Expert advice for saving your arts organization

On August 12, I attended a talk by Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.  He stopped by Kentucky as a part of “Arts in Crisis: A Kennedy Center Initiative,” a 50-state tour in which Kaiser will give his expert advice to any members of any arts organization willing to get some expert help.

It’s rough out there for arts organizations.  The performing arts don’t always have a huge audience, and now that the core audience is aging, dying, and/or cash-strapped, some of these organizations might be disappearing all together.  Here are my notes from Michael Kaiser’s talk on how to keep that from happening, and how to be a strong organization period, no matter what the economy.  The last few notes are great advice for non-profits of any kind.

“Arts in Crisis: A Kennedy Center Initiative”

Notes from talk by Michael Kaiser, President, Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Free consulting program:

Problems performing arts centers are facing:

  • Ticket sales
  • Fundraising
  • Frustration

Kaiser’s arts management guiding principles:

  • Central problem in arts management is improving productivity.
    • We use the same work force and produce the same amount of work
    • Our income is set.  Limited by number of seats in a theater;  that’s how many tickets we can sell, no more
    • We fill the gap by increasing ticket prices and disenfranchising people.  Obviously, this is bad.
  • How to deal with the problem: Build revenue
    • Arts orgs don’t have a spending problem (productions with outrageous budgets)
    • What creates revenue:
      • Really good art
      • Really aggressive marketing
      • Cut either of these and you cut revenue in the future.  Poor programming makes you uncompetitive.  Poor marketing means no one knows about you.
  • Types of Marketing
    • Programmatic – ticket sales
    • Institutional – makes community excited about who you are as an institution
      • Increases fundraising
      • Attracts audience
      • Attracts board members
    • Examples of institutional marketing
      • Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre.  Thought they were famous, but then started getting condolence letters when Alex Haley died.  To increase name recognition:
        • Dec. 1992 to Dec. 1993 – high profile, high energy appearances: Donahue show, President Clinton’s Inauguration, Smithsonian, Central Park, naming of street after the company, book releases, 30th Anniversary Gala
        • Results: doubled fundraising and American Express requested the Ailey Company to be their spokesperson in Dec. 1993.  And the only thing that cost any money: the gala, but they made a huge profit off of it.
      • Kansas City Ballet
        • Revival of a major show, heavy media coverage related to show, several appearances on local morning shows.
        • Highlighted that they were the first local arts organization to do this in decades (In Louisville, think of the coverage Norton Healthcare is getting for being the first healthcare org here to build a new hospital in 30 years.)
    • Lessons from both: Focus on the future.
      • Bring in new people to your family
      • Holding more tightly to the ones you have results in holding on to a smaller and smaller group
  • Tend to your board!
    • The board is responsible for renewing itself
    • A diff board may be needed at diff times in an arts org’s life.  The board for the org’s first year should be different from the one for when it’s well established.
    • Does the board have access to the resources you need?
    • Are the members embarrassed to be associated with your organization?  If so, they won’t invite friends to see performances.  If not, they will.
  • How to be seen as serious
    • Be able to explain your mission
    • Don’t over-talk about money at the board meetings
    • Don’t homogenize the mission statement so that everyone is happy.
    • Define how you measure growth.  Non-profits can’t measure growth by profit because they are non-profit!
    • Have each board member take on a project, know it, meet artists associated with it.  They’ll invite friends if they care.
  • What about mergers?
    • Orgs that are “thinned out” tend to be managerially weak, not artistically weak.
    • Beware of mergers; they take a long time and don’t save as much money as you think (see Kaiser’s recent piece on
    • But joint ventures are good.
      • Focus on the programming
      • Do them with similar orgs
      • Do them with universities and other non-like partners.  Just plan well in advance.
  • Advance planning helps to avoid tension between the artistic and the executive staff.
    • Ask what the art director’s dreams are and space them out over several years, especially bigger dreams
    • Helps to keep you from having to say no to what the artists want all the time.  You can say yes over several years and still do smaller, more doable projects.

How bad is it right now for the arts, really?

  • Painful and scary, but not as bad as we thought
  • The orgs doing poorly are the ones whose problems were hidden by a good economy
  • Some orgs need to address fundamental problems that have nothing to do with outside economy


© Mariam Williams and Research Works, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mariam Williams or, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.  Any use and/or duplication of any photo contained within this blog without express and written permission from researchworks and Mariam Williams is strictly prohibited.

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