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Wry Kaiser

Michael Kaiser was in town as part of his Arts In Crisis tour. The session was videoed. I don’t know if it will be placed on the internet, but the content was pretty much the same as when he spoke in Madison, WI. I had watched that video back when Andrew Taylor discussed Kaiser’s visit to Madison. If the video of our local session becomes available, I will post it.

I am not going to give a synopsis of his talk here as I am wont to do. His thoughts are pretty widely disseminated through videos like the in WI and via his column on Huffington Post. I am just going to reflect a little on the experience.

He was a very entertaining speaker and the session was quite enjoyable. I encouraged my Assistant Theatre Manager to go because he hadn’t really heard any of this before. And our discussions after about how we should proceed were pretty productive.

Our mayor is the chair of the culture and tourism committee of the National Conference of Mayors and he is pretty enthusiastic about those causes. (He also bills himself as the “Singingest Mayor In America.” I was surprised that he didn’t take the opportunity today.)

He spoke, I think longer than anyone expected, about how important the arts are. He also stayed for the full 1.5 hour session. This impressed on me how important the topic of the arts was to him because he is always on the go. I have seen him get off a 7 hour flight that crosses the international dateline, speak at a meeting about public transportation and then out to another meeting. Since he was still around as the Q&A started, the moderator brought him back up to the stage to field questions about the arts in the city.

A few observations about the session with Kaiser. The first isn’t predicated on something he said. The session opened traditionally with a welcoming chant and then a hula display. I am not Hawaiian, nor am I practitioner of any Hawaiian performing arts. However, my investment in those art forms were such that I wished they had done a slightly different program. The hula was accompanied by singers playing ukelele. This is something many people are familiar with due to movie depictions. So what I found myself wanting was for a performance on ipu heke–double gourd drum. I wanted him to go away perhaps surprised about Hawaiian performing arts and knowing more than he knew when he arrived.

Later, I was gratified to hear him say that was what he aimed for in his programming–having people surprised at some of the events he put together. His example was the Arab Festival at the Kennedy Center earlier this year. He noted nobody expects you to celebrate Arab art in the current political climate.

At one point he underscored how much the arts are dependent on the kindness of strangers when it comes to arts education. This is no great revelation, I am sure. He gave the example of a 3rd grader who benefits from her teacher loving the arts and providing many opportunities for exposure. When the child moves on to 4th grade, if the teacher doesn’t like the arts, then the child doesn’t get any exposure. If the 4th grade teacher doesn’t like math, they don’t have the option of shirking instruction in that. It occurred to me this is actually the case even in states that mandate an arts component because few schools value the subject enough to monitor compliance or ensure a valuable experience.

For me, the talk solidified and confirmed some thoughts I had over Thanksgiving about how I should be approaching various elements of my job. It was good to have the Assistant Theatre Manager start to move in the same direction. I hadn’t really spoken with him about my thinking yet because I hadn’t entirely figured out how to put it into practice. Today was a good catalyst for that conversation.

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Planning 2010-2011

Had a meeting with my booking consortium today and learned some interesting things.

First of all, in relation to my post on advocating to keep our state arts council staff from being laid off. I was told that during the hearing, it came to light that the decision to lay the staff off came after all a consultation with all the unit heads–except the council’s executive director. Apparently it was felt the arts council was not an important unit and the grant administration could be accomplished by the general state accounting staff. Then it was decided that the grant administration was specialized knowledge the accountants couldn’t handle themselves so the executive director and one assistant should be kept to help the accountants. (So the restoration of two of about 10 people slated for layoffs.)

The final decision has yet to be made. It did occur to me that while we can recite the economic impact of the arts stats in our sleep, there are still people who don’t know the arts contribute to economic activity. The president of our group said he was able to easily point to a recent $10,000 artistic fee payment that yielded $150,000 in additional direct spending independent of any restaurant checks, parking fees and babysitter payments.

Second thing I learned is that with funding so uncertain, especially among universities, a lot of tour decisions are being made much later in the year. Apparently this was a topic of conversation at a recent regional conference. Because we depend so heavily on artists touring the West Coast to keep our prices down, we will have to make our own decisions for the 2010-11 season months later than we usually do because opportunities may never emerge. I am sure since four of our members are associated with universities this will just perpetuate the cycle of postponed decisions.

One of the positive things I noticed during the meeting was people were proposing many more artists I could afford to present. Last year’s cycle seemed to emphasize higher paid acts, but fewer of them. I haven’t quite analyzed how things resolved themselves this year to determine if artists are lowering their fees or if my partners are looking at a greater number of less expensive performers. If the latter is the case, they are either instinctively or intentionally following the Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser’s advice not to cut programming in tough economic times.

I am personally feeling less anxious than I was at this time last year when I was faced with the proposition of putting together a slate of performances without the benefit of as many partnerships as I had in the past. Of course, it also helped that I walked into the meeting knowing a show I started conversations about two years ago would be opening my season.

Another thing that came up was a desire to have much closer communication between those organizations that aren’t consortium members and those that are. Someone initially proposed Bela Fleck, Zakir Hussain and Edgar Meyers for the coming season unaware that they were playing with the symphony this year. This represents something of a missed opportunity for the symphony since they have played in at least one of our member’s venues before and could have partnered to take the performance there. (Though it ain’t cheap and given the symphony’s recent financial problems, it was probably more prudent to do as they had.)

Having heard how great the concert was, member organizations seem likely to pursue presenting the trio alone. People expressed regrets that the two weeks notice they received in speaking with agents didn’t provide the opportunity participate in the tour this time around. The problem of duplicating another local arts entity’s efforts has been an ongoing one. Any show that doesn’t have an agent or rights holder monitoring it for geographic conflicts, Shakespeare’s shows for example, has the potential of popping up more than once as a local offering. In some areas groups try to get together and alert each other to future plans. But even that arrangement might not be effective if groups need to postpone their final decision making until later.

That said, we all get tons of emails every day alerting us to routing opportunities. It is amazing that there are actually some acts touring whose plans we haven’t heard about.

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Is This The First Step To Better A Structure?

If you haven’t heard yet, Michael Kaiser, President of the Kennedy Center has decided to turn the Center’s resources, knowledge and expertise toward helping arts organizations around the country weather the current financial turmoil in a program called Arts in Crisis.

I am very hopeful about this effort and I want to encourage people to participate either as a seeker of knowledge or as a mentor. Like many people, I have some reservations. My primary concern was if he and his staff were really equipped to do this. It seems like a big job. I haven’t really been impressed by which is also a service they offer. The discussion boards are barely trafficked, resource area doesn’t have much and job boards are completely empty. I can participate in more lively discussion on blogs and other forums without having to register. There are much better free job and resource sites.

On the other hand, Arts in Crisis effort might be closer to the Kennedy Center, and certainly Kaiser’s true competencies. There are few organizations in the country who have the resources and knowledge to act as brokers of knowledge in this manner. Frankly, if this is going to work Kaiser might do well to tap those other few organizations to get involved and provide guidance, resources and leadership in encouraging people to become mentors. This may mean that Arts in Crisis needs to leave the Kennedy Center’s direct control if another has the infrastructure to marry knowledge with need. The National Performing Arts Conference Conveners and Partners, for example, have databases full of arts professionals and have had more personal and direct contact with them than the Kennedy Center has.

My optimism and hope is that the current necessity is the mother of invention of a method of partnering, mentoring, information sharing and learning that arts and cultural institutions sorely need. If some strengthening network emerges out the road Michael Kaiser and the Kennedy Center have started upon, that will be great.

My concern is that for this to happen there is a lot of resistance to overcome. People might have fear of revealing weaknesses to local competitors or fear of mentoring a competitor only to have them use the good advice to eclipse them. It might be best to match up people who aren’t too far away to drive for site visits but distant enough not to be in direct competition.

There might be fear of helping another organization will mean neglecting your own. Or people might just not think they have anything to offer. One of my initial thoughts was that I wished I had the knowledge necessary to help–forgetting for a moment that I have contributed a respectable amount of constructive feedback for the PACE construction project.

The truth is, a lot of arts professionals with a great deal to offer may not have the first clue about how to effectively mentor and provide feedback to others in the industry. It will probably be important for the Arts in Crisis team to provide training videos and printed materials to assist in the process. My suspicion is that it may take a lot of poking and prodding from discipline service organizations and state/local arts councils to get people to imagine themselves as a mentor and download the materials.

As I said, the best of all possible worlds will be one where the industry emerges with greater strength and unity, confident and having proved they are a force to be acknowledged by governmental entities.

Going beyond that, the ideal would be for many organizations to form productive partnerships and then be able to go out and instruct others in their core competencies. One group might have developed a crackerjack presenting consortium, another might have a great method for developing and producing new works in partnership with higher education writing and performing arts programs, still another might have successfully leveraged their collective purchasing power to share legal, accounting and facilities services.

What will ultimately strengthen us is not depending on the expertise concentrated in a few central entities. It is going to be cultivating collective strengths
and having a system by which others can access the knowledge, even if it is as simple as having a list of the right people to call.

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