Face the Music

October 31, 2015

Arts-management guru Michael M. Kaiser talks about today’s online competition for audiences, dance’s lack of diversity and why risk-taking is the only way for companies to thrive.

Kaiser recently consulted for Pennsylvania Ballet, which led to a new business plan and new leadership. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, courtesy PAB.

Michael M. Kaiser has rightly earned the nickname “The Turnaround King” for his repeated success bringing stability to arts companies on the verge of disaster. Overseeing everything from contract negotiations, to PR and marketing, to how money gets raised (and spent), he has led a laundry list of esteemed organizations, including Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, American Ballet Theatre and the Kennedy Center.

Now, as founder and chairman of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland, Kaiser is raising serious questions for the industry. In his latest book, Curtains?: The Future of the Arts in America, Kaiser explains why major changes in consumer habits, education, funding and technology mean that what used to be considered “a safe bet” for performing arts companies is now suicidal.

How deeply in denial would you say people in the arts are?

It’s a broad range. There are people who actively disagree with me for good, sound reasons—artists who see the internet as a way of reaching more people, who find that new models are working for them. But there are others who simply aren’t paying attention. The notion that our budgets can grow 3, 4, 5 percent a year, that the money will be there—I think people are starting to realize that’s not a safe assumption anymore. My fear is not so much that organizations aren’t recognizing the issues, but in how they’re dealing with them. In particular, too many boards feel the way you deal with financial problems is to do less, go safer, cut back, be less visible—and that’s a recipe for disaster. Some organizations have “circled the wagons” and survived, however, my concern is with their longterm futures. Can they thrive as competition from online suppliers grows?

One might say that industries in denial are more depressing than hard truths.

That’s how I feel. People think I’m a pessimist, but I’m actually an optimist. I believe arts organizations can thrive in difficult economic and social climates. But it requires thinking carefully about the nature of their work, and about who their competitors are, which have changed because of technology.

If one is a regional opera company and thinks that just by doing safe productions of La Bohème, you’re going to be okay, the truth is that a lot of your potential audience is going to be buying astonishing performances of that work from the greatest companies, with the greatest singers, online for a fraction of what you’re charging for tickets.

Although, what many people enjoy about dance—whether they realize it or not—is the kinesthetic response effect. Does that protect dance from these disruptions?

Maybe to some degree. All the performing arts are better enjoyed live than through recordings. The question is about the amount of demand, and the willingness of people to pay what are becoming extremely high prices. One of the protections dance has is that ticket prices are, on average, much less expensive.

Part of that equation is the fact that dance artists are typically underpaid.

Way underpaid. But in a funny sense—and I’m not saying it’s a good thing—it does protect the industry a bit. The differential in price is not so great, whereas in opera, let’s say, a center orchestra seat at the Met now is 300 dollars, versus 25 dollars to watch the same opera in a movie theater or 5 dollars on your computer. [Editor’s note: Premium orchestra seats at the Met for ABT performances cost about half as much as they do for Met operas.]

Will we continue to see a shift toward shorter-term, project-based contracts for professional dancers?

It is a new trend, and a lot of younger artists are choosing not to participate in institutions. I think that’s fantastic from a creativity and flexibility standpoint. My concern is that you have to re-create a group of funders every time. Whereas the institutional model, handled well, creates a family of funders who stay with that institution.

Had major organizations been more proactive in embracing artists and audiences of color, would they be better-positioned for survival today?

Absolutely. But it takes an organization-wide commitment. I see a lot of companies pay lip service to diversity without really embracing the concept. Addressing those issues means more than hiring one dancer of color, having one board member of color, or doing one work by an artist of color—that’s not a commitment to diversity.

I threw out a line on Twitter asking for questions for you. Tim Cynova, deputy director at Fractured Atlas, said that we hear a lot about your turnaround successes, but he’s curious what you consider to be your “most epic failure.”

It’s a long story, from October 1985, about my first performances with the Kansas City Ballet, where I completely messed up the marketing, and we had the lowest ticket sales in the history of the company.

What did you learn?

I learned that a marketing program needs to have substantial weight in order to attract ticket buyers. Even if it’s clever, you can’t do a little campaign and think that it’ll convince people.

Risk emerged for me in your book as a kind of fulcrum on which so many things hinge—not just financially, but also in terms of the creative process. Can you tell us what you’ve learned about risk throughout your career?

It’s tricky because, on the one hand, art-making is risk-taking, and the best art is the riskiest art. Putting an idea out there that’s something new, something fresh, something exciting—that implies risk, because that can fail. One really wants to encourage risk-taking by artists. On the other hand, you want to minimize risk as much as possible about everything else. For me, it’s always been a balancing act. And also: How do you budget for failure? Many arts organizations make the mistake, especially regarding ticket sales, of assuming that everything’s going to be a success. In the arts, not everything is going to be a success, nor should it be—nor, frankly, do you want it to be. That means you’re playing it too safe.