Michael Kaiser from the Kennedy Center Speaksin Boise


This morning at 8:30 a.m. (the breaka-breaka dawn in alt-weeklyland), dozens of leaders from local arts organizations gathered around a piping hot coffee urn in the lobby of the Morrison Center. With nametags dangling from their necks—Ballet Idaho, Idaho Commission on the Arts, Alley Repertory Theater—they patiently waited to hear the guest of honor, Michael Kaiser, president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, offer solutions for arts organizations tackling the current economy.

Each sitting in a leather chair on the Morrison Center stage, Michael Faison, Executive Director of the ICA interviewed Kaiser about his long career turning around failing arts organizations—including the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, the Royal Opera House and American Ballet Theatre—and his latest book The Art of the Turnaround: Creating and Maintaining Healthy Arts Organizations.

Kaiser, on the final stop of a national tour that has taken him to all 50 states, started out with the basics. When the times get tough, it’s a knee-jerk reaction for arts organizations to cut their programming. And that’s bad. Real bad.

“Whenever you cut programming, you almost always at the same time cut marketing … What happens is your family [your network of supporter] starts to look elsewhere, they start to look for the more interesting place to be so you lose a little of your family … which means you have a little less to put into programming, you do a little less marketing and your family shrinks a little bit more,” said Kaiser. “You get sicker and sicker and sicker.”

The guide to being a successful arts institution, he elaborated, is simple: bring in good, exciting programming; market that programming crazy well and build up your institutional family, or the people who care about and invest in your organization.

But how do you do that, exactly? Kaiser’s has 10 essential rules for any arts organization in need of help.

1.)Someone has to be in charge.
2.)That person has to have a plan.
3.)You can’t save your way to hell a.k.a. don’t cut corners with your programming.
4.)Focus on today, not tomorrow or yesterday.
5.)Extend your planning calendar to five years out.
6.)Marketing is more than brochures, it encompasses both programmatic (getting people psyched on your programs) and institutional (getting people psyched on your institution) marketing.
7.)There has to be one spokesperson sending out the public message and that message has to be positive.
8.)When you’re in a lot of financial trouble, don’t go for low-level donations, shoot in the middle.
9.)Your board has to be willing to restructure, when necessary, to usher in new people and ideas
10.)You have the discipline to continually keep working at the first nine rules.

At the Q&A session after the interview, Kaiser answered a number of questions from local arts nonprofit and government arts employees. Judging by the excited buzz that followed the discussion, it's likely there will be a number of meetings called Monday morning to talk about new strategies in the arts. And that's something well worth waking up at the crack of dawn for.