The Kennedy Center’s Michael Kaiser Steps Down to Do Less Managing, More Management Advising
If “Turnaround King” Michael Kaiser’s job at the Kennedy Center was to keep it from going under, job well done.
Then again, the Kennedy Center was never really in danger of going under. That doesn’t change the fact that its outgoing president—who had long planned to leave this year and did so on Sunday, a few months ahead of his contract expiration—is, from all evidence, very good at what he does. He earned the aforementioned moniker, and his reputation for saving failing arts institutions, by doing precisely that for the American Ballet Theater, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Kansas City Ballet, and the UK’s Royal Opera House all prior to his 13 year stretch in D.C.
Still, there is some irony that he continued to burnish that rep, and launched an already successful career as an arts management consultant to new heights, at the Kennedy Center, a taxpayer-subsidized institution that’s long been insulated from the financial pressures that are decimating operas, orchestras, and dance companies everywhere else.
It was here that he launched the Center’s “Arts in Crisis” initiative, a kind of charity consulting project for struggling nonprofits in 2009. That same year, he began blogging for the Huffington Post on that very subject (sample posts: “Donor Fatigue,” “Shooting Yourself in the Foot,” “What to Do if a Season Is Boring,” “The Arts Face Their Own Fiscal Cliff,” “Why the Arts Don’t Pay for Themselves,” and his first, “Arts in Crisis”) and took on what became the DeVos Institute of Arts Management the following year, which he will continue to run from his new perch at the University of Maryland. A recent Washington Post profile of Kaiser describes him traveling to Miami and Vietnam and Ramallah to give advice to various arts organizations that were, unlike the Kennedy Center, teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, often drilling down to minute budget line items.
The irony wasn’t lost on other institutions that don’t share the Kennedy Center’s financial cushion of more than $37 million a year from the federal government (it is only one of two arts organizations in the country with guaranteed federal funding, the other being the Smithsonian). So when he would sometimes suggest things like not cutting programming, even during a recession, other arts managers that didn’t have that luxury got a little peeved (which he acknowledged).
Along with his let-them-eat-cake moment, Kaiser could be tone deaf at times, declaring arts criticism dead, or responding to complaints from the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts over the dearth of Latino artists among the Kennedy Center’s annual honorees by reportedly telling its president, “Go fuck yourself.”
But even if the Kennedy Center was never really in need of saving, he could point to a string of successes: securing annual budget surpluses, boosting fundraising from $27 million to $80 million a year, and steering a couple risky mergers—the last, an organization that really was in trouble, the Washington National Opera.
For much of his time here, Kaiser split his attention between two jobs: running an arts institution and giving advice on running an arts institution. It was inevitable that he wouldn’t have time for both, so it seems he’s decided to focus the latter, with DeVos (he will also serve as a co-chairman for IMG Artists). He even has a catchy name for his management philosophy: The Cycle.
The move doesn’t come without sacrifices, like his $1.2 million Kennedy Center salary. But that should be at least partly offset by consulting fees, which he says run between $10,000 and $100,000 per client. Even for struggling arts groups, advice don’t always come cheap.