Kennedy Center to Help Arts Programs in Economic Trouble
Washington Post, Feb. 3 — The next act in Michael M. Kaiser's quest to make all arts organizations smart and healthy is about to begin.
After a string of successes rescuing arts groups from near-death, Kaiser is now enlisting Kennedy Center managers to help nonprofit arts organizations that are reeling from the recession.
"Arts in Crisis: A Kennedy Center Initiative" was announced this morning. Essentially, the program is a high-tech support service through which arts administrators can talk to the center's personnel about shrinking income, budget-conscious audiences and other difficulties in keeping the doors open.
"Crisis" is not too harsh a word, says Kaiser, 55, the center's president. "You see this multiple whammy. The length and depth of this economic downturn is unprecedented in my lifetime."
The need to have a central place for strategic advice, and perhaps a word of comfort, has been building. "Over the last six months, we have gotten e-mails and letters from many groups. Now every single day you read about one or more than one that is cutting back their season or reducing the staff," said Kaiser, who recently wrote "The Art of the Turnaround: Creating and Maintaining Healthy Arts Organizations."
Any arts organization that is nonprofit — which usually covers orchestras, dance troupes and theaters — can sign up for free assistance from the Kennedy Center, which has built a reservoir of information about how groups have managed their successes and failures through a half-dozen programs over the past eight years.
"Organizations that have endowments have seen them cut by one-third," Kaiser said. "In cities like Detroit that are so dependent on the auto industry, the money is gone. Foundations are forced to cut back, and individuals have seen their wealth reduced. People are buying their tickets more selectively, and they are not going out as often."
In recent weeks, organizations from almost every part of the country have reported belt-tightening measures, or worse. The Baltimore Opera Company filed for bankruptcy. The Seattle Repertory Theatre asked its staff of 55 to take two weeks of unpaid leave. The Orlando Ballet cut live music for "The Nutcracker" so the dance troupe wouldn't be reduced. The Santa Clarita Symphony in California canceled its season.
The Denver Post reported Sunday that many local arts organizations had cut their budgets by 12 percent but had not instituted layoffs. And the Chicago Tribune reported Sunday that the Joffrey Ballet froze hiring eight months ago.
For the Kennedy Center to step in is a good sign, says Jennifer Cover Payne, the president of the Cultural Alliance of Greater Washington. "Most organizations are in need of some assistance. There is a decrease in foundation, individual and government funding," she said. More than half of the regions' arts groups have budgets below $1 million. "People are already making adjustments on staff, salaries and space." Locally, the Bead Museum in Gallery Place has closed, and Zenith Gallery has announced that high rent is forcing it to close its physical space soon.
Payne posits that the Kennedy Center might be overwhelmed. "I would suspect there are few that would not be responding," she says.
The confluence of declining sources of funding is daunting, says Bill Ivey, the director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University.
"Everything is diminished in this environment," says Ivey, a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts who hopes the $50 million for the NEA in the House version of the economic stimulus bill survives. "At the end of the day, it is about money, not just advice," he says.
The Kennedy Center's program received $500,000 mainly from two individuals: board member Helen Lee Henderson and Adrienne Arsht, a Miami businesswoman and philanthropist. The amount partially funds projects for the next year, including administrative costs such as travel to the Kennedy Center for organization staff members. "We don't feel these problems are ending soon," Kaiser said.
The center's president said he is not as concerned about smaller organizations — which are used to dealing with difficult situations — as he is about groups that are misdirecting efforts at downsizing. "I'm worried that people are cutting the wrong things first, and that makes it much harder to compete for funding," he said. "Those who cut the programming first wouldn't look as attractive to the funders."
"Arts in Crisis" has a Web site where organizations can register: http://www.artsincrisis.org. Assistance will be provided through e-mails, telephone calls, Web chats or site visits.
One of the center's incentives to act, besides witnessing the crisis, was hearing the president's call to arms. "This is in the spirit of President Obama saying we have to volunteer and get involved," Kaiser said.