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A Helping Hand for the Arts

artwork With no government bailout in sight, “turnaround king” Michael Kaiser, SF’77, is determined to preserve arts organizations throughout the country, and all they have to do is ask.

If there is an art to the salvation of troubled organizations on the brink of bankruptcy, Michael Kaiser, SF’77, has truly become a master.

A former management consultant in Washington, DC, Kaiser’s love of the arts began as a child, and while early wishes for a music career didn’t pan out, a career in arts administration later did — at the Kansas City Ballet, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the American Ballet Theatre, and London’s Royal Opera House — all of which faced closure until he arrived and brought them back to solvency.

Today, as president of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts since 2001 and author of The Art of the Turnaround: Creating and Maintaining Healthy Arts Organizations, Kaiser has shared his success stories with the world, pinpointing his 10 “basic rules for bringing financially distressed organizations back to life and keeping them strong.”

In February, with some media reports suggesting that up to 10,000 arts organizations could close in 2009 as a result of the ongoing financial crisis, Kaiser launched “Arts in Crisis: A Kennedy Center Initiative” to help fellow arts organizations persevere the economic storm. In the first three and a half weeks of its launch, no less than 250 arts organizations contacted the Kennedy Center for its pro bono help, which is personally provided by Kaiser, his management staff, as well as more than 100 qualified volunteers with arts administration backgrounds.

“One of the key things is to understand what makes an organization successful, and in the arts it is exciting programming and the marketing of that programming,” says Kaiser. “But in arts organizations, when they need to cut their budgets, they cut the most discretionary things, including the programming and marketing. The problem is that arts organizations get revenue because of the quality of the work and the marketing of that work, so when you cut those two things you guarantee the loss of some of that revenue.

“What gets people excited is our excitement over the work and the future,” says Kaiser. “We’re announcing our season for the Kennedy Center next year, which is every bit as large and expensive as this year, but I am cutting other things,” including coffee, staff travel, and “back-office activities that are lively, wonderful, and important, but don’t yield revenue.”

Not unlike his corporate counterparts, Kaiser is also a big believer in the crafting and communication of a plan with a focus on the generation of revenue, often built four to five years into the future.

“For my standpoint, I have to remember why people engage in an arts organization. They’re looking for entertainment, for solace. We don’t want to share our problems with them, so it requires the discipline to cry in private,” says Kaiser. “All I can do is share our planning, and I’m a big believer in planning as a morale booster. When people start thinking about the future … it engenders hope.”