Curtains? Not necessarily, says theater company consultant

Michael M. Kaiser. (MICHAEL TRAN / Getty Images)
Michael M. Kaiser. (MICHAEL TRAN / Getty Images)
Posted: August 30, 2014

When leaders of the Pennsylvania Ballet grew weary of a seemingly endless loop of financial strain, they turned to Michael M. Kaiser. With unpaid vendors knocking on the Philadelphia Theatre Company's door and its chances of surviving increasingly in doubt, it was Kaiser who was tapped to gauge how bad the crisis was, why it existed, and what could be done.

From his perch in Washington, Kaiser, 60, has become an unseen hand in the Philadelphia arts realm, consulting with PTC and the ballet, the Mural Arts Program, Philadanco, and the Asian Arts Initiative.

Kaiser expanded his stable of clients while also being president of the Kennedy Center, a job he gives up this week after nearly 14 years. Next week, he will move the DeVos Institute of Arts Management, which he started at the Kennedy Center, to the University of Maryland, while expanding an enterprise that has become both sage adviser to arts groups internationally and, increasingly, an educational think tank for a sector in crisis.

Crisis is what has made Philadelphia attractive to Kaiser. The city, he says, "has some great art-making, but you still have to pay for it. It's created arts organizations that are challenged. . . . There have been financial challenges everywhere, but there have been more deep financial challenges to the arts in Philadelphia, over a broader range of organizations, than in most American cities."

If any leaders hoped Kaiser would recommend that arts groups trim their sails to fit the perceived amount of money available, they might have been disappointed. Cutting budgets in a crisis is a common mistake, he believes, creating a downward spiral, yet it is a common impulse.

"The first thing they cut is artistic initiatives, and the second is marketing, and those are the things that create interest and let people know about what's interesting," he says.

His reports for the ballet and PTC recommended more: more fund-raising, more ambitious artistic offerings, boards reinvigorated with new members and higher expectations of donations, and more effective marketing. His work for the ballet has ended, and though he consulted on the search that produced artistic director Ángel Corella, Kaiser did not recommend the recent dismissal of key artistic personnel.

Kaiser comes to his philosophies after a lifetime of straddling the arts and business. Born in New York City - his father was a New York Philharmonic violinist - and raised in New Rochelle, N.Y., he had hoped to be an opera singer, but a self-diagnosed lack of talent in performance led to an undergraduate degree in economics and a minor in music from Brandeis University, and a master's in management from the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He married John Roberts, an economist, a year ago in a ceremony officiated by his friend Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court justice.

Kaiser became something of an arts management star - if there is such a creature - three decades ago by bringing the Kansas City Ballet back from bankruptcy in 1985, then similarly shepherding from troubled to successful the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, American Ballet Theatre, and the Royal Opera House in London. He became known as the sector's turnaround artist - not by cutting costs, but by building a greater capacity for fund-raising on a crest of artistic excitement.

That reputation as a turnaround artist is well-earned, says David B. Devan, general director and president of Opera Philadelphia. "If things aren't working, making what's not working smaller isn't the right answer," says Devan, for whom Kaiser has not consulted. "Fixing it is the right answer, and usually, fixing it needs some kind of investment. Michael was one of the first to articulate that cuts are not the right thing to do."

At the same time, Devan says, "I've never heard him speak about lofty ideas without having some sort of business plan behind it."

At the Mann Center, where Kaiser consulted five years ago on a pro bono basis, president Catherine M. Cahill found his advice to be on the money. "He certainly has had an impact in the field," she says, "and there aren't too many out there like him in terms of his depth of concepts about running arts organizations and where he's been."

He is working on a book about where the arts will be in 20 years, Curtains? The Future of the Arts in America - whose content is more optimistic than the title, he assures - and he sees several trends ahead.

"We are at the beginning of a major change in the way people receive their arts, and I believe online will become the source and a major competitor to live arts," he says. "And it appears to me that we will see a bifurcation of arts organizations, with the large ones, who will make revenue based on selling performances online, and local organizations who service the community. I am very nervous about the midsize regional organization, whose ticket prices are so high that they are not going to be able to compete, yet [are] so large they can't be a community organization."

PTC and the Pennsylvania Ballet fall into that category, he says. "Many companies fall into that category, and the challenge is to be truly distinctive and exciting."

That happens, he says, with what's on stage or in the galleries.

"You have to allow your artists to be creative," he says. "Too many organizations have to plan art according to what the budget is, as opposed to thinking about what they want to do artistically and then figuring out how the budget can be paid for."

That less-ambitious approach has beset Philadelphia in recent years, with the national economy collapsing just as the city was nearing the end of a building boom in the arts sector. Kaiser is full of praise for the quality of arts and culture here, but adds that the city is unusual in several respects.

"Philanthropy is different," he says. "It is unlike much of the country in that it has been very much foundation-driven and less individual-driven. It's an arts environment that was used to getting relatively large grants from foundations, not all of which still fund the arts, and the building of that individual donor base was not pursued as aggressively as it was in other cities."

Moreover, many of the city's largest gifts - which have often brought naming rights for their donors - were not as large as they might have been. "If you look at the larger gifts across your larger institutions, that larger size is smaller than gifts to the same-size organizations in other cities." This sets the bar low for future naming opportunities.

And so, as the city's museums, orchestras, and dance troupes are producing at a very high level, they are doing so under financial strain.

"If you look at the 10 largest organizations in Philadelphia and put their budget sizes against those of the other nine largest cities, one sees that the budget sizes in Philadelphia are smaller," Kaiser says.

Endowments are smaller, too: "There is a tremendous history of art-making in Philadelphia, and now we have to build a stronger philanthropic base, particularly from individual donors."

Projecting excitement, whether among donors or ticket-buyers, means something different to everyone, he says. It could be allowing patrons to learn in more intimate ways about the art form, or building a social life around the organization.

"What people are not looking for are what arts organizations like to give to reward people, which is hats, umbrellas, and mugs," he says. "It's experiences. I really focus on the experience you can't buy, like coming to a dress rehearsal. For me that's not a big deal, because I do it all the time. But for some people, it is life-changing."


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