Art and Craft

Arts Expert Helping Baltimore Orchestra Chart New Course
By Liam Farrell | Illustration by Ryumi Sung

It is good to be the Turnaround King, aka Michael Kaiser, former president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and chairman of theDeVos 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 delivering blunt, sometimes hard-to-hear recommendations to those organizations.

Now consulting for the struggling Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Kaiser spoke to Terp about the need for eye-catching programming, the importance of being willing to evolve and the potential impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

What is the state of arts organizations nationally?

There are several challenges. One is the reduction in arts education in the public school systems. Second is the aging out or the aging of a traditional donor base. For major arts donors, including in cities like Baltimore and Washington, their children 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.

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 organizations?

Your programming has to be remarkable and it has to be exciting and it has to surprise and engage people. There’s more competition for time and attention, 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 will the delays and cancelations of exhibits and events during the coronavirus pandemic affect the arts?

If the crisis passes relatively quickly, most organizations will be able to recover, although the recovery will be painful. If the crisis lasts many months, few organizations will recover fully. It is the midsize groups—those with overheads and payrolls but without reserves or access to major donors—that will likely have the hardest recovery. It is likely that many of the 100,000 not-for-profit arts institutions in the United States will shrink or disappear if they do not receive emergency funding.

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 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 of art form that we don’t even know what it is yet.

So people should be open to a “live” performance that 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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