Kennedy Center gets $22.5 million gift from DeVos family

Calling the shots:
Calling the shots: "I thought a lot about the work I hadn't finished, said Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)
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By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Buoyed by a multimillion-dollar gift and mindful of unfinished business, Michael M. Kaiser, the president of the Kennedy Center for the past nine years, has agreed to stay as president for four more years.

At the center's board meeting Monday, Michigan philanthropists Betsy and Dick DeVos announced they were giving the center $22.5 million to continue the arts training work that Kaiser had initiated at the center. With that unprecedented support, Kaiser will remain part of the center's leadership structure through 2017, directing what will be named the DeVos Institute of Arts Management. Kaiser will assume that role in late 2014, after his contract extension is completed.

"I was hoping to find a big gift to assure the permanence of this effort," Kaiser said, recalling early talks with Betsy DeVos about the training efforts.

DeVos, a Michigan businesswoman, has been a member of the center's board for six years, and Monday's was her last board meeting. She said she was impressed by how Kaiser talked about "how we invest millions of dollars in the arts, and training artists, but how we invest very little in training the leaders who hire the artists and run the organizations. We want to help develop human capital and leverage that capital to the greatest extent possible."

With her husband, the Republican nominee for Michigan governor in 2006 and an executive with Amway (the company co-founded by Dick DeVos's father), Betsy DeVos has supported arts groups in Grand Rapids. She wants these organizations to be vibrant forces in their communities. "Michael is an entrepreneur, and all his practice and approach is so practical, realistic and creative," she said.

The institute will be the umbrella for the center's national programs in management training and financial stability. Under Kaiser's leadership, the center started the Capacity Building program, which helps culturally specific arts organizations, offers board development seminars and coordinates international fellowships. As a response to the recession, Kaiser launched a program in 2009 to provide free consultation to nonprofit performing arts groups. Arts in Crisis: A Kennedy Center Initiative has had discussions with 750 groups, and Kaiser, like an old-fashioned barnstorming impresario, has held town-hall meetings in almost all 50 states.

"All that work felt like a project, and it should be an institute. The consolidation was all in my head, but this gives them a place," Kaiser said. The DeVos gift will provide operating funds and an endowment. "This donation gives it a permanence. To date, this work has depended on me for raising money, getting grants."

No one seemed surprised that Kaiser, 56, would sign up for more time at the center, though he has hinted he wanted to do the arts training full time. His contract was to expire at the end of 2011. However, an arts leader with his broad credentials would be hard to find. A native of New York, he has degrees in economics from Brandeis University and a master's in management from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His energy is envied by many because, in addition to handling the center's demands, he is a consultant to cultural agencies abroad, such as Pakistan and Mexico, writes management manuals and blogs on several venues.

Before he came to the center in January 2001, Kaiser worked with arts groups that were on the financial brink. He earned the nickname "the turnaround king" through his work with the Royal Opera House, erasing its $30 million debt, and did the same at the American Ballet Theatre, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Foundation and the Kansas City Ballet.

The Kennedy Center is a solvent organization, with funds for the building's upkeep and renovations coming from Congress, and the money for the 2,000 shows a year in seven performance spaces comes from fundraising and ticket sales. But the calendar is expensive, and in the past decade, the private fundraising has gone from $40 million to $75 million. The budget for arts education has increased from $9 million to $27 million. The center has built its reserves up to $25 million, providing a quasi-endowment.

Under Kaiser's tenure, the center has embarked on several themed festivals, including a retrospective of the works of composer Stephen Sondheim and a festival of 10 plays by August Wilson, and established long-term commitments with the Bolshoi Ballet, the Mariinsky Opera and Ballet and New York City Ballet.

Kaiser said he was especially proud that the center could highlight American music forms, as it did with festivals of country music, a cappella singing and gospel. "Now I want to do something to bring choral groups from everywhere together," he said. The Kennedy Center has expanded international programs with multi-week presentations of the arts of China, Japan and the Arab world.

Not everything was successful. Kaiser says a '40s cultural showcase, spread out over six months, didn't give the audience a feeling of a festival; a revival of "Carnival" didn't catch on; and an ambitious plan to build a plaza connecting the center to the Mall was dropped when federal funding didn't come through in 2005.

Kaiser's advice to groups to build up their programming during hard financial times has brought some criticism. He believes in cutting backstage, not onstage. "When there is less money to go around, you have to try harder," he said. "I don't agree that it is a dangerous argument. If the small ones retreat, then only the big ones step forward. We want to see everyone survive."

His decision to stay was prompted more by the training enterprises than anything else. "I thought a lot about the work I hadn't finished," Kaiser said. For example, since the center started a pilot arts education project with the city of Sacramento, he says, "about 25 cities have asked about participation." The recession is still having its effect, even on a stable institution like his, Kaiser said, and he wanted to provide some continuity for the new National Symphony Orchestra music director.

And then, Kaiser noted, there are always the hard-hat jobs around the center, with the front windows encased in sheeting right now, and the Terrace Theater scheduled for a makeover.

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