Advice for art organizations in crisis: make more art

Michael Kaiser, President of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, spoke this morning to a group of arts leaders at the Ordway in St. Paul. His message? Don’t panic.

Kaiser is a bit of a golden boy in the world of arts management and fundraising; he successfully dug the Royal Opera House out of several million dollars in debt. He performed similar miracles on the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the American Ballet Theatre.

Kaiser says the last thing an arts organization should do in hard economic times is cut back on its programming. If anything, Kaiser says, this is the time to be even more creative, to challenge and excite audiences.

And Kaiser says, the last thing audiences want to hear from their favorite theaters or dance companies is how tough things are:

People come to us to be entertained, to be inspired, for solace, for refuge and yet we’re talking so much about how bad it is, how we have no money, how bankrupt we’re becoming – and we’re pushing them away because we’re talking so much externally about our internal problems. I don’t believe in talking publicly about my problems – that’s what my family’s for.

Kaiser’s remarks may have come across as a bit idealistic to managers gathered this morning. They’re dealing with immediate issues of 10% budget cuts and disillusioned boards. And when Kaiser said “whatever you do, don’t cut programming,” I could almost see the bubble clouds above audience heads saying “But there’s nothing else left to cut!”

Still, there’s plenty of evidence that “If you create it, they will come.” Just a look at this summer’s Minnesota Fringe Festival shows that people are still interested in seeing new work, even if it’s a financial risk.

Kaiser also underscored the importance of organizations collaborating with one another, something the Twin Cities arts organizations are already quite good at. Small theaters regularly perform on larger theater stages, thus cross-pollinating audiences. Dance companies commission musicians… and musicians commission dancers.

Kaiser ended on an optimistic note, despite the obvious tension in the room.

We are such an incredibly creative and resilient industry. You know there was a statistic earlier this year – Americans for the Arts suggested that 10,000 arts organizations would go out of business. It’s not anywhere near that number. We’re so creative – we find ways to make do with nothing, we find ways to bounce back. It’s just a remarkable fraternity to be a part of.

The question I came away with is, do artists have the energy they need to continue to creative and resilient under increasingly trying circumstances? How much is too much to take?

  • I think that advice is valuable to every single artist in any field – don’t stop creating! No matter how much you promote, no matter how much money you owe, no matter what “they” say is going to happen to the economy – CREATE! All of your leg work is for naught if you don’t have something to SHOW someone. Our community needs inspiration, thrives on it! So – go out there! Perform! Create! Inspire someone!

  • Melodie Bahan

    I was very impressed with Kaiser and look forward to reading his book. I have to ask though, what was the “obvious tension in the room” to which you referred? I didn’t find anything he said particularly controversial, but I’m sure you talked to more people after the event. Could you explain?

  • Marianne Combs

    Melodie – sorry I didn’t catch this comment sooner. The tension was not in reaction to what Kaiser had to say, but rather in regards to arts organizations own pressing problems. It’s hard to relax and take the broad, more philosophical approach when you’re face with impending financial disaster. Thus the many questions that started with “How do I cut…” etc.