Marketing the Arts: The Secret Weapon

author: Michael Kaiser, The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
published: Jan. 6, 2014,   recorded: June 2007,   views: 2332

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If anyone deserves the moniker of ‘arts miracle worker’, it’s Michael Kaiser. He’s turned around any number of blue ribbon organizations teetering on the edge of bankruptcy -- from the Kansas City Ballet, to England’s Royal Opera House, and the American Ballet Theatre. Now he’s taking his lessons and management techniques around the world, a virtual one-man ambassador for arts innovation and solvency.

Kaiser’s talk focuses on marketing, the kind that “creates excitement around an organization.” In his efforts to restore flagging dance, theater and opera groups, Kaiser often contends with boards that assume paring down performances and cutting labor costs is the only way back to fiscal health. Kaiser advocates a contrary strategy: an artistic group can thrive only by taking artistic risks, investing in bold ventures and communicating inventively to the public, what he calls “dense institutional marketing.”

He offers a case in point: the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, which in 1991 was $1.5 million in the red, and on the verge of laying off dancers. He generated a series of special events to spotlight the dancers and choreography. The two-year effort included landing prime appearances on the Phil Donahue show and at Bill Clinton’s first inaugural gala, an exhibition at the Smithsonian, a sponsored performance in Central Park, and multiple books, including one edited by Jackie Onassis. Kaiser’s persistence paid off, with a doubling of private fundraising.

He frets that a lot of arts organizations in the U.S. began “falling down after 9/11, pulling back on creativity and innovation, afraid of losing their audience.” Kaiser is emphatic: “When you pull back on risk taking, you pull back on the revenue stream. That’s why arts are suffering today.”

His success in reinvigorating performing arts groups, as well as his ease in both the corporate and non-profit worlds, has earned him the role of cultural ambassador for the U.S. State Department. He travels widely to lend his expertise to groups abroad, who find themselves with dwindling or no government support. He’s helping Chinese art administrators learn to raise money, since their government invests in infrastructure, but not in artists. He also found himself in Egypt recently: “140 Arab arts leaders from 17 countries, coming to study with an American Jew at Arab League headquarters—sort of astonishing, but absolutely no political problem.” He has few qualms about working in non-Democratic nations, if he can work freely with organizations to “make them strong,” which he believes helps spread rather than hinder democracy. “Voices become potent by becoming better financed. Dissident voices need access to capital,” Kaiser believes.

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