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

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 4, 2009; C01

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.

Payne posits that the Kennedy Center might be overwhelmed. "I would suspect there are few that would not be responding," she said.

The confluence of declining sources of funding is daunting, said Bill Ivey, the director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University.

"Everything is diminished in this environment," said Ivey, a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts who hopes the $50 million for the NEA in the House version of the economic stimulus bill survives. "At the end of the day, it is about money, not just advice," he said.

Every organization is worried about money. The Kennedy Center receives funding from Congress to run the memorial aspects of the building. A year ago, Kaiser cut the center's non-federal budget by 5 percent with sharp reductions in travel and other in-house expenses.

"Things are holding strong. We get most of our renewals in the spring and summer, so we don't know the full extent of the economic downturn," Kaiser said.

However, he expects a drop in contributions that might reach 6 percent. "In general we expect some of our individual donors will have suffered," he said. And regular support from Lehman Brothers, AIG and Merrill Lynch will no longer be there.

The Kennedy Center's new program received $500,000 mainly from two individuals: board member Helen Lee Henderson and Adrienne Arsht, a Miami businesswoman and philanthropist. The amount partially funds a year of administrative costs, such as travel to the Kennedy Center for a staff member from a troubled arts group or for a center official to provide on-site assistance to the group. "We don't feel these problems are ending soon," Kaiser said.

The center's president said he is not as concerned about smaller organizations -- which are used to dealing with difficult situations -- as he is about groups that are misdirecting efforts at downsizing. "I'm worried that people are cutting the wrong things first, and that makes it much harder to compete for funding," he said. "Those who cut the programming first wouldn't look as attractive to the funders."

"Arts in Crisis" has a Web site where organizations can register: The Kennedy Center is also asking other successful groups to become involved as mentors.

One of the center's incentives to act, besides witnessing the crisis, was hearing the president's call to arms. "This is in the spirit of President Obama saying we have to volunteer and get involved," Kaiser said.

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