Michael Kaiser Bids Kennedy Center Adieu

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Michael Kaiser
Anyone for salsa?

Michael Kaiser, 12-year president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, on Tuesday announced his resignation in his Huffington Post blog:

It is official: I am a lame duck. My contract as President of the Kennedy Center expires at the end of next year and the board has just assembled a search committee to look for my successor…after 12 years as President, it is time for someone with a new and different vision to run the national cultural center. (I was meant to depart at the end of 2011 but I needed to stay to ensure that our affiliation with the Washington National Opera went smoothly. It has.)

Michael Kaiser
Michael Kaiser

But not all had gone smoothly in the last few months for Kaiser and the center. Last September, HuffPo reported that Kaiser had apologized in writing to Felix Sanchez, chairman of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, for using foul language during a telephone conversation. Sanchez, backed by 30 Latino organizations had demanded the apology.

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Earlier that month, the Kennedy Center had announced its prestigious Honors for exemplary lifetime achievement. Soon after, Sanchez’s organization sent a letter to the center, President Barack Obama, and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. It complained of a “constant pattern of exclusion for Latinos,” according to Politico.

Of the 180 artists saluted through 35 years of the Kennedy Center Honors, two have been Latino: opera star Pl√°cido Domingo and actress Chita Rivera.

That letter led to the phone conversation between Kaiser and Sanchez, in which an unhappy Kaiser, according to HuffPo, had snapped, “Go fuck yourself.”

Following Kaiser’s apology, workings seem to have occurred behind the scenes. Then, on Jan. 8, the press began buzzing about the Kennedy Center deciding to review its process for awarding its Honors. The review will take place through an 11-member artist advisory panel, which had its second meeting last month.

In response to the review, Sanchez told The New York Times, “It’s just a long-awaited acknowledgement from the Kennedy Center that they are going to view Latinos as part of the American mosaic as they should have done.”

Now, a little over a month later, Kaiser has made his announcement of exodus.

In making his closure Tuesday, Kaiser said:

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…I would caution the members of this Committee (and any other search committee working in the arts today) not to ignore several key ‘truths’:

— The health of any arts institution emerges from its programming. While board members searching for a new leader often believe that fundraising skill and experience are the keys to success, no one can raise funds for a boring institution for very long. I know that my stated enjoyment of fundraising has gotten me many jobs, but I know equally well that I have been lucky to work with organizations that did stellar work.

— There is not one correct way to run an arts institution. The board should not be looking for ‘another Michael Kaiser.’ The search committee should be hoping to find someone who can tell a coherent story of their own that links programming, marketing and fundraising success.

— The new leader must not alienate the remainder of the senior staff. The leader of every institution gets far too much of the credit when things go well. In fact, it takes an entire staff to make an arts institution function. One must be very careful that the new leader can work with those staff members who are most integral to the success of the organization. I have observed too many new leaders gut the senior staff and then fail. The organization loses not just the new leader but the strong staff who were critical to its success.

— The ability to program well for a large, multi-genre arts organization like the Kennedy Center is about creating an exciting set of programs for each season. The chief executive functions as a portfolio manager, assembling programs that address many constituencies and prove attractive to ticket buyers and donors. It is not about having one or two good ideas — it is about conceiving and assembling an annual package. The committee must test the ability of each serious candidate to create such a season.

“The Turnaround King”

This wasn’t Kaiser’s first announcement of an early leaving. In his previous job, in June of 2000, he resigned as executive director of The Royal Opera House in London after only 19 months in the job. London’s The Telegraph reported:

Mr Kaiser, an American who made his reputation rescuing arts organisations from financial disaster, has asked to be released “for personal reasons” by the end of next season. It is understood that he was feeling socially isolated and homesick. However, there are also indications that clashes with the board and its chairman, Sir Colin Southgate, brought Mr Kaiser to the brink of despair.

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Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Despite these two abrupt leavings following stressful situations, Kaiser’s “reputation rescuing arts organisations”-and his resulting nickname as “the turnaround king”–will probably stand as his chief identity in years to come. And he deserves the positive title:

–In 1985 he came to the near-bankrupt Kansas City Ballet, and in two years saw the company pay off its accumulated debt.

–In 1991, he joined the debt-ridden ($1.5 million) Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater as executive director. Before leaving, he eliminated its deficit, increased its touring programs efficiency, and enhanced its national and international image.

— In 1995, Kaiser took over the American Ballet Theatre and its accumulated deficit of $5.5 million. He reduced the deficit, reorganized the touring programs, created new education programs, brought in donations, and within three years eliminated the deficit and created a surplus.

–In 1998, he crossed the ocean to The Royal Opera House and its firestorm of a $30 million deficit. He may have only fought the good fight for 19 months, but set the stage for paying off the deficit and opening a new facility.

Finally reaching the Kennedy Center in 2001, he found an organization that was financially stable. So he began pushing for a higher artistic profile, adding educational elements, and, among numerous other accomplishments, launched Arts In Crisis: A Kennedy Center Initiative in early February 2009. It provides free arts management consultation to arts organizations across the nation.

As witness to the depth of Kaiser’s character, one need only look at this: According to The Washington Post, Kaiser donated a kidney to his sister, Susan, in 1988. This is love, commitment and sacrifice that should put Kaiser’s life in true perspective.