Michael Kaiser: The Art of Administration

Michael Zwiebach on August 30, 2010
Michael Kaiser

Michael Kaiser, artistic head of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, is one of the more respected artistic administrators in America, as well as an inspiring speaker who is bullish on the arts. The author of four books, most recently The Art of the Turnaround (2008), Kaiser made his bones turning around failing arts organizations. He has served as executive director of the Kansas City Ballet, Alvin Ailey Dance Company, the Royal Opera Covent Garden, and the American Ballet Theater.

He recently completed a cross-country tour for his Arts in Crisis initiative, a program to provide free arts management consulting to nonprofit performing arts organizations around the nation. A Cultural Ambassador for the U.S. Department of State, he also advises performing arts organizations around the world on building institutional strength through marketing, strategic planning, and fund-raising, and, in this capacity, is currently working with arts leaders in some 60 countries. He has launched a Web site that provides resources to arts managers around the world. SFCV spoke to him about the arts in crisis and the future of classical music.


You write on your Huffington Post blog that arts organizations are positive in the face of the recession, and that you hadn’t expected that in your Arts in Crisis tour. What about the longer-term, structural problems for classical arts? Their audience is shrinking, according to an NEA study, and has been for years; and some reports — I’m thinking of the book Philanthrocapitalism [by Matthew Bishop and Michael Green] — say that younger philanthropists are uninterested in classical music or the arts. You’ve been in arts management since the mid-1980s. What changes in the background arts environment have you observed over that time?

Certainly we’ve had a long-term trend toward fewer and fewer subscribers, which I believe relates more to the fact that women were the majority of subscribers, traditionally, and more and more women have been working outside the home over the last 40 years. And that trend has reduced the ability of people to be able to predict when they would be available to go to a performance.

So the decrease in subscriptions has had a dramatic impact, artistically and financially, in arts organizations. Financially, because you have to sell each performance on its own, and artistically for the same reason. When your subscribers buy a large portion of your tickets, you can take a little more risk, because each performance has a base audience of a certain amount. When that number falls, then you have to sell each production on its own, and it’s harder to take artistic risks.

We definitely have the very serious trend of less and less arts in our schools, and that means that we have a generation of people who are now in their 20s and 30s, who you called the “young philanthropists,” many of whom did not have any arts exposure as young people. And it’s therefore not surprising that they don’t aim their philanthropy to the arts. That’s a very difficult and dangerous trend that I think arts organizations together have to combat.

Do you have an idea of how to combat that?

There are programs that can try to fix the problem for the current group of younger people. And certainly many of us are trying to develop programs that can start to reengage young people, and we have a series of programs that we offer at the Kennedy Center. One new approach is called “Any Given Child,” which we’re now testing, actually, in Sacramento, not so far from you, and which we hope will be an affordable approach to bring arts back into the schools, in a coordinated fashion.

But I’m also, in addition to that, extremely concerned and interested in what we do with the current group of 20- and 30-year-olds. I don’t want to give up on them. And right now I don’t have anything to announce, but I am working on a project, an approach to try to bring that group of people into the arts and to make arts a habit for them when it wasn’t in the past.

All of this through the Kennedy Center?


One organization that isn’t following the rules you laid out in The Art of the Turnaround is Washington Opera, the company you started out with, in 1985. What happens when the boss gives the very distinct impression that he is not in charge, so that board members have to continually assert that he is in charge?

I wouldn’t comment specifically about Washington Opera. I make it a policy never to poke a finger at another organization. But I will say that it is very dangerous when arts organizations are not led by professional staff, and when the board starts to — what I call “poach” — that is, they begin to take part of that [staff] function. When I got to the Royal Opera House in 1998, the board met every week for five hours. So in a lot of organizations, when the board does not feel that the staff is performing adequately, they start to take over, out of fear. And this is well-intentioned, but it almost always ends up not in a great situation.

This question is related and comes from one of our readers. There seems to be a dearth of competent arts managers, who can manage a budget and keep others on task. What can an orchestra do when the manager might be the problem? Where does one find good management talent?

It’s a very serious issue — I call it the most serious issue in the arts today: the lack of competent, trained arts managers. We have invested millions of dollars to train violinists, singers, actors, and dancers, and almost nothing to train the people who employ them and develop the resources so they can do their work. And we have established our own arts management institute to try to address some of this, but we can only do a portion of it. This is something that must be of concern to all arts organizations, to their boards, and especially to major institutional funders who care about the future of the arts in this country and, frankly, around the world.

Are you concerned about people coming into arts management during the recession and finding it harder going?

I wrote a Huffington Post blog on just that topic. The lasting impact of this recession, in my estimation, is not just people who start in this field and get depressed, but a lot of people who are extremely experienced arts administrators who are finally saying, “I’ve had enough.” I see an exodus from this field that is extremely dangerous, in part because we have so few good managers as it is, and in part because we don’t want to lose these experienced voices.

You know, I have no training — I don’t have one day of training for my job, and that’s not a good thing. I should not be the head of the Kennedy Center without having had one day of training.

But you had on-the-job training.

I’ve had on-the-job training and hopefully I’ve done decent work, but it’s not really what you want. I mean, you don’t want someone doing an appendectomy on you who’s never had training, either. And we operate in an extremely difficult environment — not just this recession, but there’s changing patterns in the way people get their information; there are changing patterns in the way that people get their entertainment; there’s huge issues about ticket prices vis-à-vis the electronic substitutes for live performance. There’s some very difficult and challenging topics that we are facing, and we have to have very sophisticated, experienced, and well-trained arts managers doing the job.

In Art of the Turnaround, you write “... those of us who are fortunate enough to be a part of the arts world have an obligation to see past our own successes and to look to the needs of society.” What does that mean for classical music? Does classical music, particularly the symphony orchestra, need to expand its mission and mandate in order to engage future audiences and meet the needs of society?

You know, if we need to address that issue — and I believe we need to deal with the rest of society in a broader way — I don’t necessarily throw out all of the older models. I’m not one who thinks the symphony is outmoded, the concert format is dated. You don’t have to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

What I was really saying in that quote is that, rather than saying, “Isn’t it great, I turned that organization around?” I need to start thinking about how I can use my organizations to really provide services to the whole community. Those might be education services, those might be helping to express the point of view of those who don’t have a normal outlet to express their points of view. But I feel like I have to do more than just pat myself on the back. And I believe a lot of arts organizations are doing that. A lot of arts organizations are being very responsive to their communities. Where I feel the big failure is, is that we haven’t done a very good job of marketing ourselves to our communities, so that a lot of people don’t know that we exist, or what we do.

I see a lot of time put into marketing, except in smaller organizations, which often don’t have a person to handle it.

Right, but as you know from the book, I break marketing into two pieces: One piece I call “programmatic marketing,” and that’s the marketing we do to get people to buy tickets. The other is “institutional marketing,” where we market the organization itself. “Programmatic” is where organizations are spending almost all their time and money, and they’re not thinking about the institutional marketing. And that’s the marketing that really starts to draw people to us, including those people who may not have been drawn to us historically. When organizations only focus on the short term — as they feel compelled to do in a recession — on getting as many people into their seats as possible without thinking about how they engage the rest of the community, I think they’re being very shortsighted.

Your mantra is “Good art, well-marketed.” Is there a way to take the two and put them together — to use the art as a platform to market the institution? Is that what you’re talking about?

The best institutional marketing is really great work. If an organization is doing boring work, it’s very hard to create a good institutional marketing plan. If the organization is doing interesting, exciting, compelling work — being creative — then that is the base of your institutional marketing plan.

Cal Performances in Berkeley, which gets a remarkably slim subsidy from UC Berkeley, is nevertheless doing a day of free performances this September, because they’ve discovered that few people in the community know about them. And a lot of organizations are giving art away for free. What is the future of free art?

I do believe in free performances — we do one here [at the Kennedy Center] every day. Every day it’s a different performance, and it’s also broadcast live on the Internet every day. There’s a difference between free performances and giving complementary tickets, though, and a lot of organizations don’t understand that difference. If you have a mission to bring to your organization people who maybe don’t have the ability to pay or may not have experienced the art before, well and good. I don’t believe in just giving away free tickets to lots of people to performances that other people are paying for because you simply can’t sell them.

A free performance would be strongly tied to the institutional marketing plan?

And you want to get new people to your organization so they can test the arts and say, “Oh, I like this, this is for me.” And this is something that arts organizations do very successfully when they have a plan for it.

But it’s costly.

It is costly, and it’s costly to do it well. But we raise money for that because it is a central part of our mission to provide arts to everyone, not just to those with the ability to pay a high ticket price.

One thing that is bothering opera, in particular, is high ticket prices. Have we discovered a new way to bring costs down by theatrical release of concert products in movie houses, or is that a limited option?

I believe that it’s a limited option. And frankly, I’m not sure anyone is making money doing that. I think it’s really meant to be an audience outreach activity. I’m not convinced that people who are going are not also people who go to live performances. So I’m not sure about its true outreach potential. I know lots and lots of people enjoy those performances.

But they’re people who like opera anyway?

I’m not saying I know that for a fact. I’d love to see a study on that.

Are there, then, any opportunities to use the digital realm to get opera to people?

I think the digital realm holds a lot of opportunity, first and foremost to teach people about opera when it’s an opera they might not know anything about. To be able to hear audio clips, [see] video clips, to learn — the Internet gives us an opportunity to disseminate a great deal of information relatively inexpensively, compared to past marketing vehicles for opera companies and other classical music organizations. So the Internet is our best marketing friend — very broadly speaking, including audience education.

But in the end, we have to bring people into the theater?

Well, I’m an old-fashioned person, and I’m an old man. So I really do believe in the value of coming into the theater. First of all, the theater itself is a magical place. Secondly, the arts are one of the few social events that are really left in this world. And it’s important that everyone not just sit at home watching their screens and listening to their iPhones and iPods and whatever — it’s important for people to interact and to experience together, and that’s one of the great activities that you do enjoy in a theater.