Michael Kaiser: The ‘Turnaround King’ becomes a teacher of arts management


Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser teaches a class to international fellows in Washington, DC on July 17, 2013. It's part of the DeVos Instittue of Arts Management which teaches strategic planning, artistic planning, board management, marketing, and fundraising both locally and internationally. (Linda Davidson/THE WASHINGTON POST)
August 2, 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. Kaiser has also written two books on arts management, 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 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.”

Katherine Boyle reports on arts, museums and culture for the Style section.
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