Michael Kaiser On Building Healthy Arts Organizations

In addition to expanding educational and artistic programming as president of the Kennedy Center, Michael Kaiser has become a prominent leader in arts management. Here are some of the insights he shared at Chorus America's 2014 Conference.

This September, Kaiser and his DeVos Institute of Arts Management, which he created at the Kennedy Center, will move to the University of Maryland, where the program is expected to grow. At Chorus America’s June Conference in Washington DC, Kaiser offered some sage advice for increasing the vitality and viability of your chorus during a keynote conversation with Tom Hall. 

Surprise your audiences with interesting art.

For me the key thing for being a successful arts organization is to do interesting art. Sometimes we forget that, particularly during economically challenged periods when we tend to want to do less and be safer. But the truth is, these days when there are so many alternative forms of entertainment available, we need to be more interesting rather than less interesting. We need to do really exciting, interesting and important art. I think it is important for arts organizations to surprise their communities and not just do the same thing every single year, or change the programming by three percent.

Aggressively market your interesting art. 

I break marketing into two pieces. One is programmatic—our traditional arts marketing that gets people to come to our performances is the first. The second, which is even more important, is institutional marketing. That is the kind of marketing that gets people to say, “This chorus is so exciting, it is so much fun to be a part of, it is so much fun to support, that I want to be part of this organization.” If you’re really doing great art and great marketing, people want to join what I call “the family.”

Expand your chorus’s “family.”

Our arts organizations are families, but they go beyond the singers, the artistic staff, and the administration. I include in our family at the Kennedy Center our audiences, our donors, and our volunteers. It is a very big group of people who is our family. And when our art is strong and our marketing is strong, people want to be part of our family and those who are in our family really want to engage with us. If your family is large and growing and strong and engaged, they produce money. And when that money goes back into better programming that we market even more strongly, that family gets bigger and happier and even more engaged and we get more money. It is that cycle that to me characterizes healthy arts organizations. 

Don’t try to save your way to fiscal health.

When arts organizations hit challenges, the first two things I always see being cut are art and marketing. When you cut art and marketing, what you do is make it easier for your family members to look elsewhere, and believe me, there are lots of places to look these days. So we get less resources, less money, we do even less programming, we market less, and the family gets less engaged. It is a very sad vicious cycle that gets us sicker and sicker. 

The problem in most arts organizations is not that we are spendthrifts. I know in Hollywood movies, there are stories of people running around wasting money. But that is not who we are. We are one of the most efficient industries. We do so much with so little. Think how famous arts organizations have become with marketing budgets that are just a teeny, teeny fraction of major corporations. 

But by trying to just save [our way out of fiscal trouble], we are making the agony go on longer and longer. Think of the New York City Opera, a great artistic institution that hit a financial bump, and the solution was to do less opera. When it did less opera and left its home in Lincoln Center, it started to do less and less. And the less it did, the less people cared. And the less people care, the less money you’ve got. The family dissipated. There was no family left. By the time the opera closed, the only people who really cared were the artists within the organization. It was extremely sad to see.

Plan ahead to give yourself the time needed to create ambitious projects.

The longer you have to plan something the longer you have to find people who will support a project and the more likely you are to make an ambitious project happen. And when you do this, over time you will find more and more people supporting your work. 

One of my favorite projects that we did at the Kennedy Center was our “A Cappella Singing Solo” festival. So many arts have gotten homogenized across geographical boundaries. But that’s not true for the voice. When you listen to a South African a cappella chorus it sounds different from a British a cappella chorus or a Russian a cappella chorus. I wanted to show these regional differences. We brought choruses from about 20 different countries to Washington. It was risky and expensive, but it was about doing something bigger, with a bigger perspective. It took five years to put it together, but performances were sold out. We raised the money we needed. 

So think of something that goes beyond the standard. There is nothing wrong with the standard, but every year we need to do one or two things that are really different and special and this takes time. The kinds of projects that come to mind projects that cross boundaries like collaborations with museums where you are tying in choral music with the visual arts or online projects. Bring to your own community artists that others haven’t heard before and could benefit from. That could be very exciting.

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