Michael Kaiser: A Fundamental Problem With Our Arts Ecology

via Michael Kaiser: A Fundamental Problem With Our Arts Ecology.

Kaiser lays bare his experienced opinion regarding the problem with arts organizations in the US today, "the biggest problem we face in the arts is a lack of trained arts managers and board members. One can trace the demise of virtually every bankrupt arts organization to a lack of competent staff and/or board leadership."

No one would disagree on the value of the arts and classical music. Countless studies have shown that music and arts enhance the mind and spirit.

However, shouts for "market driven" funding of arts organizations have recently begun to drown out urgent calls for more private and public funding of the arts in many communities.

Unfortunately, live classical music and other "high art" will not sustainably merit purely populist funding. Why? Because high art is not the same as entertainment. High art values questions more than answers, complexity over simplicity. High art aims to challenge its audience to think and explore new emotional and aesthetic territory, thus enhancing spiritual and intellectual depth.

In the past, the concept of "noblesse oblige (nobility's obligation to responsibly foster strong arts environments despite insufficient public funds) has filled this gap. Since wealth and power are not necessarily democratically won, let us hope that noblesse oblige stirs the hearts and minds of the wealthy in this country, and around the world.

And let us hope that a new generation of creative and innovative arts managers rise up to lead classical music and art back into its vital function as a "tonic" for a healthy society.

Here is Kaiser's article:

Over the last year I have noticed a change in the reactions by major donors, especially foundations, to serious fiscal problems experienced by important arts organizations.

In the past, if an organization with a history of major contributions to the field became seriously ill, donors would rally and work to shore up the organization until it could clean house, strengthen its board and hire new staff leadership. This was not always a clean or easy process but arts organizations with strong reputations were not allowed to go out of business without a fight.

There seemed to be a belief that organizations with important histories of artistic excellence, or organizations that were leaders in communities of color, should be saved and given a second (or third) chance to create stability. I was involved in such turnarounds at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and American Ballet Theatre in the 1990s. I could not have saved these institutions without the tremendous support of important funders. The Ford Foundation, for example, played a key role in saving Ailey and the Mellon Foundation was instrumental in the turnaround at ABT.

During this recession, however, funders have taken a harder tone. "When there are well run organizations that are struggling to replace donors who have evaporated, why support those that have poor management, weak boards, and unrealistic plans and budgets" the funding community seems to be suggesting.

It is hard to argue with this logic, but it is also dangerous not to. The line between sickness and health is a slim one in the arts. It can take one competent staff leader or a few energized board members to initiate the process of fixing a troubled arts organization.

Letting organizations like the Baltimore Opera, Charleston Symphony or the Las Vegas Art Museum close comes at a huge cost to their communities. And it is especially sad when they are allowed to disband when their deficits are modest compared to their histories of service.

It seems disingenuous for major funders to chastise or ignore organizations with poor management when these same funders have avoided funding programs to improve the quality of arts managers. We spend billions of dollars to train singers, dancers and actors, and insignificant amounts to train the people who employ them.

I have said it before and I will continue to say it: the biggest problem we face in the arts is a lack of trained arts managers and board members. One can trace the demise of virtually every bankrupt arts organization to a lack of competent staff and/or board leadership. There are many, well-managed arts organizations that are surviving this recession. It is not easy for any arts manager, but those with knowledge and skill are seeing their organizations through this most challenging environment.

Until the funding community addresses this issue of arts management training, they will continue to be faced with organizations of artistic and educational merit that are going to ask for emergency funding and be forced to close if they do not receive it.

Isn't it time to discuss this fundamental problem in our arts ecology?

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4 comments for “Michael Kaiser: A Fundamental Problem With Our Arts Ecology

  1. May 27, 2010 at

    Thanks for your post–I love your blog.

    Is it really true that the biggest problem we face in the arts is that arts managers and board members aren't well trained? I certainly agree that Michael Kaiser himself is an extraordinary manager. And we don't have many Michael Kaisers.

    I'd love to see every high quality arts organization thrive. But that isn't real life. Arts organizations fail because their artistic offering isn't popular, because their cost structure doesn't match their revenues, because of poor marketing or development, because of a lack of imagination, or countless other reasons. And when an arts group dies it's rare that anyone agrees on the autopsy. Kaiser's excellent book, The Art of the Turnaround, prescribes greater imagination and daring. Indeed, a lack of imagination is often the fatal flaw of arts managers and artists themselves.

    For-profit businesses fail, too, for similar reasons. Financial failure brings pain to the individuals involved, whether it's an arts group or the most mercenary private company. Yet isn't the possibility of failure a necessary thing, perhaps even a good thing? It forces us to restructure on a sound footing or to move on to other ventures.

    Art and music don't fail. It's the business of the arts that can fail.

    • May 28, 2010 at

      Very cool comment Bruce. I like two sentences in particular. You say,\”Indeed, a lack of imagination is often the fatal flaw of arts managers and artists themselves.\” With which I agree. The classical musical arts have become museums for the most part, rather than vital, artistic, creative and imaginative art.

      And your last sentence is well put. \”Art and music don't fail. It's the business of the arts that can fail.\”

  2. concertblog
    May 27, 2010 at

    If this is true, then there's a future for me!

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