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Kennedy Center chief laments arts woes

Kaiser: Orgs need to pull in auds with risky, energizing projects

WASHINGTON — The performing arts world is sick and in dire need of strong leadership providing sound management and concerted action, claims Michael M. Kaiser, president of the John F. Kennedy Center. “And it needs them fast,” he says.

Kaiser laid out the grim picture before a National Press Club gathering here, focusing on the impact on the arts of the Sept. 11 attack and the stock market decline, and the subsequent loss of audiences and fund-raising revenues felt by virtually all U.S. arts orgs. But Kaiser added that blaming today’s hardships entirely on those factors is a mistake, because arts orgs faced several underlying problems long before those events.

If performing arts organizations are to solve the problems facing them today, they must begin by drawing audiences with “large-scale, important projects that are risky and energizing at the same time,” Kaiser said. A case in point would be Kaiser’s own “Sondheim Celebration,” a critical and commercial hit for the Kennedy Center over the summer.

“We have been scared into thinking small. And small thinking begets smaller revenue that begets even smaller institutions and reduced public excitement and involvement,” said the Kennedy Center chieftain. “No wonder so many arts organizations are announcing deficits of record proportions.”

Along with more artistic risk-taking, the performing arts world needs more entrepreneurial management better suited to today’s economic climate. It must build new audiences and record great performances for future generations, said Kaiser, who earned a reputation helping revive ailing arts orgs.

Kaiser said the arts world “is moving dangerously close (to becoming) a virtual cartel of a few large mainstream organizations that survive and thrive.”

This would be “catastrophic,” he told the group. “A healthy arts ecology demands that we have large and small organizations, mainstream and edgy, and of all ethnic backgrounds.” He laments that the theater world has lost many of its minority orgs in the last few years, while those that remain are “terribly small compared to their white counterparts.”

Under Kaiser, the Kennedy Center is addressing all of these issues with a variety of programs, including a recently announced program to assist minority arts orgs. “This is not an altruistic venture,” he said, since “creativity in the performing arts depends in the future as it has in the past, on a diverse quilt of performers, creators and designers.”

He urged serious arts funders to pay more attention to the need for training arts managers. If they don’t, “We will see a serious decline in arts institutions throughout the world.”

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