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Saturday, August 30, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 70.0° F  Light Rain Fog/Mist
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Kennedy Center chief speaks at Overture Center
Tells worried arts groups: Be bold
Michael Kaiser
Michael Kaiser
Credit:Overture Center

Despite the dismal economy, this is no time for nonprofit arts organizations to think small. So says Michael Kaiser, president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

Kaiser is on a 50-state speaking tour he calls "Arts in Crisis," and on Monday afternoon, Madison's Overture Center was stop number 21. He's a national authority on arts management, the author of The Art of the Turnaround and a blogger for The Huffington Post.

Arts presenters, journalists and others from Madison and beyond turned out in droves to hear what Kaiser had to say. After being introduced by Overture Center CEO Tom Carto and Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton, Kaiser engaged in an on-stage conversation in Overture's Capitol Theater with Andrew Taylor and then took questions from the audience. Taylor is head of the UW-Madison's MBA program in arts administration.

Kaiser's message was pragmatic, but it was also a call to arms. While he acknowledges that dreaming big might be hard when your theater or dance company is more concerned about making next week's payroll, he says it's essential.

Without big dreams and exciting long-range plans, audiences, donors and board members won't stay engaged. "When all you do is focus on today...very few new people are going to care about you," said Kaiser.

Kaiser urged performing arts groups to plan their schedules four or five years in advance. Not only will this lead to better art, argued Kaiser, it allows for a longer fundraising period.

Of course, obstacles to nonprofits arts organizations are plentiful right now: shrinking corporate support, a younger generation that has grown up with a dearth of arts education and a belated embrace of the web's marketing possibilities.

He doesn't believe, though, that arts organization should openly dwell on what ails them. "Arts groups talk about their problems way too publicly," Kaiser observed. Venting to the media should be kept to a minimum, in his view. As much as possible, groups should have only one spokesperson and keep the public message positive.

They also shouldn't shy away from bold, challenging programming. "If we all do Phantom of the Opera and Cats, it will be incredibly boring."

If there was a gap in Kaiser's message, it was a focus strictly on the performing arts, with no real nod to the visual arts. Art museums already plan their programming years in advance, in part due to the logistics necessary to borrow works of art from other institutions for major shows. But of course Kaiser runs a performing arts venue, so his emphasis is not surprising.

Though Kaiser didn't comment on specific Wisconsin examples, it seems that American Players Theatre is already doing some of what he suggested. While it had already established a comfortable, successful groove with its outdoor amphitheater, it pushed ahead with a new, smaller, indoor stage, where it can produce the kind of programming likely to draw a smaller crowd.

Video and audio of Kaiser's talk will be available in the near future on WisconsinEye.

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