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Kennedy Center's boss says the arts are in trouble, blames lack of excellence and daring on timid administrators and funders

February 19, 2011 |  8:00 am

MichaelKaiserLindaSpillersAP One of the last things one expects to hear from an arts impresario is disparagement of his product.

But that’s what Michael Kaiser, president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., did this week, at least in general terms. 

“What Is Wrong With the Arts?” was the headline of his column in the Huffington Post.

“It is no surprise to most of us that the arts are in a parlous state….The arts are in trouble because there is simply not enough excellent art being created,” Kaiser wrote.

The names he dropped as having too few worthy heirs were Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey, George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins in dance; Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz, Richard Rodgers and Igor Stravinsky in music; and Tennessee Williams in theater.

Raw talent still abounds, Kaiser acknowledged, but “far more inventiveness can be found in popular entertainment than can be found in the classic arts.” He pinned the blame on arts administrators: “Boards, managers and producing consortia are overly-involved…overly conservative,” and too glued to the bottom line.

KennedyCenterRichardTNowitzCorbitz Culture Monster’s first response was to visit the Kennedy Center’s website to look for an updated advertising campaign for its shows –- maybe a new slogan along the lines of “we’ve got the goods –- well, they’re pretty good,” or “not great –- but still worth your money.”

But the marketing department apparently hasn’t gotten the word yet. Superlatives still rule in the descriptions of upcoming performances.

Few would dispute Kaiser’s main point –- that the job of arts managers and arts funders should be to provide creative folks with venues, opportunities, chicken soup for the soul, when needed, and lots and lots of money, and then let them go to town, within reason (or not, if a lavish enough underwriter can be found to indulge even that which might seem unreasonable).

But it seems useful to ask whether it’s reasonable to expect “enough excellent art” to arise like clockwork, decade in and decade out, in every artistic discipline. Can genius and excellence really be cultivated like crops? Or are they by definition mutant strains, a deviation from all predictable norms, marvelous, spontaneous outbursts that can’t be explained, only relished?

Can we legitimately ask more of artists than passion, preparation, commitment and effort -– then hope it will be enough to emit some sparks of greatness along with the general run of work that ranges from involving to interesting to serviceable to nice try to mistake?

JaneAusten How to explain the fact that while the English language was erupting in glorious poetry and fiction during the first 80 years of the 19th century (the Romantics, Tennyson, Browning, Walt Whitman, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen (pictured), George Eliot, Mark Twain and Herman Melville, among others), its theatrical product, as far as we are concerned today, was nil until Gilbert and Sullivan hit their stride?

LadyGagaLawrenceKHo In America, was a fallow century of the most vulgar popular entertainments – minstrelsy and vaudeville – an inescapable prerequisite for the flowering of brilliant 20th century musicals? Might cultural historians a few decades from now be tracing some as-yet unimagined 21st century efflorescence of theater and opera back to Cher, Alice Cooper, KISS and Lady Gaga (pictured)?

Should we, for art’s sake, engineer an acute foreign threat to our nation’s existence? It worked for the ancient Athenians (turn back the Persian invaders, reap a Golden Age) and the Elizabethans (sink the Spanish Armada, your reward is Shakespeare), and clicked again in artistic outpourings in Europe and America that followed each of the past century’s world wars.

If you have thoughts about Kaiser’s assessment of the state of the arts, or about what  can and can’t be done to nurture geniuses and great artworks, please write them in the comments section below. By the way, just in case it wasn't clear, that part about engineering a national threat to prime the pump for artistic achievement was a rhetorical flourish, not meant to be taken seriously.


Arts management guru Michael Kaiser says he's sorry

-- Mike Boehm

Photos: Michael Kaiser; John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts; Jane Austen; Lady Gaga at 2010 Grammy Awards.  Credits: Linda Spillers/AP (Kaiser); Richard T. Nowitz/Corbis (Kennedy Center); Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times (Gaga).