Michael Kaiser: Exit Interview, part 1


Michael Kaiser on the State of the Arts in America and Abroad


The outgoing president of the John F. Kennedy Center talks candidly about the state of the field, funding, American dance abroad, challenges and perceptions, his love of baseball and baking, and taking ballet class. You can find Part 2 here.

Michael M. Kaiser has served as president of the Kennedy Center since January 2001. He steps down at the end of August. During his tenure he has expanded the educational and artistic programming for the nation’s center for the performing arts, has overseen a major renovation effort of most of the center’s theaters and has led the country in arts management training.

During his tenure the Kennedy Center produced an unprecedented celebration of the works of Stephen Sondheim and major festivals of the arts of China, Japan, India, the Nordic countries, and the 22 countries in the Arab World. He forged long-term relationships with the Bolshoi Ballet, the Mariinsky Ballet and Opera, New York City Ballet and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater; programmed festivals of gospel, country, a cappella music and street arts; and presented major revival productions of
Ragtime and Follies, both which transferred to Broadway.

In 2001, Kaiser created the Kennedy Center Arts Management Institute, renamed the DeVos Institute of Arts Management in May 2010 following a $22.5 million commitment from Dick and Betsy DeVos, to provide advanced training for arts administrators at varying stages of development. Since its inception, the DeVos Institute has advised thousands of individuals, organizations, governments, and foundations throughout the United States and in more than 80 countries on six continents. The institute’s programs include capacity building programs, which have served hundreds of organizations in cities across the United States; regional and national initiatives, which focus on board development; fellowships for both American and foreign arts leaders, as well as internships and other personalized training tailored to a variety of arts organizations around the world. He created artsmanager.org, a website that provides resources to arts managers around the world.
In February 2009, he created Arts in Crisis: A Kennedy Center Initiative, a program which provided free arts management consulting to non-profit performing arts organizations around the United States. Then Kaiser embarked on a national tour for the Arts in Crisis initiative, leading arts management symposia in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia through July 2010.

Known throughout the arts management field as “the turnaround king,” Kaiser previously served as executive director of the Royal Opera House, the largest performing arts organization in the United Kingdom. During his tenure with the Royal Opera House, that organization erased its historic accumulated deficit, completed a £214 million redevelopment of the facility, created an endowment fund, and greatly increased its level of support from the private and public sectors.

Prior to joining the ROH, Kaiser was executive director of American Ballet Theatre, where during his three-year tenure he erased the entire historic accumulated deficit, created a second company, greatly expanded national and international touring activity, substantially increased both contributed and earned income, and built an acclaimed series of education programs.

Kaiser has also served as executive director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Foundation, the world’s largest modern dance organization. During his tenure, the Ailey Company erased its accumulated deficit, expanded its school, and increased all forms of revenue. In his first arts job, as general manager of the Kansas City Ballet, he also erased the company’s deficit.

Before entering the arts management field, Kaiser was a management consultant in the corporate sector. In 1985, he sold the consulting firm he founded, Kaiser Associates, which specialized in helping large corporations formulate strategic plans. Among his clients were General Motors, IBM, Corning Glass Works and 50 other major corporations. Kaiser Associates remains a major participant in the strategy-consulting field.

Kaiser has served as a research economist for Nobel Prize-winning economist, Wassily Leontief, and is the author of seven books:
The Cycle: A Practical Approach to Managing Arts Organizations (2013); Conversation Starters: Arts Management Topics for Today (2011); Leading Roles: 50 Questions Every Arts Board Should Ask (2010); The Art of the Turnaround (2008); Strategic Planning in the Arts: A Practical Guide (1995); Developing Industry Strategies: A Practical Guide of Industry Analysis (1983); and Understanding the Competition: A Practical Guide of Competitive Analysis (1981). He has written a weekly column for The Huffington Post since 2009.

Kaiser received his master’s degree in management from M.I.T.’s Sloan School of Management and his bachelor’s degree in economics magna cum laude, from Brandeis University. He received the Dance Magazine Award in 2001, Capezio Award in 2002, Helen Hayes Washington Post Award for Innovative Leadership in the Theater Community in 2003, the St. Petersburg 300 Medal in 2004, Washingtonian of the Year in 2004, a U.S. Department of State Citation in 2005, the Blacks in Dance Award in 2005, and was the first American to receive China’s “Award for Cultural Exchange” in 2005. He was awarded The Order of the Mexican Eagle in 2006 and was named Impresario of the Year in 2006 by Musical America. In 2009, Kaiser received the George Peabody Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Music in America and the Kahlil Gibran “Spirit of Humanity” Award from the Arab American Institute Foundation. In March 2011, Georgetown University conferred him with the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters,
honoris causa.

This fall Kaiser brings the DeVos Institute of Arts Management to University of Maryland joining the College of Arts and Humanities’ Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, a leading national arts incubator. 


Dance/USA: Many arts organizations have a relatively late start, but I hear you’re an early bird.
Michael Kaiser: I’m here at 6:30 every morning. I get up at 4:00 a.m. I run five miles and then I walk to work.
D/USA: You put us all to shame.
MK: But I’m in the wrong profession because I like to go to bed early.
D/USA: You started your arts career at Kansas City Ballet, but you were trained as a singer. Tell us what kept you in dance for so many years?
MK: I was trained as a singer. It was happenstance that kept me in dance for so many years. When I was leaving my consulting practice, my corporate practice, and deciding I wanted to be an arts manager and looking for a job, I thought I’d get a job at an opera company. Opera companies tend to be larger than dance companies [but] I had no relevant experience as perceived by the field and no opera company wanted to hire me. There weren’t many [arts] jobs back then. I had a client in Kansas City and I told him I was leaving and why. And he said, ‘We have this bankrupt ballet company and we’re looking for a new executive director. Would you be interested? I said, ‘Sure.’

So I just fell into it. I worked at the Morgan Library for a couple of years in New York, then I did a consulting project with the Jewish Museum in New York and one of their board members was with the board of Ailey, then I got to Ailey. I was doing consulting work a few years later and one of their clients was ABT …

D/USA: … so it just happened.
M.K.: I did not plan to be in dance. It just happened. Now I love it. I knew nothing about it I did not plan to be in dance. It just happened. Now I love it. I knew nothing about it ... I took ballet class because I wanted to feel it. It was really good until we got to chaine turns. I kept going into the wall.when I got to Kansas City. Todd Bolender, who was my artistic director, was a great teacher and Una Kai, our ballet mistress, was as well. She had been a ballet mistress for Balanchine and Robert Joffrey. Diana Adams was the head of our school and was one of the great ballerinas. I had this amazing triumvirate of people who took me under their wings and taught me a lot. I really had to learn from nothing. I took ballet class because I wanted to feel it. I was really good until we got to chaine turns. I kept going into the wall. I couldn’t spot. I couldn’t go in a straight line. I would just curve and bang into the walls. That’s when I stopped. I did it because I really wanted to feel what it was like. It’s just so hard.

D/USA: Would you recommend that arts managers do things like that: take singing lessons, try acting, painting …
M.K.: As long as you really recognize that you’re doing it as an avocation and not because you want to do it in place of someone. It’s to get a sense of what it feels like. Similarly, when I was with Ailey, I would go with the crew out on the road for a week at a time a couple of times a year. Again, particularly with Ailey, which does a lot of one night stands, that was really tough work. To get a feel for that was really important. I do think it’s perfectly fine to manage people when you don’t know how to do their work, but it’s better when you have a feeling for the challenges they face. I think one can be more understanding. 

D/USA: What keeps you going every morning?
M.K.: A combination of really believing it the product and really being afraid of failure. A little bit of each. I’m addicted to challenge. That’s why I did so many turn-arounds and why I work mostly with organizations facing substantial challenges. I’m not a nester; I’m not someone who just goes somewhere and wants to sit there forever.  I’m not someone who enjoys repetition. But I like challenges and problem solving. That’s something I find very rewarding.

D/USA: You mentioned that you’re afraid of failure, but sometimes we have to fail in order to move forward.
M.K.: You have to fail artistically. I don’t mean I’m afraid of artistic failure. I’m afraid of failing my organization. But you have to be willing to take a risk. It’s something you learn all the time: how to balance that fear of failure with the need to fail or the need to take risk. It’s funny, I’ve always told people that I’m risk averse and they laugh because I’ve taken over these very challenging organizations. But somehow the both go together for me.
D/USA: Is there an anecdote you can share about a failure that revealed something to you?
M.K.: Goodness. There’ve been so many. I’m trying to think of more than just a project that wasn’t great, because there are many of those. I once made a commitment to someone to stay in an organization longer than I should have, but I felt my job was done and I felt that it would be best for the institution to bring someone new in. I left that person in the lurch.
D/USA: That was a very personal failure. In thinking about our audience – dance managers, artistic directors, administrators – what would you tell them about working through failure and facing challenges that you can’t meet or succeed in?
M.K.: I think the key is to really try to place the risk where it belongs, which is in the art making. Then you have to plan so well and work so hard in everything that supports the art making so that you minimize that risk [outside the rehearsal studio] and allow the organization to take risks when it comes to art making. You really have to plan your budgets and your seasons and you really want to do your marketing well and aggressively. You really want to do your fundraising well and aggressively; you really want to work hard to build your strong boards. You really want to do everything you can well [offstage] so that you’re in the position to say, “Yes, let’s put this on the stage and we have no idea how it’s going to work [artistically]. I do the same thing with artists. I really believe that it’s very important for artists to feel so comfortable off stage so they can take their really big risks on stage. That means the dressing rooms have to be clean and the people backstage have to be nice and the paychecks have to arrive on time.

When we did [Sondheim's] Follies and we had all of these women in the musical who were not spring chickens so we set up a whole room with lounge chairs backstage so they could relax and feel good. You want your artists to feel they’re so okay offstage that they don’t have to worry so they can take their risks on stage. Same thing goes for organizations. I believe it’s critical to make everything so strong offstage so you can take an artistic risk. That means we can do a Side Show this season and not know it’s good, but hope it’s good and not know whether it will be good until it’s on the stage and we’ll still survive.

To read part 2 of this interview with Michael Kaiser in From the Green Room, click here.

Photo: Ilan Mizrahi, courtesy the Kennedy Center


Lisa Traiger edits From the Green Room, Dance/USA’s eJournal, and is an award-winning independent arts journalist. Her reviews and articles have appeared in The Washington Post, Dance magazine, Dance Teacher, Pointe, The Forward, Washington Jewish Week, DanceView and numerous other publications. She teaches dance appreciation at Montgomery College in Maryland and is a former president of Dance Critics Association.

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