Kaiser's Sage 'Turnaround' Of the Arts

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 1, 2008; C01

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.

"My focus is on revenue more than cost," Kaiser said. "If you keep cutting, you will disappear."

Kaiser talks about his mistakes. When he was repairing the Kansas City Ballet in 1985 and 1986, he organized the "52 feet campaign," named for the company's 26 dancers and set out to revive interest in the company by holding a Ballet Ball. It wasn't a financial success. "We failed in our marketing efforts to make the case, we charged too much for the tickets, and our board was less than helpful in selling seats," he recalled. But he succeeded in the long run, paying off the deficit in one year.

The huge debt at the Royal Opera House, where he worked from 1998 to 2000, was wiped out in two years. ("The Opera House was talking about being a rental," Kaiser said of the centuries-old institution in the busy crossroads of Covent Garden.)

One ingredient of his success has been never leaving an organization with a deficit. He makes sure that he arrives at the next one with the full confidence of the board and unburdened by any history with the group.

Kaiser has pledged to stay at the Kennedy Center until 2011. Although it was more stagnant than broken, he has applied his principles there as well, reducing costs in house but not in the theaters. "We cut $4 to $5 million from the budget and shifted that to different programs by cutting back office expenses, such as going to conferences," he said. A much-ballyhooed creation of a plaza by the center connecting it to central Washington was canceled after the federal portion of the money wasn't approved.

He orchestrated major events, the most successful being new stagings of Stephen Sondheim's musicals, along with popular ones about playwrights Tennessee Williams and August Wilson. He planned ground-breaking festivals, such as a month of work from China, bringing in almost 1,000 participants. Next year, the center will present an Arab festival, with representatives from the League of Arab States and, he hopes, more than 700 performers.

The Arab festival will become another lesson that Kaiser will break down for the next small organization that asks for advice.

Kaiser believes that the center's status as a national, federally funded organization creates an obligation to lend its leadership to new and struggling groups. He created the Kennedy Center Institute for Arts Management, a nine-month fellowship, along with capacity-building programs in New York and Washington and still other programs for international administrations and board members. The institute was originally underwritten by investor and philanthropist Alberto Vilar, who promised $40 million, but Vilar's financial and legal troubles ended the relationship, and the institute is now funded by an anonymous contributor, according to the center.

Anna Glass, managing director of 651 Arts, an arts presenter in Brooklyn, took part in the arts management program in 2003. Kaiser assured the participants, she recalled, that his methods would work whether the organization was large or small, like hers, with its annual budget of $800,000 to $1 million. "We took on the marketing piece of Michael's mantra and made sure the good art we are creating is well-marketed," Glass said. She reorganized her board, trying to engage just the right people, and even when the board dwindled naturally, she still asked three more to go. "Your board is your foundation, and he really pushed that, your board is where you grow from," she said.

When Kaiser leaves an organization, what he hopes to leave is a new way of thinking.

Sharon Luckman, the executive director of Ailey, says the Kaiser way has become institutionalized at the now-debt-free company. "The goal of building a strong board . . . that is proud of the organization is something we have followed," said Luckman, whom Kaiser hired in 1992 as part of the turnaround. "The board is now responsible for 48 percent of our fundraising.

"That idea of reaching lots of people and having people know what the Ailey name means is something we do all the time," she said. "It is something he believed in. This year we have been on 'Dancing With the Stars' and 'So You Think You Can Dance.' "

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company