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Michael Kaiser: Kennedy Center president creates a chorus of new arts leaders

Michael Kaiser is one of seven recipients of the 2011 Top American Leaders awards, bestowed by The Washington Post’s On Leadership section and the Harvard Kennedy School's Center for Public Leadership. This year’s recipients were chosen by a selection committee convened by the Center for Public Leadership, and will be honored at Ford’s Theatre on December 5, 2011.

Visit On Leadership to see more of the winners’ profiles.

Michael M. Kaiser, president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, may be most well known for his management of the arts organizations he’s helped to rescue. For instance, after coming to the American Ballet Theatre in 1995, he turned around a company where the dancers could only work six months of the year when he joined. In the late 1990s, he raised $100 million in 18 months to save the Royal Opera House in London, erasing a $30 million deficit in the process.

And at the Kennedy Center, which he has run since 2001, Kaiser has taken a financially healthy organization and given it a much-needed shot in the artistic arm. He has launched wide-ranging festivals that have been met with global acclaim, revitalized the National Symphony Orchestra, and engineered appearances by world-class performing arts companies, such as the Kirov Ballet and the Royal Shakespeare Company.

But the former consultant will be most remembered for his leadership in the arts management field. Kaiser doesn’t just want to effectively run the organizations he manages; he wants to help other leaders of the world’s cultural institutions do so too. “Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent throughout the world each year training young performers,” Kaiser wrote in a 2002 op-ed in The Washington Post, “but only a small fraction of that amount is devoted to training the people who will employ and market these performers.”

To try to fix that problem, Kaiser has embarked on transforming the Kennedy Center into not just a national center for the performing arts, but a national center for training arts managers. In 2002, he founded a “Capacity Building” program that mentors leaders of African-American, Latino, Asian-American and Native American arts groups. In 2009, after the bottom fell out of the economy, he started Arts in Crisis, an initiative to offer free counseling to arts managers. Both are now part of the Kennedy Center’s arts management institute, which provides advanced training for arts administrators. It was created by Kaiser and renamed after Dick and Betsy DeVos in 2002 following a $22.5 million contribution.

In addition, he has expanded the scope of his job, working internationally to help nurture better arts managers. He has given a workshop to 140 such leaders from 17 Arab nations. In early 2011, he led seminars in five cities in Africa. And in October, his arts management institute helped to open a new opera house in Oman, developing future programming, hiring staff and creating an arts education program.

Kaiser does all this because he envisions the Kennedy Center as America’s “national cultural center” that has obligations to support the arts institutions of the world. As he told one reporter, “I am very anxious that the cultural ecologies of the countries of the world be healthy.” Great managers know how to whip a bottom line into shape and set a strategy that promotes long-term growth. But great leaders like Kaiser see opportunities that go beyond the contours of their job and embrace those responsibilities as their own.

Interested in attending the Top American Leaders awards at Ford’s Theatre on December 5th? Limited tickets are free and open to the public. Click here for information and registration.

Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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