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

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 5, 2010; C01

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.

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.

In this downturn arts groups have faced multiple hits: local and state government budgets were reduced or zeroed out; foundations and individual giving were affected by the stock market troubles; and patrons cut back on discretionary spending, including tickets to shows.

One of Kaiser's suggested strategies was to apply for challenge grants from an established funder and then use those grants as leverage among smaller donors. The idea was to display confidence and to convey the idea that the organization was halfway to its goal.

Kaiser said he was discouraged by two trends he found. In programs across the country, he said, well-known and reliable material was offered again and again. "There is a lot of repetition, programs that are safe," he said. "And a lot of [suggestions] are coming from the boards. I always ask what is the performance that excited you the most. Few of them say 'Cats.' Instead it was an amazing dance from a small dance company." In the arts, he added, "our job is to lead, not follow. Our job is to be adventurous."

And he was alarmed that many arts managers and board members had little training, for example, in how to plan a season with a theme and audience appeal or develop a fundraising strategy.

Further, some problems were simply beyond Kaiser's ability to help, such as the troubles of the 110-year-old Honolulu Symphony. "They had just legally filed for bankruptcy," said Kaiser, who had a session in Hawaii in December. The orchestra canceled half its season and reorganized under Chapter 11. Its discussions with its musicians are still at an impasse.

"You can't walk into an hour-and-a-half public session and solve deep problems," Kaiser said. "Maybe four people out of 11,000 said they were close to closing the doors. Many more said they were cutting and they were fearful and didn't know which risks to take."

Bob Hupp, the producing artistic director of the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, had some concerns before the Kaiser visit. "This is not a one-size-fits-all problem, and we don't want one-size-fits-all solutions," he said. "We have an urban arts scene and a rural arts scene."

Onstage at the William J. Clinton Presidential Library, Hupp interviewed Kaiser for the first portion of the forum, in front of 150 people. Hupp liked what he heard. "His message was 'don't back off, don't retreat.' He talked about partnerships among the nonprofits," Hupp said.

A coalition inspired

Just having the meeting with the different arts groups and supporters inspired a new coalition for the arts in the Little Rock area, he said. Now that coalition is talking about signing up for the Kennedy Center's arts education initiative, a targeted program for strapped school districts that provides lesson plans and artist visits.

Tim Dang, the producing artistic director of the East West Players in Los Angeles, agreed that having arts interests get together was a benefit. Dang said his company is following up with a board retreat: "We want to discuss the question of how much participation can the board have in artistic presentations. And then with fundraising, how do you convince donors that the arts are just as worthwhile as persistent issues such as homelessness and health care. Mr. Kaiser was trying to impress upon us that board members might know 100 people who can give $100, and that helps with the season."

In Burlington, Vt., John R. Killacky, executive director of the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts, said he was heartened by the call to create new programming. "We have the eighth blackbird, a musical group, doing a project with us and then working with the Vermont Symphony Orchestra. We have also commissioned a work by Jennifer Higdon. So we have a new work by a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer with a contemporary music group and our symphony orchestra. We were emboldened by Kaiser."

Another case study of partnership used by Kaiser was the joint programs of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Hubbard Street Dance Company. They perform together for one week, with Hubbard thus able to present more programs and the CSO getting some new faces in its audience.

Some sniped that the head of the Kennedy Center -- with its 2,000 performances a year, a budget of $165 million, the ability to raise $75 million a year, and a hefty congressional subsidy of nearly $40 million for upkeep and repairs -- couldn't relate to their anxieties.

"Once, I was asked what parallel universe I was living in," Kaiser said. Union musicians were the most outspoken, angry that their company executives were cutting back on performances. "I never demeaned an organization, but said cutting back on programming was a last resort," he said. Kaiser acknowledged his reputation as the turnaround king, saying he had indeed saved organizations with $30 million deficits. "So if you have a deficit of $20,000," he told audiences jokingly, "don't come crying to me. "

Kaiser tailored his stories: Instead of discussing the woes of the famed Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, too big and prestigious for many to relate to, he dwelled on his experience wrestling with the problems of the Kansas City Ballet. He described the Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, N.Y., how it grew from performances in high school auditoriums and became an international destination and music showcase in a small town. Kaiser helped Glimmerglass with some strategies and judged that it was ready for expansion.

And he confessed that he had worried about whether to go ahead with a Kennedy Center revival of the musical "Ragtime." Its budget, $4.4 million, was expensive; it didn't have any brand-name singers, and the recession was the predominant topic of conversation. He gambled, following his own mantra of good art, well marketed. It opened in April 2009, drew 92 percent capacity, recouped its budget and was extended one week.

Frank Byrne, the executive director of the Kansas City Symphony, said Kaiser was delivering the right message. "This thought about the cutbacks having a long-term impact was very profound," Byrne said. Familiar with Kaiser's principles even before he arrived, Byrne had reduced his budget but added a week to the classical season.

While on the tour Kaiser wrote a book about the role of arts boards, mostly on his BlackBerry, and followed his own advice on developing new alliances. One of his earliest stops was in Sacramento, where Kevin Johnson, the mayor, stayed for the 90-minute season. When Kaiser announced that he was looking for a city to test an arts education initiative, funded by the Ford Foundation, Johnson immediately signed up.

"That wouldn't have happened if he hadn't been there for that meeting," Kaiser said.

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