The Turnaround King Comes to Town

As part of an intense 50-state Arts in Crisis tour, Michael Kaiser blew into Madison on Monday with practical advice for Wisconsin’s arts organizations.

kaiserThe President of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Kaiser has been nicknamed the “turnaround king” for his successful leadership of financially challenged performing arts groups — among them, the Kansas City Ballet, the American Ballet Theatre and London’s Royal Opera House.

His 2008 book The Art of the Turnaround tells the back stories behind these happy endings, while outlining a common sense ten-rule approach to healing “sick” organizations. Yesterday’s easygoing presentation touched on most of them, but two ground rules stand out.

  1. What to do: Plan, plan, plan.  Kaiser says even when day-to-day survival seems uncertain, it’s crucial to think far into an organization’s future, with bold programming that excites patrons and benefactors. Having a good five-year plan allows for fluctuations in the economy and gives executive directors more leeway to fulfill the vision of the artistic director. And, he points out, “You make better art if you take more time.”
  2. What not to do: Cut programming. Arts organizations that feel financially threatened often make cuts to  artistic initiatives and marketing initiatives first, which may seem most discretionary. Kaiser cautions against the urge to do so, though. When programs are cut, organizations make themselves increasingly irrelevant, he says. “This is the time to be adventuresome … make great art, and follow it with great marketing.”

Kaiser says the public-private nature of the Kennedy Center — not only as a national memorial to the late president but as the country’s performing arts center — obligates him to offer services outside of Washington, D.C. It’s that sense of obligation that gave rise to the tour, as well as the Kennedy Center’s Arts in Crisis initiative.

And while he may have left as quickly as he arrived, struggling organizations can still benefit from Kaiser’s expertise. At the project Web site, non-profit arts groups can register for free consulting from Kaiser, his staff and approved mentors. An additional Web site,, offers news and commentary, materials and networking opportunities.

Monday’s presentation was made possible by Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts, the Wisconsin Arts Board, Arts Wisconsin, City of Madison Arts Commission and the Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission.

Interested in viewing Michael Kaiser’s talk in its entirety? WisconsinEye will soon stream a video of  his Overture Center visit on its Web site.

One Response to The Turnaround King Comes to Town

  1. Michael Bridgeman says:

    Kaiser was excellent. He was upbeat about the arts and planning our way past any temporary crises.

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