UMD Arts Expert Helping Baltimore Orchestra Chart New Course
By Liam Farrell
Michael Kaiser is known internationally for helping financially teetering arts groups, from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Foundation to the Royal Opera House, regain their footing. He’s now consulting for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
It is good to be the Turnaround King, aka Michael Kaiser, former president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the chairman of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at UMD.
He’s known internationally for helping financially teetering arts groups, from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Foundation to the Royal Opera House, regain their footing. The weight of the crown is in delivering blunt, sometimes hard-to-hear recommendations to those organizations.
Now consulting for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (which last week saw longtime conductor Marin Alsop announce she would resign next year amid longstanding financial difficulties for the organization), Kaiser spoke to Maryland Today about the dilemmas facing the arts, the need for eye-catching programming and the importance of being willing to evolve.
What is the state of arts organizations nationally?
There are several challenges. One is the reduction in arts education in the public school systems, pretty much across the country. Second is the aging out or the aging of a traditional donor base. The major arts donors, including in cities like Baltimore and Washington, are passing on their philanthropic decision-making to their children, who, in many cases, are less interested in the arts. A third and a key one is how many alternative forms of entertainment we now have that we didn't have when I started in this field 35 years ago.
Are there unique challenges locally?
There’s a challenge if you’re not one of the huge ones, because the Kennedy Center, the Smithsonian and the National Gallery suck the money out of the system, if you will. It doesn't mean that others aren't doing very well or can't do very well, but it's harder. On the other hand, there's a lot of interest in the arts in this region that other regions of the country don't have. Baltimore has its own special challenges because so much of the corporate base has left and the population of the city has declined so substantially.
What are some of your top-line suggestions to struggling arts organization?
Your programming has to be remarkable and it has to be exciting and it has to surprise people and engage people. There’s more competition for the time and attention of people, and so many other forms of entertainment are free. We have to market ourselves in exciting ways that go beyond the sort of traditional letters or email blasts. We have to get people interested in who we are and make them realize how much fun it is going to be to engage with us.
Why is that?
We tend to focus our marketing completely on getting people to buy tickets and we forget that we have to also get donors interested in who we are. So we typically do not market parts of our work that are actually more interesting to donors, like our educational work.
What is your definition of great programming?
Great programming is work that excites, engages and surprises people. But, ultimately, that work is only meaningful if it helps the organization achieve its mission.
Do the missions of art organizations have to be different now than they were 20 years ago?
I do not think there is a right or wrong mission. That is why so many of us are drawn to the not-for-profit sector; because we get to form the missions for our own organizations. But you have to be realistic about the implications of your mission. If you say our mission is to do avant-garde classical chamber music, you just have to know you're not going to have the audience size than if your mission is to do Broadway musicals.
Why do you generally emphasize the importance of getting “mid-level” donors?
Organizations in trouble tend to want to get rid of the trouble in one gulp. They want one person to write them a $10 million check. It's great if someone will do that, and I would never discourage that, but I don't think you can plan on it. It's much healthier to have a thousand people giving you $1,000, than to have one person giving you $1 million, because that one person could turn around and say, “I don't want to give you any more.”
How do you see live entertainment evolving in the future?
I think there will be concerts. I think there will be communal experiences of the arts. I think there may be fewer regional organizations as more and more people get their entertainment online. I think that the nature of art may change. Not that there won't be symphonies or operas, but there may also be some kind of amalgam art form that we haven’t experienced yet. Young artists are doing amazing work blurring the lines between art forms these days.
So people should be open to the idea that a “live” performance may not mean a thousand people in a theater.
Arts organizations have to be flexible and adjust to new kinds of art, new ways to communicate with their audience, new ways to raise money and new approaches to presenting art if they want to survive in a changing world.
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