The president of Washington's John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is visiting 65 different cities as part of the center's Arts in Crisis initiative, but the problems he sees are essentially the same.
When financial troubles hit, "the first reaction is to cut programming," Michael Kaiser said before addressing a who's who of Central Kentucky arts leaders Wednesday afternoon at ArtsPlace. "When you do less work, you reduce revenue for future years. With less revenue and funds, you have fewer places to go.
"You always do good work, and you always do aggressive marketing."
Kaiser was speaking from 25 years of managing arts groups that he usually began working with when they were in crisis.
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These days, a lot of arts groups across the United States, including some in Kentucky, are in just such a predicament because of the recession.
Kaiser said because arts organizations are so dependent on philanthropy and ticket sales, they often get hit earlier and take a longer time to recover than other businesses.
"Coming out of a recession, if someone has $1,000 to spend, they're probably more likely to hold onto it or buy the new carpet on new car they'd been waiting to get," Kaiser said. "So arts groups are slower to see the recovery."
Kaiser said he has just started the tour, which will see him visit Nashville on Thursday. While he has visited areas more severely affected by the recession, including Detroit, he said arts groups are basically experiencing the same challenges.
What scared him, he said, was that he was reading about a lot of groups reacting in the same counterproductive ways: cutting programming and marketing.
He decided to hit the road because the Kennedy Center, "is a national cultural center, so we have an obligation to serve the nation."
The executive, known in arts circles as "the turnaround king," said a key to managing an organization through a crisis is anticipating it by being plugged into the world at large.
"Read The Wall Street Journal," he said. "It was clear at the beginning of 2008 we were heading into a tough economic time. We cut everything from staff travel to free coffee for the staff."
Some Kennedy Center employees wondered what Kaiser was nervous about, he said, but when the crisis set in later in the year, the changes he had already instituted "made my board relax."
In public, Kaiser said arts organizations should dwell on their exciting projects and not on their problems.
"Plan projects two and three years down the road, and announce them now," he said. "These are the sorts of things that change the history of organizations."
Creating excitement about an organization will create excitement on a board and inspire more contributions and participation, he said.
While he advised against running deficits to create attention-grabbing programming, he did say that organizations should have something on the schedule every quarter to be excited about.
Kaiser started Wednesday in Louisville, where he spoke at Actors Theatre of Louisville.
Kentucky arts leaders, he said, "are really sophisticated people who are plugged into national networks and national knowledge."
And while hard times brought him out of Washington, Kaiser said a crisis can yield great art.
Closing his talk, Kaiser said that in arts organizations, "the line between sickness and health can be very thin, and a sick organization can get healthy very fast if it creates revenue. And we know the way to create revenue is to create great art."