Performing Arts: Michael Kaiser Hits the Road

by Editorial

The Kennedy Center’s President has been on the move for over a year. Here’s a look at what he’s been doing.

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By Ann Geracimos

Michael Kaiser. Photo by Tony Samperton

Michael Kaiser. Photo by Tony Samperton

Michael Kaiser is a man on the move – literally. As cognescenti of Kennedy Center doings know, their main man has been on the road since March 2009, traveling to 69 cities in 50 states and Puerto Rico as part of the institution’s “Arts in Crisis” program intended to boost the potential of local arts organizations. The exhausting ‘road show’ will conclude with a bang-up public concert at the Center itself on July 20th, to be called a “Celebration of Arts in America” and featuring the likes of Denyce Graves and Smokey Robinson.

With the help of nearly 140 mentors, the peripatetic president has gone from the south of Florida to the wilds of Alaska offering counsel to 760 non-profit theatrical ventures with in-person, online and phone-time visits.

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Some 11,000 people – organization and government officials as well as interested board members –  have attended the traveling sessions, he estimates. The surprise, he says, was seeing the great numbers who turned out.

The Sacramento stop on May 12 drew Kevin Johnson, the city’s mayor (former NBA star affianced to Washington’s public school chancellor Michelle Rhee), and resulted in implementation of yet another Kennedy Center program, under the education department, to have every child in the Sacramento school system through 8th grade receive an arts education. The model project now is being tested over a two year period.

Another surprise, he found, was that “remarkably few big organizations have gone bankrupt” in spite of the recession. It was expected that ten out of every hundred might have to be shuttered. Their resilience – and ability to cope – is impressive. Regional arts management training programs are now underway in another follow-up to the Arts In Crisis scenario. These and other similar outreach  endeavors fall under the Center’s newly named DeVos Institute of Arts Management, helped along by a generous $22.5 million grant from Michigan philanthropists Betsy and Dick DeVos, much of it to go into an endowment. The Arts in Crisis program was funded up front by notable Washington arts patrons Helen Lee Henderson and Adrienne Arsht.

Judging the impact of all these good works is an art form in itself, but the ultimate test is, in his words, “producing good art,” and the secret to good arts management from on high is to “stay very focused and use your time well.” He doesn’t even take vacations and intends to keep moving until his latest contract runs out in 2018 or “until they throw me out.

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Fat chance of that.

Even so, somewhere in a six-day break between Las Vegas and Anchorage, he found time to attend a fundraiser in New York for American Place Theatre at the request of APT’s executive director David Kener and present an award to best-selling author and humanitarian Greg Mortenson. (The theatre regularly hires professional actors to interpret live presentations of well-known literary works under its Literature to Life program.

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Does the combination of an arts impresario and builder of schools in Central Asia seem a surprise? The two men never before had met, and had little time to compare notes on their farflung enterprises, but Mr. Kaiser gladly confessed his interest, calling Mr. Mortenson and his Bozeman, Mt., based nonprofit, the Central Asia Institute, his hero. Tireless self-starters both, with vision to spare.

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