Students to obtain on-the-job experience, take arts management courses

WASHINGTON — Executives of the Kennedy Center are busily preparing for one of the most significant openings in the center’s history.

Sept. 6 marks the debut of the center’s Vilar Institute for Arts Management, a program to train executives from around the world to become better managers of theaters and other arts organizations. A dozen carefully chosen individuals will begin yearlong Vilar fellowships here in one of three training programs that Kennedy Center officials hope will dramatically improve how arts orgs are run throughout the world.

The 12 were selected from among 150 applicants from 30 countries who responded to a solicitation in February when the institute was unveiled. Six are Americans and six hail from England, China, Russia and Lithuania. Ranging in age from 26 to 39, the Vilar fellows are current executives in various areas of arts management. They will spend the next year obtaining on-the-job experience at the Kennedy Center and taking academic courses on all aspects of arts management.

The institute is the brainchild of the center’s new prexy, Michael M. Kaiser, and it’s funded by a $40 million gift from Alberto Vilar, the Cuban-born arts philanthropist. It is billed as the world’s first international school dedicated to the development of arts professionals. Vilar promises that the institute, which grew out of a conversation with Kaiser, “will satisfy a great void” by training “the unsung heroes — the arts managers who learn their professional skills on the job.”

Participants attend the institute for free; in fact, students in the fellowship program are paid to learn, receiving $18,000 in $1,500 monthly payments during the year. There is no degree from this unaccredited institute. But officials are braced for growing competition for its limited openings, and are hoping for equal zeal from arts organizations for the expertise of its graduates.

Kaiser says the institute’s goal is “to create a laboratory in which the greatest arts leaders of the day and the most promising leaders of tomorrow will come together for the exchange of ideas and inspiration.” He hopes it will shorten a learning process that typically takes 25 years for arts managers to master.

“My experience traveling around the world is that there is no shortage of great artists and directors,” he says. “But there aren’t enough people to manage these institutions to provide the environment and resources those artists need. That’s what we’re focusing on.”

Kaiser should know about that void. He has built a solid reputation as a master at rehabilitating ailing arts orgs, including London’s Royal Opera House and American Ballet Theater.

For the future

The yearlong fellowship program soon will be accompanied by the institute’s two other training formats –symposia for arts administrators and board members, and an internship program. The symposia are three-day seminars that will focus on key issues of relevance in the performing arts. The three-month internships will be offered to college juniors and seniors, graduate students and recent grads aiming for careers in performing arts management or education.

The fellowship curriculum aims to maximize hands-on learning experiences, with courses in topics such as financial management, marketing, fundraising, planning and producing performing arts programming to be followed by a four-month work assignment at the Kennedy Center.

Incoming Vilar fellows say they’re looking forward to starting the program. Kathryn Colgrove, managing director of Atlanta theater company Dad’s Garage, says, “This is a great opportunity to sharpen my skills and then make a contribution starting right here at Dad’s Garage.” Her view is seconded by Jeanne Ryan, assistant to the president of the Shubert Performing Arts Center in New Haven, Conn. “How wonderful that Michael Kaiser, the ‘turnaround king,’ will teach us strategic planning,” she says.

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