'The Turnaround King' helps regional arts groups

by Alison Young, Minnesota Public Radio
September 17, 2009

St. Paul, Minn. — The economy is on the skids and all arts organizations are struggling. The Kennedy Center has sent its President Michael Kaiser - the "Turnaround King" - to lend a helping hand.

We are such an incredibly creative and resilient industry ... We find ways to make do with nothing; we find ways to bounce back.
- Michael Kaiser

He had some wonderful advice and took dozens of questions from Minnesota arts groups when he was at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts.

With a charming East Coast accent and a down-to-earth style, Kaiser started the session by speaking for more than an hour with me about his philosophy of success in the arts.

Most of what he espouses comes from his own experiences - his successes and failures - and learning through trial and error.

Michael Kaiser lists 10 rules in his book, "The Art of the Turnaround." We discussed them at the event and he gave a chuckle when I asked him about mentioning at the end of the list "ignore them at your peril!"

Kaiser admitted he was being a bit full of himself in saying that, but truthfully he'd found these rules to be worth following as an arts leader in good times and bad.

This is roughly the list of rules:

  • 1. Someone must lead.
  • 2. That someone must have a plan.
  • 3. You can't save your way to health.
  • 4. Focus on today and tomorrow, not the past.
  • 5. Extend your program calendar.
  • 6. Use both institutional and programmatic marketing.
  • 7. Have only one spokesman.
  • 8. Focus fund-raising on large donors, but don't aim too high.
  • 9. Restructure the board if needed.
  • 10. Have the discipline to follow the rules.

Of course the list is far more fleshed out in his book. You can also find useful information on the "Arts in Crisis" Web site.

Following our talk, Mr. Kaiser participated in a question-and-answer session with a large and eager audience of representatives from the regional arts community.

Topics discussed included the changing role and composition of an arts organization's board, developing effective mission statements, the difference between institutional and programmatic marketing, organizations without their own spaces finding an identity, writing strategic plans, tapping funding sources, taking risks in tough economic times, education and the arts, building staff morale, and the future of endowments.

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