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The Kennedy Center's Turnaround Artist
Comments () | Published November 9, 2011

Since the US economy hit the skids in 2008, Kaiser has traveled to 69 American cities, at least one in each state, as part of an Arts in Crisis tour. On his 83,000-mile trek, he told 11,000 arts leaders that the worst thing they could do in a recession was to cut back on performances and promotion.

High-flying ministrations to the arts worldwide are a neat trick for a guy whose own most memorable public performance might have been about a half century ago when he dropped King Esther’s crown during a Purim play in suburban New York. Kaiser took steps toward an operatic career but stopped training as a baritone while still in his teens. He says he hasn’t sung in years.

Now Kaiser is most mellifluous with potential contributors. He charms millions from donors by matching their passion for, or whipping up an interest in, one of his music, theater, and dance extravaganzas or—increasingly—arts management. He says he knew that not all his top contributors would be interested in this year’s international festival, Maximum India, at the Kennedy Center. But he won the support of the Tata group, India’s giant multinational conglomerate.

“It’s the big, special stuff we do that makes people say, ‘I want to be part of that,’ ” Kaiser told arts managers at a Kennedy Center seminar last spring. Soon after arriving at the center in 2001, he conceded to the New York Times: “There’s a P.T. Barnum element to what we do.” And he still believes it. “We are show people,” he says.

During his ten years as Kennedy Center chief, fundraising has more than doubled. Contributions make up about 40 percent of the annual budget, or just over $70 million. The endowment is about $95 million, which appreciated by 10 percent last year, with about half of the throw-off going to center programs. The Kennedy Center budget has grown by 60 percent during his tenure.

Operating in the national capital with a board largely appointed by the President, Kaiser tries to remain apolitical. While the arts are often seen as a Democratic preserve, Kaiser has developed strong ties with some A-list Republicans.

A major coup was securing a $22.5-million gift—the largest single grant of Kaiser’s tenure—in 2010 from Betsy and Dick DeVos of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Betsy DeVos is former chair of the Michigan Republican Party, and Dick DeVos was the 2006 Republican candidate for governor who lost to Democrat Jennifer Granholm. Their wealth stems principally from the Amway direct-sales company cofounded by Dick DeVos’s father. An initial $2.5 million went to short-term operation of the Kennedy Center’s newly renamed DeVos Institute of Arts Management, with $20 million going to an endowment for the institute.

A recent $20-million gift, in two $10-million pledges, came from the very Democratic billionaire David Rubenstein, a cofounder of the Carlyle Group private-equity firm and chair of the Kennedy Center board.

For all his charm, Kaiser can be ruthless. “Separate your winners from your losers,” he told art managers from around the country in April. “Drop those [losers] and focus on the ones who will” make major donations. Often, he says, a board member is relieved to be asked to step aside, but Kaiser concedes that there are some famous people “who will never speak to me again.”

Kaiser is one of the nation’s highest-paid arts managers—he made $1.1 million in salary and benefits in the fiscal year ending September 30, 2010, according to the Kennedy Center’s filing with the IRS.

As the New York Times surveyed salaries at top arts institutions last year, Stephen Schwarzman, then chair of the Kennedy Center board, pointed out that Kaiser had earned the maximum permissible bonus of $150,000. “The performance has been terrific,” Schwarzman said, and the bonus was tied to “outcomes,” including increased attendance and consistent operational surpluses.

Kaiser intended to remain as KenCen president for no more than ten years, but last year he and the board of trustees agreed on a three-year contract extension, through 2014.

His tenure has been “a huge success, both from the entertainment side—the performance side—as well as in the box-office side,” says Kenneth Duberstein, a former vice chair of the Kennedy Center board and a prominent lawyer/lobbyist since his days as President Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff. “The Kennedy Center has become a destination now for the performing arts.” Staged attractions, including a free daily performance on the Millennium Stage in the center’s Great Hall, draw about 2 million people a year, and another 1 million come just to see the building, with its spacious halls and riverside vistas.

Government payments for capital improvements, upkeep, and educational programs amounted to more than 10 percent of the Kennedy Center’s budget until this year’s federal-spending reductions. Some federal cuts seem inevitable to Kaiser. “You won’t hear me whining about it in public,” he says. He’ll just bear down on fundraising and consider small trims.

The most vocal complaint came from advocates of an arts program for the disabled, whose staff was cut midsummer from 35 to 8. The budget for VSA—the arts-and-disability organization once known as Very Special Arts—was cut from $9 million to $5 million. A Kennedy Center spokesman says the staffing cut allowed a smaller cut in programs, the style of retrenchment that Kaiser has said he generally favors when required.

Kaiser accepts that governmental arts funding will never be an easy sell in the United States. “Our country was founded by the Puritans,” he says. “They thought music and dance were evil . . . and we’ve had separation of arts and state.”

Next: Critics question Kaiser's strategy

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Posted at 10:30 AM/ET, 11/09/2011 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles