A Conversation with Michael Kaiser

Last week the foundation hosted Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center, in a conversation with Cleveland’s cultural community about the challenges facing the arts in this cold economic climate. 

Dubbed “the Turnaround King” for his successful rescues of major institutions across the arts spectrum, Mr. Kaiser is on a national tour  as part of his and the Kennedy Center’s Arts in Crisis initiative.  We are grateful to Playhouse Square, one of the Kennedy Center’s Partners, who arranged Mr. Kaiser’s visit.

Known for his 10 Rules for Arts Organizations in Trouble* the centerpiece of his book, “The Art of the Turnaround,” Mr. Kaiser had much to say to the group of more than 70 arts leaders assembled in the foundation’s Minter Conference Center.  The foundation’s Director of Community Responsive Grantmaking, Kathleen Hallissey and I posed a few initial questions, but the audience had many of their own.  Following are just a few of the key points he made in his 90-minute conversation with our arts community.

  • Fundraising is not the first, or most important thing to focus on for organizations in financial difficulty.  Marketing in times of challenge is critical.  Organizations should invest strategically in marketing not only to sell tickets, but also to sell excitement about the institution, separate from any specific program.  The “luster” of the institution will do much to sell tickets and is essential for success in fundraising. 
  • Long range artistic planning provides the meat for these “identity” campaigns.  Getting people excited about what’s coming – even if years in advance – keeps the institution’s mission and programs top of mind and generates the enthusiasm needed to secure funding for the event and create demand for tickets.
  • Long range planning also is a remedy for overworked and demoralized staff.  Planning for an exciting future can do much to energize a staff that has suffered cutbacks and furloughs and where the organization’s reputation, due to financial woes, may have taken a hit.  Arts workers are not in it for the money.  The opportunity to plan and be a part of something exciting can be a strong motivator and foster a positive/productive internal culture committed to success.
  • Artistic/Program, Marketing and Fundraising staff should be joined at the hip.  These three departments/individuals must work together if any one part of the triad is to ultimately be successful.
  • No matter how skilled or deep the bench in your marketing department, the CEO is the chief marketer for the organization.  
  • Term limits for board members should be abolished.  If you have fabulous trustees who serve the organization well, why would you want to get rid of them?  While it the board’s leadership should turn over, over time, good board members should be held close as long as they can continue to provide good service. 
  • Term limits should not be used to get rid of unproductive trustees.  A board member who is just taking up space should be thanked for his/her service and asked to leave today – not three years from now when their term is up.  And the board chair and/or head of the Governance Committee should do this – not staff.
  • Engage in joint ventures (or partnerships) as a way to make programs different and create more excitement, reach and “embrace” more people into your organization’s family, and promote the prestige of each of the participating agencies.
  •  In fundraising with individuals, the key is listening to donors, not selling your newest artistic idea but really hearing what donors are interested in and then offering them ways to participate.  Keep a menu of options in mind so you can match you needs with the donor’s interests.

There was much, much more, and we promise to share more of Mr. Kaiser’s comments in future blogs.  Also, we welcome comments from those who were in the audience and promise to share them as well. 

Below are Mr. Kaiser’s Ten Rules.  He is also a regular contributor to the Huffington Post  and, finally, you can join the community of arts managers sharing information via a special Kennedy Center resource.

* Ten Rules for Arts Organizations in Trouble
1. Someone must lead
2. The leader must have a plan
3. You cannot save your way to health
4. Focus on today and tomorrow, not yesterday
5. Extend your programming planning calendar
6. Marketing is more than brochures and advertisements
7. There must be only one spokesman and the message must be positive
8. Fundraising must focus on the larger donor (but don’t aim too high)
9. The board must allow itself to be restructured
10. The organization must have the discipline to follow each of these rules