Kennedy Center president bridges cultural gap

WASHINGTON — Kennedy Center prexy Michael Kaiser has precisely five years left on his contract, making this a good time to examine his remaining agenda:

  • Guide the center to ever greater heights of artistic and financial success?

On schedule.

  • Instill professional management skills among struggling arts groups throughout the entire world?

Task begun.

  • Bring peace to the Middle East by bridging cultural gaps through the arts?

Well, that might take a little longer.

“I have spent the last five years building an international activity that I, perhaps naively, believe will change the world,” he says.

No one ever accused the charismatic Kaiser of being an underachiever.

These are only some of the items on his impossibly crowded plate as he flips the calendar to ’07.

Kaiser intends to exit the Kencen stage following expiration of his contract at the end of 2011, after serving 11 years. But as any harried Kennedy Center staffer will tell you, he’s making every day count.

Kaiser raised eyebrows last year by announcing a major festival in 2009 to showcase the artistic talents and heritage of 22 Arab countries. The event will cap a cultural exchange program to include an annual symposia on arts management in Arab countries beginning in April. Kaiser visited Cairo, Amman, Riyadh and Damascus in November to help lay the groundwork.

Paid for internally through the Kennedy Center’s fundraising, he is hoping the Arab fest will match the success of the four-week fest of Chinese art held in October 2005, which featured 900 performers from China including productions never seen outside that country.

In a speech Dec. 7 before the Washington Press Club, Kaiser predicted the Arab festival, the center’s most ambitious to date, would educate Americans and strengthen cultural institutions in the Arab world. He said he also hopes it will “foster relationships between Americans and Arabs that will help to unite and bring understanding and peace.”

Kaiser takes the Kencen’s congressionally chartered mandate as the National Center for the Performing Arts seriously, just as he does his own auxiliary role as a U.S. cultural ambassador for the State Department. The two are joined in a variety of outreach programs aimed at spreading the center’s arts management expertise.

That includes launching the center’s management institute in 2001 to train a dozen aspiring arts managers each year in principal aspects of running arts orgs. Known as the showbiz turnaround king before coming here, Kaiser, who previously rescued the foundering Alvin Ailey Dance Theater and London Opera House among others, has also taken his management expertise on the road.

Foreign assignments include helping the government of Pakistan rebuild its arts sector after 30 years of neglect. Other projects are under way in Mexico and China.

Kaiser says once arts officials understand he is not there to Americanize their culture, a solid rapport begins.

Yet the challenge is daunting.

The state of arts management education in many countries is rudimentary, while governments throughout the world are cutting back on arts support, Kaiser points out. He says helping arts orgs find new sources of funding is a top priority everywhere.

To help spread arts management expertise to far flung locales, the center relies heavily on the Internet. Its new web site, www.artsmanager.org, features arts management resources for individuals, organizations and boards of directors. The center is also in the fourth year of a training program aimed at strengthening culturally specific U.S. arts orgs, which offers in-person symposia and online training sessions. The program is currently working with 90 arts organizations throughout the country.

“I believe the most effective and engaging way to learn about other people is to experience their arts,” says Kaiser.

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