Kaiser's Sage 'Turnaround' Of the Arts

"My focus is on revenue more than cost," says Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser, who has written a case-study book on managing arts groups. (By Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)
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By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 1, 2008

When Michael M. Kaiser took over the American Ballet Theatre, once home to Mikhail Baryshnikov, the company had no pointe shoes. At the Royal Opera House, a British landmark where Maria Callas had sung, he inherited a $30 million deficit. He arrived at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the premier African American modern group, to find the office staff reusing the Xerox paper.

How did Kaiser save those cultural institutions? Can lesser mortals do the same for local and regional arts groups?

In a new 183-page manual, Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, describes his management techniques, hoping to answer those questions before they have to be asked. "The Art of the Turnaround: Creating and Maintaining Healthy Arts Organizations" covers five case studies in a straightforward, unadorned style.

The last of his case studies is the Kennedy Center, financially healthy when he was appointed in 2001 but in need of an artistic jolt. Kaiser expanded his portfolio beyond booking lively seasons and filling seats, using his national platform to become an ambassador of the arts and arts administration and inaugurate training programs for administrators of faltering groups.

Not surprisingly, his work caught the attention of Laura Bush and the State Department. Now he is a consultant to government and arts organizations in Pakistan, China, Argentina, South Africa and Mexico. When he gave a two-day workshop in Prague earlier this year, 365 arts administrators participated. More and more, he has been enlisted to teach.

"People always asked me, 'What can I read?' -- particularly board members," Kaiser, 54, said one recent afternoon in his executive office. He said he chose the case-study approach for his book because he wanted it to be accessible to administrators and managers in and out of the arts.

Kaiser has been a success in business and the arts and created a niche in the business of the arts. A native of New York, Kaiser grew up with Broadway show tunes in his ear. He earned a degree in economics from Brandeis University, then a master's in management from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and for several years, he headed a corporate management consulting firm. This is his fourth book on organizational strategy.

Experience has given him plenty of examples and advice to share, but one thing others may not be able to duplicate is the Kaiser attitude. He is a disciplined man, a creature of habit who is among the first at the gym, arriving before sunrise to put in his five miles on the treadmill. (Since arriving in Washington, he has lost 70 pounds.) He prefers to plan five years ahead and reviews his upcoming list of projects every day. At social events, he stands perfectly still, often with his hands crossed in front of him, and even then he seems to be fretting.

But when he arrives at a new place, he says he deliberately brings an outward calm into a situation where things are falling apart.

"The staff is thinking are you going to fire them all. Or are you going to replace them with your own team? But I change the focus, turning it from 'this problem is their fault.' And you release the energy," Kaiser said. "It is a wonderful moment, when they start to look at the future."

The next priority is developing programming to please audiences and create a buzz and then aggressively marketing the new direction. The challenge for all organizations, he says, is how to keep creating great art in a crisis and avoid "the culture of despair" -- something everyone in the group, from performers to box-office clerks, can fall into easily and project to outsiders.

His 10 commandments cover leadership, a strategic plan, budget cuts and a forward-looking focus on today and tomorrow. The first commandment is that saving money should not involve reducing the number of productions or shrinking the marketing effort. On the contrary, he directs struggling groups to draw up a larger programming calendar, increase marketing and fundraising, pick a public spokesman, restructure the board and discipline the whole organization.

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