When Michael Kaiser comes to town, it's a good news/bad news sort of thing. Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., is known as "the turnaround king'' for his work with troubled arts organizations, so he doesn't usually show up when things are going great. But the good news is that Kaiser has a savvy outsider's perspective and a wealth of ideas that may help an organization.
The Florida Orchestra brought Kaiser to the Tampa Bay area for two days in November, and he met with the orchestra's board, management and musicians. One morning in St. Petersburg, I sat in on a meeting he had with orchestra president Michael Pastreich and executives of other arts organizations, including Kent Lydecker, new director of the Museum of Fine Arts, and Paul Wilborn, executive director of the Palladium Theater.
The purpose of the meeting was rather vague, but Kaiser's main message came through loud and clear. No matter how bad the financial problems of an arts organization are, its primary focus must be on the art, not the money.
"Programming is always first,'' he told the group, drawing a chart on a blackboard. "There is no reason for an arts organization to exist unless it does important programming. Organizations get into trouble because the programming isn't interesting enough, or it got cut. Too many boards think their mission is to break even. It's not. The mission is to have imaginative, interesting programming.''
This, of course, is a relevant message for the orchestra, which had a deficit in the fiscal year that ended in June. Pastreich and the board responded by cutting the musicians' pay, among other measures intended to help balance the budget.
I'm not sure how useful Kaiser can be to the orchestra. The musicians were on a break during his brief visit, and he didn't hear the orchestra play, even in rehearsal. He didn't meet music director Stefan Sanderling. Still, the Kennedy Center president makes several points that are well worth keeping in mind as the organization seeks to revitalize itself.
• You cannot save your way to health. "Revenue is the problem with most arts organizations, not cost,'' Kaiser wrote in his 2008 book The Art of the Turnaround: Creating and Maintaining Healthy Arts Organizations. "Organizations focused simply on reducing costs will continue to get smaller and smaller and will never create the economic engine that is required for long-term stability and growth.''
• Big, visionary projects matter. Nobody gets excited about an arts organization's budget. What excites donors, the audience and the press are important new projects.
When Kaiser was at American Ballet Theatre, the company was virtually bankrupt, but a key turning point was its commissioning a new work based on Shakespeare's Othello.
"Othello was the largest project in the history of ABT,'' Kaiser wrote in his recently published Leading Roles: 50 Questions Every Arts Board Should Ask. "It was a seemingly foolhardy thing to do when we were in such bad financial shape; yet this project allowed us to announce an exciting new venture, exactly at a time that people thought we were going bankrupt and were afraid to contribute to the company.'' Two years later, ABT had eliminated its deficit.
• Excellence takes time. "Major artistic programs should be planned four or five years in advance,'' Kaiser wrote in Leading Roles, citing the Kennedy Center's 2009 festival of Arab art.
"It took five years to conceive of the festival, identify the best artists, write contracts, obtain visas and raise the substantial funds required; if there had been far less time to plan this project, it would not have been successful. Projects that are rushed usually look rushed.''
• Find partners. "I believe in projects that tie us together,'' Kaiser told the gathering of arts executives in St. Petersburg. "I'm always trying to find ideas that allow a group of community organizations to program across art forms.''
Exhibit A: the Shakespeare in Washington Festival, which the Kennedy Center put together with more than 60 arts organizations, from theater and dance companies to galleries, all presenting work by or inspired by Shakespeare.
• Have a list of projects for donors to choose from. "I always have five years of projects in my head,'' Kaiser said. "Nothing helps raising money more than presenting a menu of programming ideas to donors. People like to support projects. Too many arts administrators have only one project to sell. I never go to a prospect meeting with fewer than 10 projects in mind.''
• "There are a lot more people in this country who care more about education than they care about the arts,'' Kaiser replied to Pastreich, who said the orchestra is thinking about eliminating its educational concerts for bused-in fourth-graders next season, because the cost of doing them has become too much. There are also questions about how educationally effective such concerts are beyond simply exposing students to the sound of a symphony orchestra.
Because schools now include little arts education in their curricula, Kaiser worries about the "episodic'' nature of it. "In many schools, it is left to the individual teachers to decide whether children in their classes will have the benefit of arts offerings from local institutions,'' he wrote in Leading Roles. "If a third-grade teacher likes the arts, the students will get many arts experiences. If the fourth-grade teacher does not care about the arts, the students may get no exposure at all. No other subject is taught with such carelessness and inconsistency.''
'Ma Rainey' is next
Kaiser's talk of the paramount role of ambitious programming brought to mind American Stage's ongoing project to stage all 10 of August Wilson's plays over 10 seasons, continuing with Ma Rainey's Black Bottom Jan. 18 to Feb. 13. These productions — so far Gem of the Ocean, King Hedley II and Fences — have raised the company's artistic profile and done strong business.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom will be directed by Mark Clayton Southers, who was recently hired as artistic director for theater initiative at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in Pittsburgh. Southers, 48, a playwright and former steelworker, was mentored by Wilson. He'll have an excellent cast at American Stage that includes Sharon S. Scott, Brandii, Joe Parra, Kim Sullivan, Ron Bobb-Semple and Alan Bomar Jones.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at tampabay.com/blogs/critics.