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Michael Kaiser Reflects on His 'Arts in Crisis' Tour


by Jerome Weeks 5 Aug 2010

The WashPost talks with Kennedy Center head Michael Kaiser after he traveled to all 50 states to give advice to artists and troubled arts institutions. Last November, he spoke and answered questions at the Latino Cultural Center. Like Kaiser himself, the report is sobering and clear-eyed — but also encouraging.

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The WashPost talks with Kennedy Center head-and-‘turnaround king’ Michael Kaiser after he traveled to all 50 states to give advice to artists and troubled arts institutions (69 cities and 83,000 miles in 15 months). Kaiser came to North Texas last November to speak and answer questions at the Latino Cultural Center.

Like Kaiser himself, the report is sobering and clear-eyed–

Kaiser said he was discouraged by two trends he found. In programs across the country, he said, well-known and reliable material was offered again and again. “There is a lot of repetition, programs that are safe,” he said. “And a lot of [suggestions] are coming from the boards. I always ask what is the performance that excited you the most. Few of them say ‘Cats.’ Instead it was an amazing dance from a small dance company.” In the arts, he added, “our job is to lead, not follow. Our job is to be adventurous.”

And he was alarmed that many arts managers and board members had little training, for example, in how to plan a season with a theme and audience appeal or develop a fundraising strategy.

— but also encouraging.

One of Kaiser’s suggested strategies was to apply for challenge grants from an established funder and then use those grants as leverage among smaller donors. The idea was to display confidence and to convey the idea that the organization was halfway to its goal.

Kaiser is also big on cooperative strategies, groups working together to come up with something new.  This anecdote is worth noting because of the North Texas links. The music group, eighth blackbird, was one of the first winners of the new Meadows Prize for an arts residency, while the Pulitzer Prize-winner Jennifer Higdon is the  Fort Worth Symphony’s 2009-2010 composer-in-residence.

In Burlington, Vt., John R. Killacky, executive director of the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts, said he was heartened by the call to create new programming. “We have the eighth blackbird, a musical group, doing a project with us and then working with the Vermont Symphony Orchestra. We have also commissioned a work by Jennifer Higdon. So we have a new work by a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer with a contemporary music group and our symphony orchestra. We were emboldened by Kaiser.”

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