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Kennedy Center's Michael Kaiser hit the road for 50-state 'Arts in Crisis' tour

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By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 5, 2010

One night in the middle of his 15-month, 50-state "Arts in Crisis" tour, Michael M. Kaiser was ready for a good dinner. The hotel clerk in Meridian, Miss., directed the Kennedy Center's president to two restaurants across the highway, beyond eight lanes of steady traffic.

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Kaiser, a city guy in a dress suit with little multi-lane pedestrian experience, asked how to get over there. "You just dodge the traffic like everyone else," the clerk said. Kaiser did, and he made it.

Few obstacles held Kaiser back as he crisis-crossed the country from Burlington to Bismarck, hearing about the economic challenges of the country's arts organizations and offering a compact set of solutions.

Sitting in his Kennedy Center office three days after he wrapped up the last session in Boise, Idaho, he added up the figures: 69 cities, 83,000 miles, forums with 11,000 artists, arts administrators and board members. Commercial flights got him to most of his stops.

"For a lot of organizations, the problems were there before the recession, and the financial upheaval only opened them up," said Kaiser, who embarked on this effort at a time when arts organizations (along with a lot of American businesses and individuals) were staring into the abyss.

By April 2009, for example, Lucinda Einhouse, president of the Beck Center for the Arts in Cleveland, couldn't make payroll. Two shows, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" and "The Farnsworth Invention," didn't attract enough ticket buyers. "Everyone in the region was uneasy about the economy. Our organization had no cash reserves," she said.

Einhouse sent out an appeal for $150,000, saying if the money wasn't raised, the doors would close. It worked. In a meeting that month with Kaiser and the Kennedy Center staff, she said, "they commended us for our honesty and transparency. One of the things that Michael Kaiser told us was the importance of the visibility of the institution during a financial crisis."

So when Kaiser stopped in Cleveland during his tour, Einhouse was there, ready to heed other Kaiser dictates, such as: If you have to make reductions, start in the back office, and promote what you do best. "Right now we are doing 'The Producers' and it is selling gangbusters," Einhouse said.

Tested tactics

Kaiser's advice was based on tactics he had tested over a quarter-century with arts groups deep in deficits, as well as lessons from the Kennedy Center's half-dozen management training programs. Kaiser had instituted a number of free programs there that drew arts administrators to strategize about programming, fundraising and management skills. This time around, he took the sermon to them.

Trained in economics and management (Brandeis, MIT), Kaiser has helped erase debts at American Ballet Theatre, the Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation and the Kansas City Ballet. Just before he joined the Kennedy Center in 2001, he ran the Royal Opera House in London and wiped out its $30 million debt. He compiled his rules into a book, "The Art of the Turnaround."

The "Arts in Crisis" travel was financed by philanthropists and board members Helen Henderson and Adrienne Arsht, who gave $100,000 each for the tour and program.


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