The prognosis isn’t good in Michael M. Kaiser’s short, shrewd analysis of U.S. arts organizations. Kaiser is matter-of-fact as he presents conclusions based on several decades of experience managing such companies as the American Ballet Theatre and, most recently, the Kennedy Center. But anyone who appreciates theater, opera, ballet, modern dance or museums will find “Curtains?” fairly depressing, despite a glimmer of hope in the final chapter.
The always-shaky financial model of 20th-century arts organizations has become unsustainable, Kaiser writes. Government funding has been slashed, foundation and corporate giving reduced. Elderly private donors are not being replaced by “the first generation of college graduates that did not receive a solid arts education in grammar school.” Subscriptions, which once provided economic stability and a guaranteed audience, decline with each bump in ticket prices. It doesn’t help that the Internet makes many historic performances available for free, while various forms of electronic entertainment tempt people to stay home. Or that traditional media have drastically cut arts coverage, making it more difficult for companies to maintain public visibility.
By 2035, Kaiser predicts, large organizations will monopolize what funding remains, and their tickets will be so expensive that most people will see “live” performances only in broadcasts or online in their homes. Small local groups will manage with low-paid (or unpaid) performers who want a creative outlet; poor communities, with fewer financial resources, will mostly do without. Mid-size institutions will flounder, just like mid-priced retailers between Walmart and Neiman Marcus; they will either downsize or grow by merging. “Little by little,” Kaiser concludes, “we will witness an erosion of the scope and diversity of the arts.”
But these trends are not irreversible, he states. His prescriptions for better health include suggestions for generating more income and passionate exhortations for arts organizations to keep taking risks; you would expect the former from a management consultant, but not necessarily the latter. Kaiser’s basic stance is summed up in two statements on facing pages: “No marketing technology can take the place of good art”; “but great art also must be supported by great marketing.”
Kaiser’s marketing ideas are commonsensical rather than groundbreaking: Develop a coherent strategy to focus the use of new technologies like e-mail and social media; sell the institution to donors as well as tickets to individuals; partner with public schools to provide the arts education that nurtures art appreciation. Of particular interest to the leaders of struggling companies will be his detailed thoughts on building more supportive and effective boards containing members with a broad range of expertise, background and even income levels. Only with such diverse and active boards, he contends, can arts organizations do the long-range planning necessary to survive in today’s challenging environment.
Kaiser proved he could turn around troubled institutions in the 1990s when he put the deficit-plaguedAlvin Ailey American Dance Theater and London’s Royal Opera House on sound financial footings. Arts lovers can only hope that the suggestions he proffers here could be as effective in the 21st century.
Smith frequently reviews books for The Washington Post.