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Arts management guru Michael Kaiser says he's sorry

February 17, 2010 |  5:14 pm

Kaiser Arts management maven Michael Kaiser has used his ample résumé and his nine-year perch as president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to promote his ideas about how to keep the nonprofit arts solvent. A year ago, he launched the Kennedy Center's "Arts in Crisis" initiative, offering himself and his brain trust at the Washington, D.C., center as free consultants for arts organizations worried that the downturn could turn into a drownturn.

Kaiser blogs his ideas weekly on the Huffington Post -- and Tuesday's missive is an eyebrow-raiser, headlined "Why My Peers Are Angry With Me."

It seems that Kaiser's fundamental rule -- a damn-the-torpedoes tack which holds that it's suicidal to cut spending for programming and marketing, because that's what brings in the crowds and the money and the donors in the first place -- isn't going over all that well among fellow arts managers who've seen no alternative than to do just that.

"One arts leader accused me publicly of living in a parallel universe. He was quite upset that his artistic director and his unionized artists threw my advice in his face when he felt he had to make programming cuts," Kaiser writes.

Kaiser doesn't say it in his post, but the fact that the Kennedy Center typically rakes in more than $37 million a year in federal funding for operations and construction projects -- the Smithsonian Institution being the only other arts organization with a guaranteed mainline to federal millions -- and that Kaiser's pay package came to $1.11 million in 2007-08, the most recent documented figure, might indeed set it and him apart. Kaiser came to the nation's capital after burnishing his rep with a two-year turnaround of London's Royal Opera House, where the government subsidies are similarly generous.

Kaiser declares himself "completely sympathetic with the current plight of my fellow arts managers," allows that "it is incredibly scary to go to work not certain if there will be enough money to make payroll" and ends with an apology: "I am truly sorry that I have caused problems for my peers. My goal has been simply to make their lives easier by suggesting ways to increase revenue. It seems that I have failed."

Just a modest proposal from Culture Monster, Mr. Kaiser, but since the annual Kennedy Center Honors telecast revolves around lifetime achievement awards to the Bruce Springsteens, Steven Spielbergs and Diana Rosses of the world who typically have a tangential relationship, at best, to the nonprofit arts, why not turn it into a fabulous telethon where famous entertainers spend a few hours pumping for pledges and talking up the arts -- with the proceeds going to the National Endowment for the Arts to redistribute nationwide via its grant programs?

We suspect that such a gesture might make your peers less mad at you.

-- Mike Boehm


Marshaling the allied arts forces

Help for hard-hit arts nonprofits

Photo: Michael Kaiser. Credit: Linda Spillers/AP

Comments () | Archives (4)

Michael Kaiser: "I am truly sorry that I have caused problems for my peers. My goal has been simply to make their lives easier by suggesting ways to increase revenue. It seems that I have failed."

Sounds to me like he's just being passive-aggressive.

"Kaiser declares himself 'completely sympathetic with the current plight of my fellow arts managers,' allows that 'it is incredibly scary to go to work not certain if there will be enough money to make payroll'"

Kaiser's speaking from experience. He is well known to be a master marketer, fundraiser, strategist and a genius at turning around arts organizations on the verge of bankruptcy.

A careful reading of what he says in the Huffington Post reveals the rationale behind his advice.

Some organizations may be too far gone to benefit from it, while some may be led by managers who are just not in Kaiser's league. But I find his reasoning quite sound.

Still, Mike, I must say I chuckled over your idea to have those popular artists honored by the Kennedy Center pitch for donations to the NEA. I'm all for that, but don't forget that they often do get trotted out on Capitol Hill during budget hearings. And most of the artists the Kennedy Center honors are not from popular genres, but from the fine arts, even if they are also quite well-known and successful.

It's great to see the Times take note of this, and I look forward to continued coverage of the challenges faced by the arts today and the different approaches being taken to meet them.

I've had the opportunity to see Kaiser in action at an arts conference. He's pompous and out of touch; "use your marketing departments more effectively" he says. What planet is this guy on? I'd like to see him get along without one dime of public funding and try to raise money and develop programs in the real world. He not someone in tune to the realities of a changed demographic and the arts in a contemporary world. A competent administrator or accountant perhaps, but hardly an arts visionary.

If we made arts that were relevant to the normal, well adjusted, intelligent person of responsibility, sacrifice and commitment, just perhaps things would be better and more popular. Art is not for snobs. That is the fashion of the effette. If older forms no longer hold sway, perhaps they are not needed as much. Not every city needs a symphony, ballet or opera. We have downloads, we can get music. And plenty has been recorded, only the best and most passionate in communication are probably needed. We need creators not more interpretors. Why support something that is not by the people?

Jazz never got a dime, yet is the most creative from to arise in the new world. Photographers got paid, but by doing chores, as Ansel Adams documented the West for planning and developing, not historical archives. There have been those as creative as Bach and Mahler, as with writing Hemingway and VS Naipaul and others expanded literature. Without a single dime of taxpayers funding.

The governments should fund access to its people, performance locations, but not the troupes and artists themselves. The people must decide with their wallets and attendance. Allow them to see, and not the limited world of the MFA and all academic works, which serve but a few. Stop shoving society page stuff down our throats, and you just might be amazed. I have taken books of artists and shown thsoe who you would ignore, and they love those from Botticelli to Gauguin to Tamayo. And laugh at todays academically taught lemmings as naive and childish. Having nothing to do withreal life.

The public servantization of the arts has created a mediocre beauracracy. Fat and lame, status conscious and afraid. Open up your doors, and the very real possibility that people can teach themselves, the tools are now here. Sometimes only a little fine tuning is needed by opportunity, not a programming of followers. But leaders.

art collegia delenda est


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