Lessons from a Turnaround Artist

The recently announced $150M gift to Yale University from Blackstone Group CEO Steven Schwarzman to build a new performing arts center on campus sent school administrators to seek the counsel of Michael Kaiser. Former director of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, Kaiser currently chairs the Devos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland, providing consulting and training services to arts administrators and trustees.

This news sent me back to my bookshelves to dust off Kaiser’s 2008 book, The Art of the Turnaround. I thought I might glean some insights about building and programming a new cultural facility from scratch while avoiding the need for turnaround strategies that Kaiser has employed throughout his impressive career. 

In rereading his practical, born-of-experience philosophy, I was put off again by the fact that Kaiser writes in lots of “I” statements throughout the book, which can leave the impression he single-handedly orchestrated the transformations of the five performing arts organizations he profiles (all organizations he led): Kansas City Ballet, Alvin Ailey American Dance TheaterAmerican Ballet Theatre, Royal Opera House, and the Kennedy Center. (For the record, he does make a disclaimer in the short acknowledgements section of the book, citing various individuals who assisted his efforts.) Certainly, inspired leadership, imagination, strategic focus and hard work like that demonstrated by Kaiser are crucial to any cultural organization, but no one goes it alone. Leaders are important, but so are followers.

  Superman Turnaround  by  Mark Hossain . Superman is a trademark of DC Comics. 

Superman Turnaround by Mark Hossain. Superman is a trademark of DC Comics. 

In spite of this, Kaiser offers some truly useful advice. Here’s my summary of his Ten Rules of the Turnaround*, with my own thoughts thrown in:

  1. Choose a leader with vision, courage, and keen communication and negotiation skills, someone who works incredibly hard and earns widespread respect from all stakeholders. Such a leader must simultaneously be catalyst, guide, facilitator, consensus builder and doer
  2. Lead with a plan that outlines a strategic vision for the future within the context of institutional mission and goals, one that considers the competitive environment, as well as organizational assets and ailments. The plan must be actionable, both operationally and financially, and based on a very simple premise, according to Kaiser: “Good art, well marketed.” (See #s 5 and 6, below.)
  3. Prioritize increasing revenue over decreasing costs. A fan of the adage, “You can’t cut your way to growth,” Kaiser believes that most arts organizations don’t have much fat to trim. Instead, he recommends investing in strategies that boost contributed and earned income. Both of these rely on stellar programs to engage patrons and audiences alike, as well as operational efficiency. 
  4. Let go of the past and focus on what’s ahead. Recognizing that finding fault and casting blame does nothing to move forward from whatever stressful situation an organization finds itself, Kaiser recommends not looking back. (While I agree that a no-fault approach has merit, I would advise that objectively examining what transpired can be useful in distilling lessons learned and instilling accountability.) He urges addressing immediate issues (like deficits) and then laser focusing on “artistic programming, board development, donor and press cultivation, and other activities” that will support a sustainable future. 
  5. Plan ahead, far ahead. Kaiser believes in the bold gesture and mapping a programming schedule five years out. This allows sufficient time for artists to create new work and for organizations to raise money, negotiate partnerships with other institutions and cultivate advance press, all of which help to garner audiences and needed resources while building (or rebuilding) institutional profile.
  6. Don’t cut the marketing budget! Although it’s often the knee jerk reaction in times of financial distress, Kaiser admonishes resisting this impulse and doing the exact opposite. Invest substantially and strategically in promoting upcoming artistic and educational programs, and develop brand by marketing the institution. All of this is best orchestrated via a well-crafted marketing and communications plan.
  7. Designate one spokesperson to control external messaging, and focus only on positive, mission-oriented, good news storytelling. Indeed, this is critical in a turnaround situation where working to shift public opinion is essential, but a healthy organization can and should support multiple spokespeople to reflect the diverse talents of the leadership team, both staff and board members. Kaiser makes a good point, though, that these messages should be coordinated and managed, ideally by experts in PR and marketing.
  8. Fundraise for gifts large enough to make a difference. Kaiser has learned from experience that funds to fuel institutional transformations primary come through raised revenue, not admissions or the box office. (The same is true for startups or capital expansions.) So focusing attention on major gifts fundraising is imperative. Like me, Kaiser believes in pursuing “right-sized” contributions that are consistent with operational budgets and giving thresholds, and within reach of a sufficient number of donor prospects to make goal. It's worth reiterating the importance of doing your homework to find the strategic intersections between donor capacity and passion and institutional vision and needs. 
  9. Restructure the board. Show me a struggling cultural nonprofit and I’ll show you a weak board inadequately supporting organizational well-being. Frail boards usually equate to anemic fundraising results, which only keep organizations in a constant state of crisis. Kaiser maintains that arts leaders must objectively evaluate their current trustee rosters, rotate off those who can’t make the needed financial commitment, and recruit new members who can and will. I’d also advocate for identifying the qualities and expertise needed for optimal board service, including philanthropic capacity, then assess where there are gaps and seek new candidates to fill those gaps. And then prioritize board engagement – Kaiser asserts that each trustee should receive meaningful, personalized communication from senior staff at least six times annually.
  10. Be disciplined about following the plan. Driving a successful organizational transformation requires “balancing competing needs,” as Kaiser notes, and staying focused on priorities and immediate goals. Crisis creates urgency and that can be used as an effective rallying cry to collectively work the plan, focus on solutions and produce what leadership and change agent guru John Kotter calls “short-term wins” to keep the momentum going.

Ironically, Kaiser’s most recent book, Curtains?: The Future of the Arts in America, doesn’t paint a rosy picture for cultural organizations, especially those that advance more traditional art forms, such as opera, ballet, classical music and theater. Studies by the National Endowment for the Arts released in January 2015 underscore Kaiser’s pessimism and confirm the decline of in-person arts participation (i.e., going to the theater or symphony) over the past two decades, while digital participation (for example, accessing culture via the Internet) has grown.   

But various reports are contradictory. There’s still a big appetite for art making, as evidenced by the increase in student enrollment and graduation in fine arts disciplines, and for arts engagement, such as the out-sized crowds jamming this Carolina Beach street art festival or the record attendance at Broadway theaters this past year. Such is the bet that Yale is making, and presumably Kaiser will offer similar counsel to the school as he did in a recent WQXR radio interview with Naomi Lewin:

  • Focus on the new. Foster exciting, innovative programming. Don’t play it safe. Produce large projects, like festivals, that excite and invite participation.
  • Enhance community-wide standards for arts education.
  • Make it fun, engaging and accessible to be a donor, at all levels. 

And I would add take the time to articulate organizational vision and the “why” behind investing in creativity and cultural resources to provide perspective over the long-term. For further insights on institutional transformations in the museum sector, check out the book I co-authored with Beth Tuttle, Magnetic: The Art and Science of Engagement.

* Kaiser, Michael M. The Art of the Turnaround: Creating and Maintaining Healthy Arts Organizations. Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 2008, pps. 1-14.