- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 17, 2001

''People don't give you money because you're in trouble. They give you money because they think you're going to be great when you get out of trouble," says Michael Kaiser, new president of the Kennedy Center.

The Kennedy Center wasn't hurting financially when Mr. Kaiser took over two weeks ago, and billionaire arts philanthropist Alberto W. Vilar thought Mr. Kaiser already was great when he gave the center $50 million this week.

The Cuban-born Mr. Vilar said that when he learned that Mr. Kaiser was leaving the Royal Opera House in London to come to the Kennedy Center, he told him, "It's a black day for England and a happy day for America."

Mr. Vilar added that as large as his current gift is — the biggest the Kennedy Center has received and the largest given by Mr. Vilar — "I would say it's not unreasonable that in another couple of years Michael might have another project that might interest me." (Mr. Vilar, president and founder of Amerindo Investment Advisors, also has given $8 million to the Washington Opera).

The donation was a stunning opening salvo for Mr. Kaiser's leadership of the performing arts center. He had arrived here preceded by an almost mythic reputation for transforming financially troubled arts organizations into healthy ones — the Kansas City Ballet, the Alvin Ailey dance company, American Ballet Theatre (ABT) and, most recently, the Royal Opera House, where he spent two years. So miracles were expected, and this was his beginning.

Roughly $15 million of Mr. Vilar's gift will go to yearly visits here from the Kirov Ballet and the Kirov Opera, which will begin in February 2002 and continue for 10 years. The Kirov Ballet was last seen at the Kennedy Center 10 years ago, and the Kirov Opera never has been here.

Each company will perform two works. Negotiations are not yet complete, but most likely the operas will be Modest Mussorgsky's "Khovanshchina" and Giuseppe Verdi's "Macbeth," and the ballets will be Marius Petipa's grand "Sleeping Beauty," lavishly restaged a few years ago thanks to a gift from Mr. Vilar, and the Kirov's highly acclaimed mounting of George Balanchine's full-length "Jewels." (The Kennedy Center will be announcing its new programming March 1.)

All four works have special resonance for the Kirov (also called the Mariinsky): Mussorgsky and Petipa created works in Russia; a Verdi work was commissioned for the St. Petersburg company ("La Forza del Destino"); and Mr. Balanchine danced and trained at the Mariinsky, before starting his illustrious career in the West.

Much of Mr. Vilar's donation, about $35 million, will be used for a training program in arts management. The ongoing institute will bear his name and be international in scope. This project was proposed by Mr. Kaiser.

The institute will train a new generation of arts managers, seek to invigorate existing ones and provide workshops for new board members of arts organization. Participants will not have to pay fees.

It is a project clearly close to Mr. Kaiser's heart. He is writing a book about what he has learned in 15 successful years of arts management.

"When arts organizations are in dire straits, the size of the problem is relatively small," he says.

"At Ailey, the deficit was $1.5 million; at ABT, it was $5.5 million. That's a lot of money if you don't have it, but it's not a lot of money in the scheme of the world, and that margin between health and sickness in the arts is typically very thin," he says.

"I believe that if an arts organization is doing good art, there's always a way to solve the problem. What's missing are people who know how to find the resources to support artists. That is what my work is about — doing it myself and teaching others to do it."

Mr. Kaiser worked in South Africa for a few years — "the best experience of my life," he says. "My first trip was three weeks after Nelson Mandela was inaugurated [as president], and I helped them set up their arts council and think through how they were going to fund their arts. Very few people knew how to run an arts organization: How do you raise money, how do you market? So I developed a program that I taught in three cities — Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town. We filmed it, and it's now in all the libraries of South Africa."

When an arts organization is in trouble, the first thing it does is try to spend less money and the first thing it cuts are new artistic initiatives and marketing, Mr. Kaiser says.

"But when you think about it, the two things that create excitement and bring revenue are art and marketing. So [organizations] get into a vicious cycle of even deeper trouble," he says.

At the ABT, Mr. Kaiser says, "we created some big projects, we marketed them to death, and that excitement brought in some new money for art and marketing and we turned a vicious spiral on its ear and made it a self-reinforcing cycle — and that's what you have to do with a troubled organization."

A key element in all this is rigorous planning.

"Planning is a hugely important part of the work I do because it makes the artists relax and the donors relax," Mr. Kaiser says. "Artists are used to saying, 'I want to do this and I want to do that,' and hearing, 'We can't afford that.' But if you say, 'OK, let's lay out a plan of how we're going to do it over the next five years,' they're thrilled. They don't need it all that year, they just need it at some point, so they relax. Then if you sit down with your board and donors and say, 'Here are our problems and here's how we're going to solve them, not just in generalities but in a clear, focused way,' then they relax, too."

Before his arrival in Washington, rumors circulated that Lincoln Center in New York City also had pursued Mr. Kaiser to run its organization. The new director says that wasn't true — that he already had accepted the job here before Lincoln Center started looking. But he said the Kennedy Center job was more appealing anyway.

"The constituents of Lincoln Center are where most of the artistic decisions happen, while here most of the artistic decisions happen at the Kennedy Center office. For me, the challenge in this job was to play more of an artistic role than I have in the past and also to be able to work in so many art forms — theater, ballet, symphonic music, opera, chamber music, jazz and all the educational work which I'm passionate about."

Mr. Kaiser's plans for the center include originating more art here while continuing to bring in the best from around the country and the world.

He is interested in big projects, but he thinks supporting small and experimental work is essential for the vitality of art. He is particularly interested in seeing young people introduced to art in a meaningful way; that means giving them a chance to interact many times with an art form, and with their parents included.

"I link the two together," he says, "because I've found if you don't, you don't have the same kind of impact."

Is there anything about the job he doesn't like?

"I would say the hardest part of my work has to do with negotiations," Mr. Kaiser says. "My life is these artists; my life is to support them. So when we have to sit in this artificial situation across the table, for me it's painful; I mean, it's bone-chillingly painful."

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