Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Meet the arts' savior

Posted By on Tue, Jul 13, 2010 at 12:34 PM

Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser spoke this morning at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, addressing a half-full SaGaJi Theatre crowd composed mostly of local arts leaders and advocates.

The title of the lecture he's been touring all over the country is "Arts in Crisis: A Kennedy Center Initiative."

Here his is ladies and gentleman, the Turnaround King, Mr. Michael Kaiser, president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Here he is, ladies and gentlemen, the Turnaround King: Mr. Michael Kaiser, president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

If his advice to local arts organizations could be condensed into a single, key quote, it would probably be: "You don't make health by cutting back."

Fortunately for those in attendance, he elaborated in great detail. I took rough notes throughout the talk and will try to relate the fundamental points and some charming quotes below. Kaiser is clearly a practiced and gifted speaker, beyond an influential character capable of energizing communities. I overheard several attendees on my way out commenting on the quality of Kaiser's vision and the importance of today's lecture.

• Kaiser says that 70 percent of tourists to the U.S. identify themselves as cultural tourists, placing a great economic value on the arts.

• Pulling from his book, The Art of the Turnaround, he offered 10 fundamental rules. A handful:

- You must have a plan (not a wish)
-You can't save your way to health
- Extend your planning calendar, as transformative projects take time (Kaiser plans four to five years out)
- Embrace institutional versus program-based marketing (build a family and excite people)
- Have one spokesperson and keep a positive message (don't whine about financial troubles; instead, talk about your contributions to the community)

• Kaiser, answering a question from interviewer Elaine Mariner of Colorado Creative Industries, says he believes Colorado organizations "don't have the level of esteem they probably deserve — the art is better than the reputation." To fix that, he points to the importance of the aforementioned institutional marketing to build community around projects.

• A financial concern of arts organizations, says Kaiser, is that income and productivity are fixed ("we don't play Beethoven's Fifth Symphony faster or paint faster," he jokes), but run up against regular inflation. A mistake many companies make in struggling to fill that gap is to increase ticket prices, which then makes the arts unavailable to many — and in turn, irrelevant. Art must be accessible and welcoming. Again, he advises to grow your family to fill the gap. Look to the middle class (which he says provides 60 percent of arts funding nationally) beyond the wealthy.

• "Do interesting, exciting, really important work." Though not super-original advice, Kaiser says you have to take risks and be willing to fail sometimes. Build failure into your budget and have a contingency plan. Not wanting to be seen as a careless spender, Kaiser paused to emphasize his own thrift: "I squeeze every nickel until the buffalo poops."

• Addressing children and education specifically, Kaiser places great value on K-through-12 arts programming. He says, somewhat reassuringly, that most people who are properly exposed to the arts as children will return to the arts later in life, when time and discretionary income allow. The danger to future generations comes through trimming and cutting of arts programs. (Teachers can find resources here.)

• Don't get an "edifice complex." Don't rush to construct a building, as if that'll fix other woes. Taking resources away from programing at the wrong time can be devastating, if not lethal.

Kaiser has lectured and interviewed over a distance of 83,000 miles in the last four months. Colorado Springs was the 66th stop on his tour.
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Kaiser has lectured and interviewed over a distance of 83,000 miles in the last four months. Colorado Springs was the 66th stop on his tour.

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