Recession Doesn't Have To Mean Arts Cutback

Instead of cowering from the current economic recession, the president of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. thinks he has a better idea. Michael Kaiser is putting on a full schedule of theater performances, and he begins a 50-state tour to advise arts organizations in crisis on Tuesday.

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Michael Kaiser blushes when you ask if he's a savior. But the president of the Kennedy Center is a missionary for the arts. Tomorrow, Mr. Kaiser launches a 50 state tour to help arts organizations weather the economic crisis. In New York and then Kalamazoo, Indianapolis, Nashville, Charlotte and more, Kaiser will meet with arts groups to discuss survival strategies. NPR Special Correspondent Susan Stamberg caught Mr. Kaiser before he left Washington.

SUSAN STAMBERG: Known as the turnaround king for reviving critically ill arts groups, Michael Kaiser admits he has, on occasion, been wrong.

Mr. MICHAEL KAISER (President of the Kennedy Center): I told 3M that Post-its would never sell.

STAMBERG: You did not.

Mr. KAISER: I did.

STAMBERG: Well, 3M doesn't sing or dance. Before he came to the Kennedy Center in 2001, arts manager Michael Kaiser raised money, erased deficits, injected life into the flailing Kansas City Ballet, the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, the American Ballet Theater, London's Royal Opera House. He says when times are tough, most organizations, arts and otherwise, suffer from bunker mentality.

Mr. KAISER: They cut more, and they cut more, and they cut more. They think they're going to save their way to health, and they end up getting very, very, very sick.

STAMBERG: Instead of eliminating seasons or performances or an opera, Michael Kaiser says arts groups need to think fresher, smarter and more creatively. It's the only way they can stay in business.

Mr. KAISER: When there's less money to be given, you have to compete harder for it, not less hard.

STAMBERG: Yeah, but that's not - but be realistic, you've got to pay the salaries. If you're going to do 23 performances in a season, that's 100 musicians times 23, times the heating, the lighting, all of that. So why not cut back to 19?

Mr. KAISER: Because as you go down this slippery slope, you start to look like a bad competitor for the funds that are being given.

STAMBERG: Collaborate, says Kaiser. In 1997, the American Ballet Theatre and the San Francisco Ballet co-produced "Othello." They announced it three years in advance, which gave them time to raise the money, and by collaborating, they cut their costs in half. Meanwhile, people got excited, began talking about it, anticipating the new work. So another lesson: Do new things, adventurous things, not just the old chestnuts.

Mr. KAISER: Don't say we're going to get boring. We're going to get so accessible, we're going to start looking like everybody else, and then we have nothing to claim as our own. We have no reason to be receiving funding. If you listen to the pundits, they'll say just do "La Boheme," and I think that's a big mistake.

STAMBERG: More advice: Be creative, do more for less. Last year, with a special grant, the Kennedy Center put on all of August Wilson's plays. It sounds expensive.

Mr. KAISER: But we did staged readings. We did them with limited costumes and sets. We did it with limited props. We brought the best actors together for a month. It was an astonishing month, where we saw the entire 20th century through August Wilson's eyes. For the first time, all of his 10 plays were done in order, yet it wasn't a very expensive project.

STAMBERG: And box office was good for the run of the plays. But arts organizations can't rely just on ticket sales. They need funders, too, big ones. Contributions to the arts were down six percent last year - a lot, but not devastating, Michael Kaiser says. There is still plenty of money out there for the arts, but arts groups have to be smarter about snaring it.

So collaborate to cut costs, rethink some basics, market online - not in expensive print ads, for instance - and realize that when you cut programming, you cut your revenue source and your ambitions. The Kaiser counsel…

Mr. KAISER: I do believe that sometimes, it takes these terrible, difficult environments to allow us to be more creative rather than less creative.

STAMBERG: Starting tomorrow, the Kennedy Center's president, Michael Kaiser, will take his beliefs on tour: a national campaign to help arts organizations in 50 states to survive in a not-so-healthy economic environment. For those who believe that arts will save the world, it's a most welcome journey.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

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