Kennedy Center 'Crisis' Project Throws a Lifeline to Arts Groups

Kennedy Center President Michael M. Kaiser says assistance will include advice on maintaining strong organizations during difficult economic times.
Kennedy Center President Michael M. Kaiser says assistance will include advice on maintaining strong organizations during difficult economic times. (By Ilan Mizrahi -- Kennedy Center)
By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Kennedy Center is aggressively moving to broaden its role beyond a center for the performing arts by announcing a new program to share its years of management and fundraising experience with struggling arts groups across the country.

The national tentacles of the Kennedy Center have always been far-reaching: It sends two family plays nationwide each year, offers a performing-arts education Web site that gets 4.2 million visitors a year and sponsors eight annual college theater festivals and a national competition in Washington. But the center's latest move, announced yesterday, positions it as a national resource beyond the stage.

"Arts in Crisis: A Kennedy Center Initiative" is a high-tech support service through which arts administrators can talk to the center's personnel about the challenges of shrinking income, budget-conscious audiences and other difficulties in keeping the doors open.

The program's Web site explains the center's stepped-up agenda. The consulting, it says, will provide information "pertinent to maintaining a vital performing arts organization during a troubled economy." Assistance will be provided through e-mails, telephone calls, Web chats or site visits.

"This is the first time we are saying to any organization, 'We are there to help,' " said Michael M. Kaiser, the center's president. "We have never reached out to everyone."

"Crisis" is not too harsh a word, he said. "You see this multiple whammy. The length and depth of this economic downturn is unprecedented in my lifetime," the 55-year-old administrator said.

The need to have a central place for strategic advice, and perhaps a word of comfort, has been building. "Over the last six months, we have gotten e-mails and letters from many groups. Now every single day you read about one or more than one that is cutting back their season or reducing the staff," said Kaiser, who recently published "The Art of the Turnaround: Creating and Maintaining Healthy Arts Organizations."

Any arts organization that is nonprofit -- which usually covers orchestras, dance troupes and theaters -- can sign up for free assistance. Over the eight years since Kaiser took over the Kennedy Center, it has built a reservoir of information about how groups have managed their successes and failures through a half-dozen programs.

"Organizations that have endowments have seen them cut by one-third," Kaiser said. "In cities like Detroit that are so dependent on the auto industry, the money is gone. Foundations are forced to cut back, and individuals have seen their wealth reduced. People are buying their tickets more selectively, and they are not going out as often."

In recent weeks, organizations from almost every part of the country have reported belt-tightening measures, or worse. The Baltimore Opera Company filed for bankruptcy. The Seattle Repertory Theatre asked its staff of 55 to take two weeks of unpaid leave. The Orlando Ballet cut live music for "The Nutcracker" so the dance troupe wouldn't be reduced. The Santa Clarita Symphony in California canceled its season.

The Denver Post reported Sunday that many local arts organizations had cut their budgets by 12 percent but had not instituted layoffs. And the Chicago Tribune reported Sunday that the Joffrey Ballet froze hiring eight months ago.

For the Kennedy Center to step in is a good sign, said Jennifer Cover Payne, president of the Cultural Alliance of Greater Washington. "Most organizations are in need of some assistance. There is a decrease in foundation, individual and government funding," she said. More than half of the regions' arts groups have budgets of less than $1 million. "People are already making adjustments on staff, salaries and space." Locally, the Bead Museum in Gallery Place has closed, and Zenith Gallery has announced that high rent is forcing it to close its physical space soon.

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