Reinventing the Kennedy Center
published: Dec. 9, 2013, recorded: November 2005, views: 5093
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Running a high-profile arts organization can be a punishing profession. When Michael Kaiser arrived in London to take over the financially ailing Royal Opera House in 1998, one newspaper declared that his appointment was “the worst disaster to hit Covent Garden since the bombs of World War 2.” In spite of nasty public swipes like this, Kaiser accomplished a miraculous turnaround at the Opera House – as he has at other major companies. Kaiser’s current work involves transforming the Kennedy Center into a truly national destination.
Kaiser abandoned his dream of becoming a professional singer after realizing he was “just dreadful,” and built a successful career in financial consulting. His search for a more interesting product than money led him back to the arts. He developed a “mantra” for reviving near-moribund arts institutions: in order to thrive, provide “great art, well marketed.”
At the Opera House, which was running a deficit of $30 million when he arrived, Kaiser laid off 300 people -- not to balance the books but to refocus the organization on new arts programs and fundraising opportunities. With shrinking government funding, Kaiser sought to change public perception of the Opera House. He created “such exciting events that …those of means in England felt they had to participate” -- and donate. Within 18 months, he had paid off the deficit and raised an additional $40 million for renovations.
At the American Ballet Theater, Kaiser says, they had “no pointe shoes and were unscrewing the light bulbs to save money.” Seven years of “Romeo and Juliet” had left the audience bored. “The trick to turnaround in the arts,” says Kaiser, “is that you scrimp on everything but what goes on stage—your product—and the way you market it.” Unlike every other industry, Kaiser notes, in the arts “we can’t improve productivity” to counter rising costs. “Every decade gets harder, which means the sophistication of management has to get better.”
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