desk, he keeps a framed photo of himself in Cairo, standing with 140 arts managers from around the Arab world. Of all the turnaround coverage he’s ever received, his favorite piece chronicles his trip to Ramallah to meet with the director of Al-Kasaba theater.

“Some of these places are challenged locations,” he says. “But in each one, people were piling in to learn about arts management. It’s not us saying, ‘Come see American art.’ This is us saying, ‘We think your art is important.’ In my mind, it’s the best form of cultural diplomacy.”

[In addition to Curtains?, the book featured in the PBS interview at the top of this post, Kaiser is also the author of   Leading Roles: 50 Questions Every Arts Board Should Ask (Brandeis University Press; University Press of New England, 2010).]

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