Sur­vival of the bold­est

Pasatiempo - - Pasa Tempos - Robert Nott The New Mex­i­can

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

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