Survival of the boldest
With arts organizations in this country in financial-crisis mode, Michael M. Kaiser seems to be the guy many people look to for answers. He’s been called “the Turnaround King” for his success in rescuing near-dead arts groups such as Kansas City Ballet, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, American Ballet Theatre, and the Royal Opera House in London.
A proponent of innovative programming and aggressive marketing strategies, Kaiser has served as president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts since 2001. He is the author of 2008’s The Art of the Turnaround: Creating and Maintaining Healthy Arts Organizations and the soon-to-be-published 50 Questions Every Arts Board Should Ask.
Kaiser is touring the country as a speaker and consultant with “Arts in Crisis: A Kennedy Center Initiative,” a program that addresses the challenges that nonprofit arts groups are facing. On Tuesday, April 13, he leads a symposium at Stieren Hall at the Santa Fe Opera. While this talk is geared toward Santa Fe in particular, Kaiser acknowledged, “As much as people in different communities tell me that their communities are different, their questions and concerns are very much the same across the country.”
Kaiser spoke with Pasatiempo by phone during a break in his tour. Pasatiempo: As you travel the country, what are the most common questions you hear? Michael M. Kaiser: One big question is, Where do we cut our budget in this recession? Another is, How do I motivate my board with fundraising? Those are questions I get when there’s not a recession. One question that commonly comes up now is, Should we be cutting our education programs during this recession? Another is, How do I use new technology to help with my marketing effort? Pasa: What should they be asking? Kaiser: One that I focus on is, How do we keep our art really vibrant and risky in this recession? My belief is that when art becomes too predictable and stagnant and is reduced in size and scope, there’s less reason for people to support it. When there’s less money to give to the arts, we have to compete harder for the same resources. That’s a very important question that most arts organizations are not asking. Pasa: According to the Santa Fe Arts Commission, Santa Fe County, which has a population of about 140,000, has about 75 artistic nonprofits. Is that too many? Kaiser: You have a whole lot of people who come there for the summer, so I believe you have a broader base of support for arts organizations than just those living in the community. That aside, many communities are asking the same question: Do we have too many arts organizations?
I like multiple voices in an arts form; it’s important to have different aesthetic visions. But my fear is, if one does decide we’ll have some paring back, the ones I’m afraid will disappear are the ones that are financially weak but not always the ones that are artistically weak. Pasa: Are some failing nonprofits in denial about their situation? Kaiser: I would phrase it differently: they are not so much in denial, but many were ill before the recession. And the healthy state of the economy before the recession — and the fact that there was a lot of money around — disguised some problems that a lot of organizations were having. Pasa: Is the easy financial answer simply to cut positions or programs? Kaiser: I believe that when you get smaller, you give people less reason to support you. We are in competition with each other — we really are. We may not like to voice that competition, but it’s true. When others are doing more than we are, they will get the larger percent of support. Pasa: What about the notion that artistic directors or board members stick around too long, past their useful prime? And are these people trained to handle these positions in the first place? Kaiser: That’s absolutely an issue. We spend billions of dollars to train flute players, opera singers, dancers, and actors in this country and virtually nothing to train the people who have to employ them. As a result, we don’t have this large pool of trained, skilled, entrepreneurial arts managers. So when you have to face sophisticated challenges, you have managers who are not fully equipped to handle them. We spend almost no time at all training board members to be board members of arts organizations.
I think a lot of organizations — both on the administrative and artistic side — have gotten so beaten down and so fearful of money issues that they’ve stopped dreaming. One of the ideas I propose in my talk is, I believe in programming one’s art four or five years in advance. So many plan so close into the event that (a) the event is not as rich as it could be, and (b) there’s a constant fear of how you will pay for it. If you give yourself more time, you can make the programming better and find a lot of resources to do it. Pasa: Are ticket prices being raised to deal with financial shortfalls, and is that in turn discouraging patrons? Kaiser: What arts organizations have done over the past 30 years is raise ticket prices faster than inflation. We’ve disenfranchised huge sections of the audience who don’t come and also believe arts are irrelevant to their lives. At the same time, electronic substitutes are coming into being which make it extremely cheap to get art online at home, via YouTube, for instance. While it’s certainly not the same, when it gets to be where tickets are hundreds of dollars, people are beginning to make that choice. We have done ourselves in with ticket pricing. Pasa: When does a nonprofit come to terms with its own death? Kaiser: When you literally have no cash left and no credit left and are now incurring a liability and have no notion of where you will locate a resource. But there’s a lot of time and work to be done from the time when financial problems first occur and your time limit. Arts organizations can get sick quickly, but they can also heal quickly. Pasa: You’ve had great success in turning failing arts organizations into success stories seemingly overnight. But have you ever misstepped? Kaiser: One of the big mistakes of my career is when I got to the Kansas City Ballet, and I was encouraged to work with a PR-type consultant who came up with a campaign asking, “What are the 52 most valuable feet in Kansas City?” referring to the ballet dancers. The goal was to get everyone in Kansas City to ask that question. It was a cute idea, but we didn’t have the resources to do it in the right way. It fizzled; we sold no tickets to the show, and that was my debut as an arts manager. But I learned from it. I am by no means infallible.
Michael M. Kaiser