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Reinventing the Kennedy Center

11/03/2005 e51-345
Michael Kaiser, SM '77, President, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Description: Running a high-profile arts organization can be a punishing profession. When Michael Kaiser arrived in London to take over the financially ailing Royal Opera House in 1998, one newspaper declared that his appointment was "the worst disaster to hit Covent Garden since the bombs of World War 2." In spite of nasty public swipes like this, Kaiser accomplished a miraculous turnaround at the Opera House _ as he has at other major companies. Kaiser's current work involves transforming the Kennedy Center into a truly national destination.

Kaiser abandoned his dream of becoming a professional singer after realizing he was "just dreadful," and built a successful career in financial consulting. His search for a more interesting product than money led him back to the arts. He developed a "mantra" for reviving near-moribund arts institutions: in order to thrive, provide "great art, well marketed."

At the Opera House, which was running a deficit of $30 million when he arrived, Kaiser laid off 300 people -- not to balance the books but to refocus the organization on new arts programs and fundraising opportunities. With shrinking government funding, Kaiser sought to change public perception of the Opera House. He created "such exciting events that 'those of means in England felt they had to participate" -- and donate. Within 18 months, he had paid off the deficit and raised an additional $40 million for renovations.

At the American Ballet Theater, Kaiser says, they had "no pointe shoes and were unscrewing the light bulbs to save money." Seven years of "Romeo and Juliet" had left the audience bored. "The trick to turnaround in the arts," says Kaiser, "is that you scrimp on everything but what goes on stage your product and the way you market it." Unlike every other industry, Kaiser notes, in the arts "we can't improve productivity" to counter rising costs. "Every decade gets harder, which means the sophistication of management has to get better."

About the Speaker(s): Michael M. Kaiser is responsible for the artistic programming and financial health of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Under Kaiser, the nation's center for the performing arts has increased its broad educational efforts and established cross-disciplinary programming with opera, theater, symphony, and dance. He has established an institute for arts management and arranged for 10 annual visits from both the ballet and opera companies of St. Petersburg, Russia's Kirov/Mariinsky Theater, which began in 2002. The unprecedented Sondheim Celebration, with six productions of Stephen Sondheim's works during the summer of 2002, the exclusive United States presentation of the Bolshoi Ballet and Opera on a single stage, and a five-year annual commitment of visits from London's Royal Shakespeare Company are among Kaiser's programs. He planned multidisciplinary festivals celebrating composer P.I. Tchaikovsky (winter 2003), the arts of France (winter and spring 2003), and a festival presenting works of playwright Tennessee Williams (summer 2004). Kaiser also works closely with the National Symphony Orchestra's Music Director Leonard Slatkin and its Board of Directors. He arranged, in conjunction with the U.S. State Department, the historic concert in December of 2003 at the Kennedy Center of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra with the National Symphony Orchestra.

Host(s): Sloan School of Management, MIT Sloan School of Management

Tape #: T20514

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MIT World — special events and lectures

MIT World — special events and lectures

Category: Events | Updated over 2 years ago

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December 12, 2011 21:16
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