Kennedy Center leader speaks on being creative to market arts


POSTED: Sunday, December 20, 2009

Fight or flight: Which response do we act upon when we encounter fear and threat? Michael M. Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, says the answer is not only to fight, but to fight boldly and with innovation.

Kaiser is on a national tour, titled “;Arts in Crisis: A Kennedy Center Initiative,”; to discuss solutions to challenges posed to the arts in light of the troubled economy. The tour promotes a free program that offers assistance to nonprofit arts organizations. (Visit http://www.artsincrisis.org.)

Kaiser talked for about 90 minutes with Hawaii Public Radio reporter Noe Tanigawa Wednesday before an audience at the Mission Memorial Auditorium. Kaiser shared anecdotes from his lauded 24-year arts management career to illustrate a 10-point plan that can transform an ailing arts organization into a vibrant one.

“;Take every penny you have and spend it on great art, and market that art,”; said Kaiser. “;Build a contribution base from that, then redirect funds to more good art and good marketing.”;

His advice offered a fresh perspective as government and corporate funding sources dry up, leading to a typical response of program and staff cuts.

“;You can't save your way to health,”; he said. “;Most of the time, there's a revenue problem, not a spending problem. When arts organizations make cuts, they usually get sicker.

“;Cuts have been the first resort, but they should be the last. When you cut programs, you almost guarantee less ticket revenue and less donations—and you gradually become less relevant to your community.”;

Instead, do the opposite. Generate excitement, Kaiser said. It will open access to what he believes is the future of funding for the arts: individual donations.

“;I love announcing a new season. I love surprising people,”; he said. “;You're far more likely to get them engaged if they're excited. It's important to do the tried and true, but you must also do the unexpected. It engages new communities.”;

But excitement should extend beyond programming to the institution itself. Kaiser calls this “;institutional marketing,”; ongoing marketing of the whole organization rather than just individual projects.

The key to generating all that buzz? Planning—way ahead. While most plan a year or two in advance, he recommends three to five years.

“;There's no cost to planning, and not only can you make a big project, but it can be the best it can be. This is how you can make a name for yourself. Planning increases the odds of success. It also increases the size of gifts.

“;Planning allows you to compete harder, not less hard,”; he said. “;It makes you look exciting.”;

EVER PRODUCTIVE, Kaiser said he was moved to organize the “;Arts in Crisis”; tour because he wanted his work to reflect Kennedy Center's role as a national cultural center. He heads out next to Maui, stop 36 on the 70-city tour he began in February.

His words of wisdom come after an economics degree from Brandeis University, two decades' experience and 18 years as an educator.

“;Teaching forces you to codify things,”; he said.

Kaiser started out with aspirations to become an opera singer, but “;I was just awful,”; he said.

But his love of the arts never waned, and after 10 years of management in the for-profit world, he took on his first job in the arts at the Kansas City Ballet. From there he went on to work with Alvin Ailey, the American Ballet Theatre, Royal Opera House in London and, for the past nine years, the Kennedy Center.

All that vast experience shows, said Donald Womack, a composer and professor of music composition and theory at the University of Hawaii-Manoa. Womack attended the talk “;to get ideas of how to educate the public with regard to art.”;

“;I thought he was fantastic: enlightening, encouraging and inspirational,”; he said. “;It's a message we really need to hear. I tell my students it's not enough to be good musically. We must convey why what we do is important.”;

Kaiser spoke extensively on behalf of systematic arts education.

“;The problem is it's so episodic. It's up to the teacher to decide if he or she will bring to the class what's offered. No other subject is taught that way,”; he said.

Kaiser explained that students generally engage in art until age 15, when other interests take over.

“;From 15 to 45 they leave the arts because they're busy growing up, working and raising families. Then they come back after that, when they have more discretionary time and money, as our donors, board members and audience.

“;But with this gap in arts education, we have a generation of kids who don't have art in school, so when they turn 45, who will we have for our board members, etc.?”;

The issue doesn't end there.

“;Look at the economy of the United States. We live in a creative economy, and we need a different education for young people if we're to have creative thinkers,”; Kaiser said. “;We can have a real educational role that can intersect with the economy of the country. If we do, the entire sector will look more vibrant.”;