Michael Kaiser on Funding, Advice to the field, and more
The outgoing president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts talks candidly about the state of the field, funding, American dance abroad, challenges and perceptions, his love of baseball and baking, and taking ballet classes. To read Part 1, start here.
D/USA: You’ve had an opportunity in recent years to travel all over the world and take the temperature of the dance field abroad. Where do you see the state of American dance?
Michael Kaiser: It’s scary. But the arts are scary right now, not just dance. Let me talk generally for a moment. We know it’s a hard time for the arts right now. We’ve built up these huge organizations that depend on huge contributions from a lot of people and those people are getting older. And it’s not clear that their children are as interested in funding the arts as their parents were for a number of reasons. That’s a very big sea change that we’re starting to experience. We’re feeling it here are the Kennedy Center, and I know others are feeling it and it’s only going to grow over the next ten years.
We have so many new forms of entertainment, we have so much online that’s available to people, while the costs of our tickets in the performing arts have gone up so fast. So much of these new forms of entertainment are free or virtually free.
There’s a lot going on right now that makes it a very challenging time for the arts. I’m still an optimist. I believe that arts organizations that are doing interesting work can master this environment. But it’s a challenge.
And then we get to dance. I’ll break dance into ballet and contemporary dance. Ballet has challenges because it’s an expensive art form. Yet we have not been able to attract the audience sizes of, let’s say, opera, with the same ability to pay for tickets, so our ballet ticket prices are much lower but our costs remain very high in ballet. We’re seeing so many ballet companies around the country really struggling financially. Then there’s In ballet the question is where are the new works and who are the great choreographers? I see a lot of wonderful new choreography ... but companies do so much less new work because costs are so much higher.the question in ballet of where are the new works and who are the great choreographers? I see a lot of wonderful new choreography. But I think that there’s one factor and I’ve been looking at it for 20 years and I don’t think there’s been much discussion. Back in the heyday of the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, Mr. Balanchine would create four, five, six, seven works a year. Alvin Ailey would do five works a year. Not all of them were masterpieces. “Pan Am Makes the Going Great” is not going to be in the pantheon of the great works of Balanchine. He’s a genius and he created works of genius, but not every work was equally good and he created so many so that he could develop and build and learn. Now choreographers are lucky to do two works a year. And companies do so much less new work because costs are so much higher and because the ticket prices are so much higher the whole cost structure is so much greater and that diminishes the ability to take artistic risk. So it’s not so surprising to me that we have a harder time uncovering the next masterworks. But there are some … Mark Morris’s L’Allegro [il Penseroso ed il Moderato], in my mind, is one of the most important works of my life. I never had anything to do with it except to be an audience member. We presented it here [at the Kennedy Center]. I just think it’s a work of genius. So moving and inspiring and it’s a great masterwork. But how many works does Mark Morris create in a year? I think that’s one of the issues we face in the field.
Contemporary dance scares me more to be honest. As challenged as ballet companies are to afford orchestras, to afford the size, in contemporary dance – and I get in trouble when I say this, but I do feel it – we established in the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, a chunk of organizations that became quite sizeable – Paul Taylor, Merce Cunningham, Alvin Ailey, Graham – and because contemporary dance in many cases, not the Ailey case, was [made by] single choreographer companies, when the choreographer retires or passes away this creates an existential issue for these organizations. That’s completely understandable. What’s interesting to me is that no companies have risen to take their place in terms of size, except for Mark Morris. And Mark’s not so young either. I think he turns 60 next year. And he had a jumpstart in Europe [where he made some of his largest works, like L’Allegro].
But I wouldn’t call him a kid. There are great companies out there. I love Stephen Petronio; I think he’s a genius. But his company is not of a size of, say, the Paul Taylor company. That scares me and younger people criticize me when I write about this, but I’m not saying there aren’t great choreographers. What I’m concerned about is the ability of the field to attract resources for these choreographers. These bigger companies brought a visibility to the art form that brought press attention, that brought money, that brought all kinds of interest that helped the whole field to develop. I worry that we don’t have the generator of those resources right now.
Also, I find that a lot of younger people want to work in a different model. It’s a model of benefits and liabilities and that’s the project model versus the company model. The project model is great in the flexibility you have: Today I’m creating a piece with this lighting designer, or I’m going to do it in a museum or I want to have a spoken word artist. The project model enables artists to put together an amalgam of people they want to work with. And that’s fantastic. Only positive. The problem is that projects don’t create families of donors and audience members. So if every time you create a new project you have to build a new family it means you’re never going to build that large funding base that the Taylor company has, the Ailey company has. It’s not at the artistic standpoint that I think there’s a problem; it’s from a financial standpoint and a support standpoint that I worry that if everyone is always working on projects, then breaking apart, rethinking and coming together in a different configuration, they don’t have the benefit one has as a dance company of building this ongoing family that gets more and more engaged and larger and larger and gets you more and more resources to do the work you want to do.
This is of real concern to me in the dance field. I am worried that we’re in a difficult macro arts environment and that dance companies are facing substantial challenges. I worry about the funding gradually diminishing for the dance field and I find that very sad.
D/USA: I wonder if so many younger choreographers are choosing the project method because of this lack of funding?
M.K.: That’s right. It’s a chicken or egg. Then we have one other issue. I just wrote a book that will come out in January about where I think the arts world will be in 20 years. One of my big concerns has to do with movie theater opera and ballet, which I believe will eventually come to your home and not a movie theater on demand. When you’re sitting at home and you have a choice to watch a great performance by the Bolshoi Ballet for $20 or spend $80 to see your local ballet company, I worry that more and more people are going to choose the former and not the latter. I worry – not that anyone broadcasting opera or ballet is wrong for doing so – but I worry that it may have an unintended impact on the way arts get distributed and that is going to affect audience patterns fairly substantially. More and more in the future since the generation now that is 18, 20 years old is used to getting their entertainment online, when it’s convenient and at low cost. You and I grew up thinking that watching something on a screen was not as good as watching something in person. Correct?
M.K.: But there’s a generation gap and that’s not the same standard for which quality is judged. So if you’re, say, 60, and tell me, “You can see L’allegro live or you can see it on your screen,” you know what I’m picking in a heartbeat. It’s not clear the younger generation feels the same way.
D/USA: I have a 21-year-old and he could spend all day watching a screen. And my 21-year-old is a huge classical music fan and a ticket buyer, but he will also watch 16 different versions of a concerto online. For him each experience is equal.
M.K.: Right. So what does that do to a mid-sized ballet company in a mid-sized city? Your son will he watch that company for $80 or the Bolshoi on screen for $20? It’s not clear. And I believe increasingly that that’s going to be a bigger and bigger challenge. And dance is a regional art form – well every art form is regional – so this scares me a lot.
I see a lot of challenge going forward. And this means the pressure to do interesting, distinctive work is growing, not receding. The notion that we can get by [in the ballet world] by just doing Swan Lakes and Giselles is going to recede because a mid-sized regional company will be at its worst doing a Swan Lake against the Bolshoi’s version of Swan Lake or the Royal’s or whoever is your favorite, versus doing something that is innovative, special and unique to them. I think it’s going to be a hard decade or two ahead.
D/USA: If someone asked you, “What should the dance field be doing for the next five years” what would you say?
M.K.: Interesting work.
Keep doing interesting work. Exciting challenging projects. Try new things. Think not new to be new, and not challenging to be weird, but it has to come from your artistic aesthetic. Don’t think you can just every year cycle Copelia, Giselle, Swan Lake, Bayadere, Romeo and Juliet, and just cycle through those works and that’s going to maintain an audience’s interest if it’s not truly special.
D/USA: I’m going to ask you to speak from your presenters point of view now. You have had to navigate that demand at the Kennedy Center where we saw a Giselle every year, a Swan Lake every other year, and lots of aging classical repertory.
M.K.: We have a balance between full lengths and rep and full lengths do still sell better. Not every city, by the way, is that true, but it’s still true here. And how many full-lengths are there? And how many full-lengths sell. So as a presenter and as a producing dance company [with Suzanne Farrell Ballet], you have to balance your season with those things that are bigger risks and those things that are easier to sell to make sure you don’t end up bankrupt. So we would do our Ballet Across America and we would invite nine companies here all with repertory programs. We would do that every other year. Then we would have an ABT or Mariinsky do a Giselle or a Swan Lake or a Corsaire.
Views of American Dance Abroad
D/USA: With your wide range of international experience, tell us how the American dance field is viewed abroad.
M.K.: It’s gotten a little quieter. Certainly on the contemporary side we led the field, but I think we aren’t perceived as leading the way as much now that contemporary dance has risen around the world. I don’t want to say it was only America, but [the U.S.] certainly had the major choreographers, but those choreographers are either at the very end of their careers or gone.
When government funding was plentiful – it isn’t anymore – it encouraged a lot of experimentation because companies didn’t have to raise a lot of money or sell a lot of tickets. Therefore they could be very experimental and a lot of very interesting, new ideas came from Europe and other countries.
The ballet field right now to me is extremely homogenized. I am sure there are experts and many critics would disagree with what I have to say, but it’s pretty hard to tell one ballet company from another. There still is the Royal Ballet squareness, for example … but basically we have so much cross fertilization in dance: the Bolshoi is hiring Americans, the Mariinsky is hiring Americans. Except for maybe the Royal Danish, which still feels pure when it comes to performing Bournonville.
D/USA: It’s an issue of globalization.
M.K.: Yes. I’m not sure American ballet means that much right now … I think there are major companies. Sometimes companies are on the way up or on the way down, depending on the moment, on who their principals are and how their director is perceived. We see ballet go up and down, but I don’t think there is necessarily American ballet or French ballet or Russian ballet as there once was.
D/USA: And then there is the contemporary or modern world, which is evolving since we lost those meteoric 20th century dance figures.
M.K.: I think there is interesting contemporary dance happening in lots of countries, but I don’t think you can say America is viewed as the leader anymore. I think it was 20 years ago. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing, though. I’m not so sure that art has to be defined by national borders. I think there is interesting contemporary dance happening in lots of countries, but I don’t think you can say America is viewed as the leader anymore. I think it was 20 years ago. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing, though. I’m not so sure that art has to be defined by national borders, personally.
D/USA: Funding is the challenge both here and around the world for dance companies. Companies internationally are beginning to feel the same funding pressures that American companies have dealt with for years now.
M.K.: Government funding is going away so quickly and no one has really written enough on that subject: the impact on European culture of the governments cutting the arts funding, either in dribs and drabs or in big chunks, depending on the country. Funding is a huge issue and it’s a huge issue for every art form. But for dance it’s an especially important issue because dance has traditionally had the smallest audiences. So we were drawing from the smallest pool and we had some wonderful dance lovers, supporters and champions but they are getting older and they’re not being replaced. It’s a very hard time for arts funding in general, but it’s particularly hard for dance.
Advice to the Field
D/USA: So what advice would you give to the dance field in moving forward?
M.K.: Do interesting work. The notion that you’re going to attract people with conservative programming is just a myth. Do interesting work. The notion that you’re going to attract people with conservative programming is just a myth. Second, you have to learn to do your marketing well, brand your organization well. Pay attention to the way you present an image of your institution. Ironically, someone who did that really well was Trey McIntyre. Ironically, because he’s choosing not to do it anymore. But he did it really well for his organization: he created distinctive work and he marketed his company well.
D/USA: Regarding funding, but looking at organizations you have an affinity for, specifically culturally specific organizations and organizations of color, are there different avenues for funding and support? Should those groups be doing something different?
M.K.: There are absolutely different avenues for funding for culturally specific companies. In fact, the different venues for funding created challenges. Organizations of color – and this is true of theater, music and dance institutions – were typically funded initially by very large foundation grants and/or government grants. Those funders looked at the landscape and said, ‘I really want to see this sector built.’ The problem was there was no concomitant requirement that these culturally specific arts organizations start to build other sources of funding.
D/USA: So there was no challenge grant to up the endowment, for example, in those cases.
M.K.: No challenge grants, which is something I’m a big believer in. So what happened was wonderful organizations would get formed with one or two huge whopping grants. Then if you get $100,000 from a foundation or a $200,000 grant from a foundation, then you get a $50 gift from an individual, you end up thinking, ‘I’m not going to work that hard to make that $50.’ The problem is that 60 percent of the arts funding in the market comes from individual donors. For arts organizations of color it’s 6 percent. That’s the difference. Now you can also argue that some of the communities these organizations specifically serve don’t necessarily have the resources to make these mammoth appeals. But that’s a lame argument from my experience. There’s money all over. What happened was we got used to these few big funders. The government funding was already drying up, so if that was your source, good luck to you. Then the foundations have been looking harder and harder at whom they give money to. I find they are less and less interested in funding organizations of color. So we’re seeing these organizations really struggle. And my work in this field is really focusing on exactly one thing: and that’s to build the individual donor base, including Ailey.
When I got to Ailey, individual donors were 6 percent; today I’m guessing they’re 40 or 50 percent. A big chunk. I worked so hard at Alvin Ailey and I worked so hard to train others. We’ve got to strengthen the boards and do all the things that build membership and start to build sources of funds because there are many more people out there than there are foundations.
We need that base because if we lose one grantor, we’re not in trouble. It’s a very hard time right now for organizations of color. And frankly, I don’t think funders thought this through well enough. There’s something else that’s happened in the theater world, not so much in the dance world. White theater companies were encouraged by funders to diversify. All the big white theaters started doing Raisin in the Sun, the August Wilson plays … and they had beautiful sets and costumes. But the wellmeaningness didn’t necessarily translate into the arts ecology we’d all like to see. Now that’s a particular issue.
When we did the August Wilson cycle here [at the Kennedy Center], we did it with an organization of color. We wanted to do it with an organization of color where there was a sense of coming together.
D/USA: In talking about funding and all these challenges we’re facing, do we have in this country, particularly in the dance field, the administrative capacity to face these funding challenges?
M.K.: We have wonderful managers, some great people in the field, most of whom had to learn as I learned through trial and error. What we don’t have is enough of a support network to train arts managers. We spent billions of dollars training dancers, singers and choreographers. That’s why I do the work I do. That’s why I have the DeVos Institute [for arts administration] because we’re trying to do our little bit to help that, but we need to train and spend more time and energy and thought and money to train people to deal with this arts environment who can provide the financial support, the audiences, the boards, etc. that the artists require.
One of the problems of the project model and this mini-dance company model is that it’s left to the artists themselves all the administrative work and typically it’s not what they’re interested in or even have the expertise to do. There’s a tremendous learning curve. Thirty years ago, when I started in this business, it was such a young field. We tried stuff. Now we actually know some things. We need to help young artists to give them some support. I wish that artists didn’t have to do it themselves. I wish they would focus on their art.
D/USA: So what would you advise young people who aspire to arts management?
M.K.: There are a lot of masters programs and there is even a group of colleges with an undergraduate degree in arts management. I taught at NYU for a bunch of years. I’m creating my own arts management masters program over at the University of Maryland College Park.
I believe it needs to be practical. The real issue is that arts management education needs to move away from being an academic subject and more to being like medicine. You wouldn’t want a doctor to do an appendectomy who took a class in the history of appendectomies … you want a doctor who’s watched a lot of appendectomies, and participated in the surgery. It’s the same thing. I don’t want you running my ballet company because you read a lot of books about running a ballet company or you learned about the history of a ballet company. I want somebody who has actually been able to do it. I want people to get practical experience. The DeVos management program is going to be chock full of practical experiences, not just in an academic setting.
I begin September 2 in College Park. I’m taking Labor Day off.
D/USA: I know you’re a big baseball fan. When it was announced that you were leaving, I thought you were going to become commissioner of MLB.
M.K.: [smiling] I’m not in that league. I am in that league of fan. My team is the Yankees. I do like the Nationals and they’re in a different league, so I feel I can have duel allegiances.
D/USA: You’re also a cook and baker.
M.K.: I do like to cook, but I wouldn’t call myself a chef. I’m a baker. Cakes … and cookies mostly.
D/USA: Any final thoughts?
M.K.: I think it’s a great field. The wonderful thing about dance is how small a world it is and it’s by one degree of separation in most cases, which is truly lovely.
Photo: Ilan Mizrahi, courtesy 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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