Arts Organizations are Businesses, Too

Michael Kaiser, photo by Nancy Ellison

Michael Kaiser, photo by Nancy Ellison

Two weeks ago, I wrote about Arts in Crisis, the new initiative at the Kennedy Center that offers free advice to struggling performing arts organizations. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, William Triplett spoke with Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center, about the overwhelming response to the initiative. Having saved several struggling arts organizations since the 1980s, Kaiser is considered to be the leading arts manager in the country. His recent book, The Art of the Turnaround, should be required reading for anyone managing an arts organization. In a desperate attempt to slash costs, too many managers make the mistake of cutting programming and marketing, which is “the worst thing you can do”, according to Kaiser. Cutting in these areas leads to less visibility, less funding, and more financial problems.

In addition to stressing wise budget cuts (like eliminating $30,000 spent annually on coffee for staff!), Kaiser notes the need for better training for arts managers:

“There are a substantial number of organizations that are not well run or realistically run because very little investment is made in this country in training people to run arts organizations,” says Mr. Kaiser in a voice not much louder than gently running tap water. In his dark suit, white shirt and striped tie along with his graying hair, he could pass for a board member of General Motors.

“We spend disproportionate amounts to train artists – performers, choreographers, oboe players — and we spend almost nothing to train people who would employ them. So arts organizations always operate very close to the edge,” Mr. Kaiser notes. “But add the problems of the economy and a crisis becomes absolutely clear. I’ve never seen anything on this scale.”

An arts organization should be treated like a business because it is a business, but managers (who, in the case of dance companies, tend to be former dancers) often believe that their passion for the art form is enough to qualify them for the job. Passion certainly plays a role, but arts managers need to possess the same skills as the CEO of a major corporation in order to be effective leaders. Without these skills, they aren’t prepared for the job, and poor management choices are a disservice to the organization’s artistic goals, staff, the performers, and eventually, the public.

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3 Responses to Arts Organizations are Businesses, Too

  1. d says:

    I agree that the roadblock in most organizations is the belief that the passion for the art form is enough. And in most cases that is the truth.

    Also art managers, except for the elite ones, are considered a minor role in an organization.

  2. Allison says:

    I assume you saw the Times article about the NYCB corp de ballet cuts?

  3. Evan says:

    Yes, the cuts at NYCB are pretty shocking and another example of mistakenly cutting artistic product before other things. Furthermore, laying off dancers certainly weakens company morale.

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