“Michael really transformed the Kennedy Center in many ways,” Rubenstein said. “It’s very difficult to do something like this for as long as Michael has done it. I have been blessed to have him because he has taught me a lot about the performing arts world that I didn’t know.”
Only two people have held the job of Kennedy Center president, a position created in 1991 to separate the handling of the day-to-day operations from the duties of the chairman and board. Lawrence Wilker was the first to hold the post, then called chief operating officer. Kaiser succeeded Wilker in 2001.
“I would regard Michael as absolutely the gold standard for performing arts managers,” Rubenstein added.
Kaiser’s accomplishments led the center to extend his contract twice during his 12-year tenure, in 2004 and 2010. Kaiser is often credited with transforming the Kennedy Center from a regional performing arts center to a national arts destination for music, dance and theater. In 2001, he signed St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Ballet to a 10-year annual contract, and under his watch, numerous international festivals have been staged. Kaiser also oversaw the Washington National Opera’s merger with the Kennedy Center in 2011.
Throughout his career, Kaiser developed a reputation for fundraising and management prowess. Dubbed the “turnaround king,” he headed revered institutions, including the American Ballet Theatre and the Royal Opera House in London, when they struggled financially. In 2009, he launched the Kennedy Center’s Arts in Crisis initiative, offering free consulting to arts institutions across the country that were suffering during the economic downturn.
The global search for a new president will be a lengthy process. “We’re looking for somebody who will be able to continue in the tradition that Michael has established, who cares about arts education, first-rate programming, and to make sure that employees and all the patrons of the Kennedy Center feel adequately taken care of,” Rubenstein said.
The search for a new president comes amid accusations of bias from a Hispanic arts group, which challenged the way the organization chooses the annual Kennedy Center Honors recipients. The Kennedy Center recently announced that it will reevaluate the selection process.
The timing of Kaiser’s departure is unrelated to the controversy. Kaiser had repeatedly announced his intent to step down in 2014.
The new president will oversee the Kennedy Center’s annual operating budget of just under $200 million.