The best way for a struggling arts organization to revitalize itself is not by cutting programs, according to the president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., but instead to focus on offering unique and innovative art because donors will choose to fund organizations that are vital and offering more to the community.
Michael M. Kaiser, as part of “Arts in Crisis: A Kennedy Center Initiative,” spoke to a gathering at the Capitol Center for the Arts on June 24. Known as “The Turnaround King,” Keiser has a reputation of taking arts organizations, from the Kansas City Ballet to the Royal Opera House in London, on the verge of bankruptcy and turning them into thriving operations.
To do this, Kaiser does not rely on the patronage of large foundations but instead believes that individual donors, which provide 60 percent of arts funding, are the savior of arts.
“I don’t believe there is one country or city where you can’t raise funding,” Kaiser said. “No one city or state is immune [to] fundraising but you have to get people excited.”
That is why Kaiser recommends a two-pronged promotional strategy. The first is program marketing, which gets people to buy tickets. He said the easiest way to do this is by offering programs that are new. Kaiser said arts organizations should lead the public, not follow it. They shouldn’t focus so much on giving people what they want but instead offer things that are illuminating. This takes imagination, which Kaiser said has been beaten out of many because of worries about money. But he said if leaders in arts organizations are able to carve out a few hours every week to plan four or five years down the road, it will give them time to plan some special events.
If those involved, especially the board members, are excited about the programs it will be easier to get people excited about the organization. Organizational marketing is something Kaiser said can be inexpensive and have a huge impact on creating a positive cycle. Kaiser said many board members fail to involve their friends, family and colleagues, which wastes a valuable resource.
Kaiser said when times are tough — and he would know because when he began at the Royal Opera House it had a $30 million deficit — it is important for the arts organization to have one voice that delivers the best message. Kaiser said occasionally if an arts organization says it is about to go bankrupt it will get an emergency donation but those are few and far between and carry a huge cost.
“If things are bad you don’t have to lie,” Kaiser said. “But point out the positives.”
A positive for many arts organizations is joint ventures, which Kaiser said if used properly can have real power. Of course, these sorts of collaborations need to be made by competent arts managers, and Kaiser said there has been a real failure to educate these types of people. He said billions of dollars are spent training artists but much less on training the managers. If an orchestra is failing, the great oboe player won’t be heard. This is why Kaiser started the Kennedy Center Arts Management Institute to equip artists and lovers of art with the skills to thrive in any economy.
“We are no longer a manufacturing nation,” Kaiser said. “We need to educate kids to become problem-solvers and independent thinkers. The arts is a good place to start.”
With such a reputation, Kaiser has spoken all over the world. But he said most countries look to America for advice on how to independently raise funds — because America was founded by Puritans there has been a separation of art and state, Kaiser joked. In other countries the government funds the arts. Now that many of those governments are cutting back, other countries are looking toward America to learn how to fill the gap.
He said arts like symphonies and operas are in particular danger because, whereas a theater can do a smaller show, if there are 80 members of an orchestra there are 80 members of an orchestra.
“In the arts we don’t increase worker productivity very well,” Kaiser said. “There are the same number of people in Hamlet as there were when Shakespeare wrote it.”
Yet, when a 1,300-seat theater is built there will be 1,300 seats next year and the year after, so there is a fixed potential there. To fill this gap between rising costs and fixed earning potential, many organizations raise ticket prices, which squeezes a lot of people out.
And there are a lot of people who want to see good art. Kaiser said more tickets are sold each year to art events than to sporting events.
“Seventy percent of tourists in America come to observe culture,” Kaiser said. “That is a big economic sector.”
Now all arts organizations need to do is figure the best ways to capitalize on that.