Arts Administration in Challenging Times

Michael M. Kaiser, known for steering the Kennedy Center and other troubled arts organizations back to health, shares his secrets with a Harvard audience.

Michael M. Kaiser doesn't believe in deficits.

Kaiser—who spoke at the New College Theatre yesterday, in an event sponsored by the Office for the Arts at Harvard and moderated by Harvard Theatre Collection curator Fredric Woodbridge Wilson—took his first job in arts administration with the Kansas City Ballet not because he was enticed by the prospect of bailing out the ballet company, which was on the verge of insolvency, but because it was the only place that would take him. Kaiser, a former management consultant, had served on the board of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and was interested in making arts administration his profession. He didn't have his pick of positions when he made the jump, eventually made a name for himself by turning around ailing arts organizations. He went on to erase deficits at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the American Ballet Theatre, and the Royal Opera House in London.

Among the secrets Kaiser shared with his Harvard audience: "I pick my situations carefully. I tend to enter organizations that are so sick that people are just desperate."

The comment was tongue in cheek, and drew laughs from listeners, but Kaiser wasn't entirely kidding. The boards that oversee organizations with long histories often resist change, he said—but when the organization is in deep financial trouble, board members are often more willing to try new ideas as a last resort.

Kaiser, the author of The Art of the Turnaround: Creating and Maintaining Healthy Arts Organizations, is now president of the Kennedy Center. He took questions from audience members, many of whom identified themselves as arts professionals from around Boston. But he also offered advice for students: first and foremost, consider a career in arts administration. "It's the best career in the world," he said, and a more defined career path now than it once was. Although not all the skills involved can be learned in a classroom, Kaiser (who majored in economics and music at Brandeis and earned a master's degree from the Sloan School of Management at MIT) said there is a set list of abilities that can be learned on the job to make one a good candidate for a leadership position. On that list: marketing, fundraising, financial planning, and of course an understanding of the art form the organization practices or promotes. "The order in which you gather than information isn't crucial," he said, "but you have to have a plan for your life."

The Kennedy Center recently launched Arts in Crisis, a program to counsel struggling arts organizations throughout the United States, and Kaiser noted during his talk that all organizations—not just those that have been mismanaged—are now facing financial hardship. (It is no different at Harvard; President Drew Faust and a task force are trying to forge ahead with changing the role of the arts on campus even as the endowment's value has fallen sharply, Allston construction plans are being reexamined, and staff buyouts and layoffs loom.) Kaiser said he sees a long period of austerity ahead: "I'm planning for at least another year and a half of problems, because arts organizations suffer earliest and recover latest."

Other advice he offered included:

Maintain a positive attitude: Audience members "find inspiration and solace and refuge and entertainment in our organizations. We have to have the discipline not to make them depressing places....You're trying to get people to have trust and faith and excitement about the future, so you can't sit around and mope."

Be an advocate for the arts: "We do a very bad job of marketing ourselves. We tend to talk about what the government can do for us, rather than talking about what we do for society."

Support creativity: Although administrators of arts organizations must consider budget concerns, Kaiser said this translates too often into an adversarial approach: "Most times, executive directors act like the angry parent, with the artist being the naughty child. The naughty child says 'I want, I want, I want.' The parent says, 'No, no, no. We can't afford it.' " Instead, Kaiser said he works with artists to find a way to make their ideas financially feasible: "My job as an administrator is solely to make artistic people's dreams come true." 

Plan ahead: "If you think today about projects you want to do three, four, and five years from now, you have a lot of time to find the resources." 

Pay attention to what is happening in the economy: "It's so much easier to cut a budget before your fiscal year starts than in the middle of it."

Don't let saving be your only strategy: "I'm not saying you don't cut your budget when you need to," he said, "but that's not the path to health. That's just a way of surviving during a bad time. ...Arts organizations that think they're going to save their way to health are going to get sicker and sicker and sicker, because they keep cutting and cutting and cutting." 

If you do have to cut, don't cut programming: "Unfortunately, most arts organizations, as a knee-jerk reaction, cut those things first." But cutting the number of shows or works performed each year, he said, causes the organization to "get smaller and smaller and sicker and sicker." For example, as Kaiser tried to do more with less at the Kennedy Center, he decided to stop providing free coffee to employees. The savings of $30,000 a year was enough to pay for a modern-dance company—and, he said, "I would much rather have a modern-dance company than have coffee."

To weather the storm, Kaiser said, "My feeling is, we have to compete harder for the money that's out there. And that means doing interesting work; doing really good marketing; really trying to promote your organization as exciting, entertaining, inspiring and important; and making cuts in areas that don't make your organization less vital." By heeding this advice, he said, "you recover much more strongly... Those organizations that appear vital during this time are going to benefit most when the economy turns around."

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