INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL KAISERHello everyone.
"And the beat goes on........................"
INTERVIEW with MICHAEL KAISER
I heard Michael Kaiser - head of the Kennedy Center for the Arts since 2001 - speak at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco last month, and asked him if we would sit for a brief interview. Michael's ideas and positions on a number of issues facing the arts community are thought provoking, and I think you will enjoy his responses to my questions.
Here is a quick bio: Michael M. Kaiser is President of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Dubbed “the Turnaround King” for his work at The Kansas City Ballet, the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, the American Ballet Theater and the Royal Opera House, Michael has earned international renown for his expertise in arts management. A Cultural Ambassador for the U.S. Department of State, he advises performing arts organizations around the world, working with arts leaders in over 60 countries. He has created an online education forum for arts administrators at artsmanager.org, where professionals and students in the field can share experiences, seek employment, and post opportunities. He founded “Arts In Crisis: A Kennedy Center Initiative” in early February, which is currently providing free arts management consultation to almost 350 arts organizations across the United States.
And here is the interview:
BARRY: You have gotten a lot of media attention lately about your advice to struggling arts organizations that they should not make cuts to their artistic programming or to their marketing budgets. You’ve said that you think “that the problem is almost always not spending too much, but no development of adequate revenue, and that cost cutting is not a good long term strategy”. At the core of your philosophy is the mantra for arts organizations “to produce great art, well marketed”. For those readers not familiar with your argument, can you please expand on what you mean?
MICHAEL: I believe that the fiscal health of arts organizations depends on a robust inflow of revenue. What creates cash flow? Good programming (artistic and educational) supported by aggressive marketing. And yet, troubled arts organizations invariably cut these two areas first, since they represent discretionary spending. What evolves is a vicious cycle of less programming and marketing yielding less revenue yielding more cuts, etc. etc.
This is especially true in the current environment. When arts organizations are competing for a smaller pool of contributed dollars and ticket sales, they must compete harder, not less hard. This means more interesting programming and more aggressive marketing. When arts organizations are forced to cut budgets, I prefer them to cut these two vital areas last. I prefer to save on everything that does not relate to programming and marketing. Sometimes cutting these two areas is required but it should be a last resort.
BARRY: Following-up - You are quoted in a February of this year piece in the Washington Post as saying that you are: “not as concerned about smaller organizations -- which are used to dealing with difficult situations -- as (you) are about groups that are misdirecting efforts at downsizing.” But for those small to medium organizations that have undergone huge budget cuts due to declining revenues from virtually all of their sources, and thus may have no choice left but to cut either marketing or programming, what would you tell them to do? Many are in danger of closing their doors. Is part of the problem that the arts & culture sector is overbuilt with too much duplication for the marketplace to support? Left alone the marketplace will arguably weed out poorly managed organizations and those that don’t attract sufficient public support – and most of those will likely be smaller or newer organizations. Are we more likely then to see only the larger cultural institutions survive in the new arts landscape?
MICHAEL: What I said was that I am most concerned for the mid-sized organizations because they do not have the flexibility of the smaller organizations and do not have the resources of the larger ones. Mid-sized organizations typically have developed a larger infrastructure that is at risk in this environment. I am very concerned that the organizations that are ‘weeded out’ will be the ones with underpowered managements, not necessarily those with poor artistic product.
BARRY: In your remarks to the San Francisco arts community at a Commonwealth Club address last month you observed that arts organizations, in their attempts to fundraise, too often fail to market “caring about our organizations”. You opined that we should better market the organization’s image and value, and that institutional marketing (selling and branding the organization itself) need not be prohibitively costly. What did you mean by that? Do you have any practical advice to offer organizations to more effectively do that?
MICHAEL: I believe that there are two types of marketing: programmatic marketing and institutional marketing. Programmatic marketing is the marketing we all do – advertising, brochures, web sites, etc – to sell tickets. I am more concerned about institutional marketing – the things we do to get our communities excited about us as an organization. In my experience, it is these activities that drive fund-raising. Example of institutional marketing include major artistic and educational programs, special events, exhibitions, high profile appearances, etc. There is a classic example of the institutional marketing we did at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in my book, The Art of the Turnaround.
BARRY: You also said that you believe ‘individual donations’ are the key to fundraising stability for the arts. I assume you have concluded that the other sources of arts income -- corporate, foundation, and government support, combined with earned income are all inadequate or unreliable – or both. Is that right? Please explain why?
MICHAEL: I believe that grants from governments, foundations and corporations are bounded. Arts organizations that rely only on these sources will not grow with inflation or beyond. There is no limit to the amount of individual donations that can be raised.
BARRY: Another point you made in your talk, was that arts organizations often need a different Board of Director composition at different stages of the organization’s growth, and that the culture of the Board must change as the organization grows. How do you recognize when that culture needs to be changed and how do you get Board members to move on when that time comes?
MICHAEL: I believe it is clear to every arts executive when a board is not functioning properly. Frequently the board is ‘poaching’ – making the decisions that the staff should be making. Or the board members may not be as involved with the fund-raising of the organization as is needed at that point in its history.
Someone, ideally the Board Chair or the Head of the Nominating (or Governance) Committee will work with the Executive Director to determine a course for re-shaping a board. I have frequently asked a board member to resign a seat to make room for someone who can better serve the organization at that time.
BARRY: One of your suggestions that caught my interest was that arts organization leaders ought to make a list of the 100 people in the community who could change the life of their organization. Can you elaborate on that concept and how it could be used? You also said that a valuable exercise for the leadership of arts organizations is to carve out time each week to consider how to make next year easier. What did you mean?
MICHAEL: I believe that in every community there are 100-300 people who could truly help the organization if they were engaged. I suggest every arts organization make such a list and work aggressively to bring those people to events, meet with them periodically, make sure they see important news stories about the organization etc. A disciplined campaign to reach these people is required.
I believe that what makes next year easier is to do the institutional marketing today that brings new audience members, donors and Board members to the organization and enlivens those that already exist. So making time to do institutional marketing every week is essential.
BARRY: What do you think the role of the NEA ought to be in the current arts & culture economic climate? Do you think the endowment should shift any of its priorities? Do you think it ought to re-think where its’ funding goes? Do you think it ought to launch new initiatives that address specific weaknesses in the arts management ecosystem? Is the Arts In Crisis initiative you have launched at the Kennedy Center to help troubled arts organizations something the Endowment should have done? Why or why not?
MICHAEL: I am not qualified to say how the NEA should function. I do believe that the majority of funding should go to small and mid-sized organizations (and organizations that serve under-served populations). I also believe that all grants should be challenge grants. I am not certain whether the NEA has the people resources to mount programs like Arts in Crisis.
BARRY: You observed that most arts organizations need a new perspective every decade. Do you think senior leadership at arts organizations should have term limits; that key employees should have a sunset date (like the Hewlett Foundation imposes) when they should be required to leave the organization?
MICHAEL: I do believe that there needs to be turnover amongst personnel, particularly artistic personnel in presenting organizations. I do not think that is required in producing organizations, and certainly not in founder-driven organizations. I cannot prescribe exactly how long a term should be.
BARRY: Apart from the economic problems facing arts & cultural organizations, what do you think are the major challenges facing the arts & culture “field” as a whole, and what thoughts can you share about how some of those priorities might be addressed.
MICHAEL: I think our biggest challenge is our inability to increase productivity. This means that we suffer from inflation so much more than other industries. This means that we have to find ways to cover our costs. Historically this was accomplished by raising ticket prices but we have priced ourselves out of the market – many people can no longer to be habitual arts consumers. I believe we have to work to increase our fund-raising capabilities so we can reduce our reliance on ticket prices.
This requires far more sophisticated marketing and fund-raising knowledge that many arts professionals have; we need to spend more on arts management training if we are going to have robust arts sector in the future.
BARRY: You said that you think major donors give larger amounts of money to organizations when those organizations become part of their social lives. I can see that in the largest cultural institutions like the major symphonies, ballets, operas and museums in the major cities. Do you think that works across the board irrespective of the size or the organization, and how do organizations (particularly smaller ones) increase their role so that they are a larger part of their major donor’s social lives?
MICHAEL: Absolutely. I see many smaller organizations, and community organizations, playing a central role in the lives of their constituents. This is something that any arts organization can work to achieve.
BARRY: What has been your experience thus far with your online Arts Manager.com “Arts In Crisis” support program for arts organizations? What insights into the management of our organizations has offering this service taught you? Do you think there ought to be some kind of institutional / systemic training opportunities made (widely) available to arts leaders so that they might improve their managerial skills levels? Looking at that issue from another perspective, how can we mentor younger arts administrators and provide them with quality professional development training and nonprofit business skills enhancement if much of our current senior arts leadership never got that kind of support in the first place?
MICHAEL: I have been trying for two decades to get the funding community to appreciate the need for better arts management training. We spend so much on training artists but so little on training the people who must find the resources for their work. It makes no sense to me. The biggest thing I have learned from all of our arts management training programs is that there is a tremendous thirst for training, and that board members need training as well.
BARRY: I ask this question of every interviewee. If you had one million dollars that you could spend any way you wanted to improve the arts & culture sector, how would you spend it (different from the Arts In Crisis program, as that program is already up and running)?
MICHAEL: I would select ten amazing young, small arts organizations and give them each $100,000 to plan and produce a life-changing set of programs.
Thank you very much Michael.
Have a good week.