Issues & Ideas

Former Kennedy Center director Michael Kaiser tackles the future of arts in U.S.

<cutline_leadin>NEW PRODUCTIONS:</cutline_leadin> The Florida Grand Opera has slashed costs while struggling to attract new audiences with productions such as last season’s Mourning Becomes Electra.
<cutline_leadin>NEW PRODUCTIONS:</cutline_leadin> The Florida Grand Opera has slashed costs while struggling to attract new audiences with productions such as last season’s Mourning Becomes Electra.

Imagine the United States with just a few dozen orchestras, opera companies, dance and theater troupes, mostly based in a few of the biggest cities. Live performances by those groups have become a luxury that only the rich can afford, while everyone else pays a few bucks to watch shows on their laptops or smartphones. Those who bother, that is — since most people, with arts classes long gone from public schools and local troupes largely done in by spiraling costs and diminishing donations and audiences, will have little interest in the performing arts.

That’s the gloomy picture that Michael Kaiser, arts management guru and former CEO of the Kennedy Center in Washington, paints in Curtains? The Future of the Arts in America. His predictions are dire enough to make arts-lovers want to crawl under the covers. But ignoring the future won’t make it go away — as record companies, TV networks, newspaper publishers, and other practitioners of old school systems can testify.

“It is depressing,” says Kaiser. “But I don’t think the art world is served if we don’t discuss it, or by just wishing it away.”

Wishing Kaiser’s predictions away would be easier if his ideas, and his track record in applying them, weren’t so successful. A former corporate management consultant, he earned the nickname of ‘Turnaround King’ by rescuing the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, London’s Royal Opera House, and American Ballet Theater from the brink of organizational and financial failure. His tenure at the Kennedy Center, from 2001 to 2014, was marked by a major boost in its artistic and educational programs, including founding the DeVos Institute of Arts Management to teach his formula for running a successful arts organization. His method, based on building an engaged and happy ‘family’ of board members, donors, audiences and community through a combination of creative, high quality programming and intense marketing and outreach, has become a kind of standard operating system for the arts. Kaiser left the Kennedy Center in January and now runs the DeVos Institute at Maryland University.

So when Kaiser talks, the arts world listens.

What he says in Curtains is that the cultural landscape as we’ve come to know it, with a rich ecosystem of small and medium-size groups from Santa Fe to Boston and a multi-layered wealth of culture in major cities such as New York, was a result of the United States’ post-war boom in the second half of the 20th century. Also key to Kaiser’s portrait of an artistic golden age was an expansive sense of cultural good will, where everyone from the president to the local business owner saw the arts as good for society.

Kaiser argues that two basic phenomena have wrought havoc on this bucolic era. One is a productivity problem intrinsic to the arts. As Kaiser points out, it takes the same number of musicians the same amount of time to play a Beethoven symphony now as it did 200 years ago, often in theaters with the same number of seats. Meanwhile, the cost of violins, musician salaries and everything else kept going up — while government, corporate and foundation aid topped out around the 1980s.

To compensate, arts groups have often raised ticket prices much faster than inflation. Kaiser cites the price of a center orchestra seat at the Metropolitan Opera, which has gone from $10 in 1960 to $300 today, a factor of 30, while inflation over the same period went up by a factor of just 7.8. The top subscription for Miami City Ballet cost $160 back in 1991; a similar package for the 2015-2016 season will run you $645.

By the time arts managers realized they’d hit a price ceiling, the tactic had alienated much of their audience, especially younger people who didn’t grow up with the arts. “Unfortunately, it priced many people out of our market, and people felt we [arts groups] were no longer relevant to them,” Kaiser said.

The other crucial factor he sees in the demise of the American art world is the internet — the pivotal 21st century technology that has also caused mayhem with other cost-intensive content creators, such as the newspaper and music industries.

Even as live shows have gotten exponentially more expensive, the amount of online and televised entertainment has exploded. Kaiser makes much of how you can now see famous institutions like the Metropolitan Opera and the Bolshoi Ballet in filmed shows at your local movie theater at a fraction of the cost of a ticket to the Florida Grand Opera or Miami City Ballet. Soon, he predicts, you’ll be able to see such offerings online for even less.

“When you say I can watch something online for free or for a modest amount, or pay $100 to go to a live performance, that’s become a very difficult choice for a lot of people,” Kaiser says. For most in the post-great recession era of income stagnation and a shrinking middle class, it’s no choice at all.

As in his DeVos system, Kaiser flatly rejects the now-familiar edict that arts groups must cut costs, productions, and positions as a “corporate prejudice” that misjudges the unique nature of the arts - and inevitably leads to a downward spiral of smaller audiences, fewer donations, and still more cutbacks. The travails of the Florida Grand Opera, which is struggling to survive despite slashing budget and staff, would seem to be a case in point.

“Board members… think that if corporate managers could run the arts organization, then it would become profitable,” Kaiser writes. “They are simply wrong.”

Another corporate-minded solution Kaiser decries is resorting to popular blockbusters like Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. As such offerings become increasingly available online, he says, a regional troupe will never be able to compete with the Bolshoi’s Swan Lake or the Met’s Carmen.

“If I’m a local theater or ballet or opera company and I’m going to compete successfully against this online presence then I had better be doing work that’s really interesting and special and has something really unique,” he says. “Or I will be viewed as a poor, expensive competitor to what I can get online.”

In some ways, the cultural future Kaiser describes reflects other social and economic trends. Just as wealth and power are increasingly concentrated amongst a shrinking number of powerful individuals and corporations, he sees a few famous mega-institutions dominating what’s left of the arts landscape, sucking up the talent and attention, catering to the wealthy who can underwrite their productions and afford their tickets. As the number of small and mid-size groups shrinks, he predicts, so will the ethnic diversity and artistic experimentation that brings us the next defining trend or great artist, since the mega-troupes will have to appeal to the widest possible audience (at least in their online, mass offerings.)

Pretty bleak. The solutions Kaiser offers largely come from his DeVos toolkit; doing high quality, innovative programming, with a laser focus on building your community and brand. He cites the New World Symphony, with its multi-media commissions, free outdoor concerts, and nightclub-style events for 20-somethings, as a successful example of a mid-size group coming up with smart new solutions.

Preaching that the arts are good for society, on the other hand, won’t get you far. “It works for those of us who believe that,” he says. “I’m not sure it wins over lots of people coming to our theaters. But good performances do. Excitement, word of mouth, people going ‘wow, that’s something to see.’ ”