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

Kaiser’s day begins at 4 am, and he’s usually in his office by 7.

Kaiser has become a national beacon for struggling arts companies. He has traveled repeatedly to New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina, primarily to consult with the Louisiana Philharmonic, whose old home, the Orpheum Theater, was severely damaged in the 2005 storm. His first call offering help to the orchestra’s executive director, Babs Mollere, was humbling. “I don’t know who you are,” Mollere told him.

But Mollere says Kaiser displayed “the first attribute of success—he showed up.” And Kaiser has returned during subsequent hardships. “He forthrightly helps you to look at what you’re dealing with.”

He has taken a similar message around the country. “I’ve never seen a budget I can’t cut, but it’s not in art and it’s not in marketing,” Kaiser said in Santa Fe, according to the New Mexican newspaper. In South Dakota, Kaiser said he was “concerned that arts organizations facing the recession were going to make poor choices. . . . I think the secret is to abandon the notion that you can save your way to health. Arts organizations don’t get healthier by getting smaller and smaller and smaller.”

Kaiser’s aim is to keep beleaguered arts managers focused on why their organizations exist. Andrew Taylor, director of the Bolz Center for Arts Administration at the University of Wisconsin and discussion leader on a “crisis” tour stop, says Kaiser “inspires a lot of leaders to remember that they’re in an artistic organization and that’s the core of their job.”

Kaiser is paterfamilias to hundreds of young arts administrators who take part in the educational programs he oversees at the Kennedy Center. A primary aim is to remind younger managers what the arts are about. “What we’re in the business of is dreaming,” Kaiser says. “We get beaten down so by money, we quit dreaming.”

He’s not loath to criticize what he sees as bad advice, especially deep cuts in performances. Hearing the guidance one theater group was given, Kaiser grabs his tie, yanks it above his head like a noose, and says: “Your consultant is wrong.”

Kaiser, 58, came to the Kennedy Center after 15 years of rescuing performing organizations. During successive tenures, he eliminated a deficit of $125,000 at the Kansas City Ballet, $1.5 million at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, $5.5 million at American Ballet Theatre, and $30 million at the Royal Opera House in London, troubled home to two artistic lodestars, the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet.

Kaiser has been dubbed the “turnaround king,” a moniker he’s happy to accept, titling one of his arts-management books The Art of the Turnaround. The Chicago Tribune called him “a spitfire,” which he says is not true but wishes it were: “I think I’m very focused—I don’t think I’m very tough.”

The chief rap against Kaiser, as presented in a multi-story blast from Washington Post critics in March, is that Kennedy Center programming is too safe.

“The Kennedy Center is huge,” Kaiser replied in an Aspen Institute appearance in Washington nine days after the Post barrage. “We have to serve many different communities and many different interests, and it would be inappropriate for us to only focus on what the arts police want.” Such critics, he said, “really are the most interested in the most cutting-edge and dismiss everything else.”

Post classical-music critic Anne Midgette belittled a festival planned for next spring featuring music of Vienna, Prague, and Budapest as “doing the expected where classical music is concerned.”

Midgette echoed objections raised earlier by her husband, critic/composer Greg Sandow, on an Artsjournal.com blog. Sandow said next year’s festival won’t feature music being created in those cities now but rather “safe, familiar, not exactly fresh classics, music premiered in those cities in centuries past.”

“As far as I know,” Sandow said, Kaiser “doesn’t do what he preaches.”

Kaiser disagrees: “We attempt very challenging programming and surprising programming. And that programming is very broad and very diverse.”

In awarding Kaiser an honorary doctorate the day after the Post’s assault, Georgetown University praised his “profound impact” on the nation’s development of a “rich and diverse array of cultural products.”

Kaiser ticks off highlights of his tenure, beginning with an unprecedented festival that packaged six Sondheim musicals from May to September 2002 and continuing to this year’s Follies, now enjoying an acclaimed Broadway run that was initially uncertain due to its large cast (41), orchestra (28), and crew (including 14 dressers).

The financing of Follies illustrates the difference between for-profit performance organizations and a public/private enterprise such as the Kennedy Center. Even if every seat had been sold for the show’s six-week run here in May and June, there would have been a $2-million deficit, Kaiser says. The shortfall was covered by money Kaiser raised for the show and by the center’s operational surplus, which has totaled $50 million in his ten-year tenure. “We had no cash here when I got here,” Kaiser notes, but now there is a working capital reserve.

Kaiser implies that critics in the media are happy only when their particular tastes are catered to. He cites this year’s Maximum India festival, next year’s “street art” festival, and an earlier a cappella choral festival as examples of Kennedy Center presentations “that don’t fall into the rubric of a theater critic, of a music critic, or a dance critic. But it’s happening, it’s unusual. I can’t think of another arts center that’s done that.” Kaiser says the India festival sold more than twice as many tickets as expected.

Kaiser brushes off carping about the Kennedy Center’s perennial cash cow, Shear Madness, a whodunit set in a hair salon with audience participation and improvisation. It’s not Shakespeare, but it is, Kaiser contends, “a wonderful introduction to the theater for a whole lot of kids who come here every spring.” Ticket sales net about $500,000 a year and help pay for non-revenue programs such as education ventures and the free Millennium performances.

Kaiser isn’t uncritical about Kennedy Center programming over his decade. “There’s a lot that we’ve done that I didn’t like,” he says, singling out Carnival!, the center’s 2007 revival of a 1961 Broadway musical based on the movie Lili. “I budget for failure. If you never have a failure, you haven’t taken enough risks.”

Next: How the Turnaround Artist earned his nickname

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