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The Arts in Crisis: A Conversation with Michael Kaiser

by Jerome Weeks 1 Dec 2009 1:51 PM

An arts consultant who’s actually inspiring AND practical? Michael Kaiser is a rarity.

kaiserArts management is often as exciting as an accounting lecture or — given our grim economic realities — a report on the great investment prospects the Hindenburg is offering. But Michael Kaiser is a different kettle of fiscal priorities. He’s actually rather inspiring.

President of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Kaiser has been dubbed the “turnaround king” because of his death-defying efforts as an arts manager, saving such groups as Alvin Ailey, the American Ballet Theatre and the Royal Opera House from financial ruin (to give an idea of the scale of these potential failures: the opera had a deficit close to $30 million). In response to what the ongoing recession has been doing to artists and arts organizations, the Kennedy Center has instituted Arts in Crisis, a project that is sending Kaiser to all 50 states. He’s talking to groups of artists and arts honchos, offering them some of the wisdom he’s learned about the economics of arts organizations, fundraising, programming, marketing and the limits of government support. He returned to Dallas yesterday to speak at the Latino Cultural Center, courtesy of the Office of Cultural Affairs (we were #31 on his 66-city tour). I interviewed him onstage for 45 minutes before opening up the conversation to questions from the audience of more than 100 area arts leaders.

In person, Kaiser is inspiring and empathetic without being aggressively sugary. He’s inspiring partly because of his command of the facts: Nationwide, he pointed out, arts organizations have not failed anywhere near the numbers that were predicted last year. He doesn’t deliver ‘come to Jesus’ cheerleading. He affirms what many of us in the arts have known instinctively but have rarely heard expressed this articulately, this persuasively. And he offers concrete options for survival, even success. Go below the fold for some nuggets from our talk.


  • Faced with financial difficulties, the first impulse many managers have is to cut programming — trim the number of productions, exhibitions or performances. It’s common sense, right? But don’t cut –– or only as an absolute last resort. Think about it: Offering people fewer reasons to experience your art is not going to help you get more income or inspire more donors.
  • In fact, the fundamental reason your not-for-profit arts organization exists at all is to offer the kind of important cultural experiences that popular, commercial vendors simply won’t — because the events are too costly, too risky, too big, too out-of-the-ordinary. What will save your organization, then, is offering people the artworks that will excite them, plus making people appreciate what you provide for your town, its culture, its education, its aspirations.
  • Ergo, programming is king — not fundraising. Fundraising is vital, of course. But program the right projects — and market them well, get the right people excited — and fundraising should follow.
  • The image of the impractical, free-spending artist is impossible to shake, but the arts are actually incredibly efficient and thrifty. Just look how many organizations continue to thrive on a bit of paint and hope. So believing that some hard-nosed, business-minded type will save your organization by ‘grounding it in reality’ is misguided. To be sure, business people can get an outfit running along more coherent lines. But again — back to programming: When has a business person thought up that new project, outlined that new outreach program, found that new artist — the very actions that can give an arts organization meaning?
  • But one of the fundamental business problems for the arts is their unshakable costs vs. their limits on revenue. It still requires the same number of musicians to play a Beethoven piano sonata as it did 150 years ago. But the musicians’ salaries have certainly increased since then. Meanwhile, the concert halls can’t keep adding more seats, selling more tickets. So costs rise while ticket sales can’t. The solution, so far, has come from increasing ticket prices. But that has had unfortunate consequences. The arts aren’t elitist, Kaiser argued. They’ve just been costing too much for many people to afford.

There was a lot more — about the vital need for arts education programs, about how marketing is key. But to get all that, I’d recommend Kaiser’s book, The Art of the Turnaround: Creating and Maintaining Healthy Arts Organizations. If you’re an arts professional, especially an arts management student, you’ll probably find that it doesn’t delve deep enough into the nitty-gritty. It’s not a textbook, it’s a little too name-droppy for that. But it is certainly the most accessible, persuasive and cogent book on arts management you’re likely to find.