Arts management guru Michael Kaiser says he’s sorry


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Arts management maven Michael Kaiser has used his ample résumé and his nine-year perch as president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to promote his ideas about how to keep the nonprofit arts solvent. A year ago, he launched the Kennedy Center’s ‘Arts in Crisis’ initiative, offering himself and his brain trust at the Washington, D.C., center as free consultants for arts organizations worried that the downturn could turn into a drownturn.

Kaiser blogs his ideas weekly on the Huffington Post -- and Tuesday’s missive is an eyebrow-raiser, headlined ‘Why My Peers Are Angry With Me.’


It seems that Kaiser’s fundamental rule -- a damn-the-torpedoes tack which holds that it’s suicidal to cut spending for programming and marketing, because that’s what brings in the crowds and the money and the donors in the first place -- isn’t going over all that well among fellow arts managers who’ve seen no alternative than to do just that.

‘One arts leader accused me publicly of living in a parallel universe. He was quite upset that his artistic director and his unionized artists threw my advice in his face when he felt he had to make programming cuts,’ Kaiser writes.

Kaiser doesn’t say it in his post, but the fact that the Kennedy Center typically rakes in more than $37 million a year in federal funding for operations and construction projects -- the Smithsonian Institution being the only other arts organization with a guaranteed mainline to federal millions -- and that Kaiser’s pay package came to $1.11 million in 2007-08, the most recent documented figure, might indeed set it and him apart. Kaiser came to the nation’s capital after burnishing his rep with a two-year turnaround of London’s Royal Opera House, where the government subsidies are similarly generous.

Kaiser declares himself ‘completely sympathetic with the current plight of my fellow arts managers,’ allows that ‘it is incredibly scary to go to work not certain if there will be enough money to make payroll’ and ends with an apology: ‘I am truly sorry that I have caused problems for my peers. My goal has been simply to make their lives easier by suggesting ways to increase revenue. It seems that I have failed.’

Just a modest proposal from Culture Monster, Mr. Kaiser, but since the annual Kennedy Center Honors telecast revolves around lifetime achievement awards to the Bruce Springsteens, Steven Spielbergs and Diana Rosses of the world who typically have a tangential relationship, at best, to the nonprofit arts, why not turn it into a fabulous telethon where famous entertainers spend a few hours pumping for pledges and talking up the arts -- with the proceeds going to the National Endowment for the Arts to redistribute nationwide via its grant programs?

We suspect that such a gesture might make your peers less mad at you.

-- Mike Boehm


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