The Vilar Institute for Arts Management at the Kennedy Center is a school with a difference.
The institute offers instruction in effective management techniques to management professionals in the performing arts. It does this through yearlong fellowships for advanced arts-minded professionals, shorter-term student internships and occasional executive seminars for those currently in the field. An example of the latter is a forum scheduled for spring on managing theaters geared to specific racial or ethnic groups. The Yale University Drama School is a partner in offering the forum.
The key difference between what Vilar offers and what is available in university training programs is its practical basis. In place of degrees and academic credits, students get on-the-job experience and participate directly in Kennedy Center activities.
Funded by a grant from New York philanthropist Alberto Vilar, the program is the brainchild of Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser, who wrote a text geared to not-for-profit organizations while teaching the subject for six years at New York University.
“Whenever a university is involved,” he says, “you have a concern with academic requirements, so there would necessarily be a lot of book learning and theory and discussion of vocabulary.”
None of that goes far enough, in his opinion. Mr. Kaiser and his staff which includes representatives from the firm of Price Waterhouse offering accounting instruction cut to the chase.
“It’s not, ‘Can we do this?’ but, ‘How do we do this?’” observes Kadija George of London, one of the institute fellows in this, the Vilar initiative’s first year. Beginning last September, the program brought 12 professionals from various countries and backgrounds to the Kennedy Center for nearly a year of intensive work and study. They are studying strategic planning, marketing, development, accounting and programming.
“The point of the program is long-term,” Mr. Kaiser says. “Whether they go back to their previous jobs is up to them. I’m more concerned to look back in 10 or 12 years and say we have put out one or two hundred trained arts administrators in the world.”
His book, “Strategic Planning in the Arts: A Practical Guide,” is a bible of sorts for the fellows program. Each fellow develops a “thesis,” if the word can be used in this context, offering a comprehensive overview on the management of an arts organization or program different from one the fellow has known before. At year’s end, each fellow will make a formal presentation in front of the class on strategic planning that Mr. Kaiser conducts every Friday morning.
Called “the project,” it involves considerable homework and a fairly complicated relationship with sources. Daniel Hagerty, for instance, an experienced broadcaster who has been the producer for WETA-TV’s weekly “Around Town” show on the arts, has chosen to do an analysis and plan for Washington’s Studio Theatre. He will need to know the theater’s financial details, some of which ordinarily would be confidential.
According to one of the fellows, the gist of the Friday morning sessions involves real issues and problems confronting the center.
“Michael will present the problem and then invite us to give a solution,” says Rachel Fine of New York, a pianist by training who most recently was program administrator for the Aspen Opera Theater Center in Aspen, Colo. “Then he tells us what he did about it.”
If the fellows don’t always come up with the right answer, that is part of the learning process. Learning by doing is a daily exercise. Mr. Kaiser’s sessions also emphasize effective public speaking, which, in his view, is about “appearing knowledgeable and confident when talking about your ideas.”
He minces no words, fellows say. “He will say, ‘Well, what is your point?’ because he wants us to be able to communicate a vision the way he does in 20 words or less,” Mr. Hagerty says with only slight exaggeration.
“We challenge one another,” says Bruce Sansom, a former principal dancer with London’s Royal Ballet and consultant with the San Francisco Ballet. “And you discover more about yourself the further into the program you go. I found out my weakest element is finance. I have no problem with figures but with how to see problems ahead and know how to correct them.”
The fellows, ranging in age from 26 to 39 and coming from as far away as China and Lithuania, also attend special seminars and executive committee meetings and mingle with current and potential Kennedy Center donors and presidential advisory appointees from around the country.
One recent seminar was on “accessibility” equipping institutions to meet the needs of the disabled. On Friday, participants left for a long weekend in New York to attend a conference where smaller and midsize organizations pitched ideas for public programs to performing arts administrators.
Most days, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., the fellows are busy with what are called “practicums,” assignments to work on a rotating basis every few months in various Kennedy Center departments. Paid only $18,000 to cover expenses, some fellows have taken a considerable pay cut to attend. Two paired up as roommates to save money.
“But if I had gone into a university MBA program as I thought about doing, I would be $60,000 in debt,” Ms. Fine says. “We are essentially getting paid to go to school and our texts are covered.”
By year’s end, all will have spent several months in the development office learning fund-raising techniques “because I think that is important,” Mr. Kaiser states and learning from each other’s experiences.
“Several now say they will want to do fund raising,” he says, a note of pride in his voice. While the Kennedy Center is in good shape financially September, surprisingly, was one of the institution’s best months in this regard Mr. Kaiser has been notably successful in attracting major donors such as Mr. Vilar, who gave $40 million to run the institute for 10 years.
“Development is more a part of what goes on here than what I have experienced in other organizations,” says Mr. Hagerty, who just completed a practicum as press agent for the center’s Millennium Stage. “Fund raising is actually more creative than I realized.”
To many, the vocabulary and management “tools” of the business world are new, but most seem to quickly absorb and understand the nuances of such terms as “external and internal analyses,” “building earned income” and “planned giving.” The latter, they were told in last Thursday morning’s class on charitable estate planning, given by Seth Speyer from the Kennedy Center’s development office, “is not about death.” Rather, as he and other center officers hammer home, “everything we do is about relationships.”
For Ms. George, a free-lance consultant in the field of literature as a performance art, “it’s important to see differences in how they deal with things at home and here. When I heard the word ‘development’ I wondered, ‘What is that?’”
In the United Kingdom, Mr. Sansom says, “fund raising is a little bit of a dirty word. But what it really is is developing a relationship, which is something the U.K. has to come to terms with. You give people a reason to have a relationship with you and the institution. That is a very clear message to take back and a difficult one.”
“A great deal of time is spent focusing on how to successfully build relationships with constituents, whether they are donors or ticket buyers or what have you,” Mr. Hagerty says.
“Also, don’t forget,” Mr. Sansom adds, “when we finish here, we don’t cut off the relationship with the center or with each other.”
Their networking skills have improved considerably, they say. “It really is important, knowing how to do it in a short space of time,” Ms. George admits. “Making other people feel comfortable and welcome in the best possible way. There is such an art to it. I thought I was quite good at it, but I learned.”
They network together as well and have lunch weekly apart from mentors and supervisors. Ramien Pierre of Cambridge, Mass., whose ambition is to become principal of a performing arts school and who was a consultant for the Duke Elllington School of the Arts before becoming a fellow, invited Ms. George to help some Ellington students with their performances in the school’s coffeehouse gathering. “That opened up to me what people are doing here in schools,” Ms. George says.
A two-week holiday break gave Kathryn Colegrove time to check in with the staff at the nonprofit Dad’s Garage Theatre in Atlanta, where she is managing director.
“A part of me went back saying, ‘Oh, I know how to fix it all now.’ I have nine more months to think about how much more I can bring back. it’s mostly been the planning and forward thinking. In a small arts organization like mine, it is very easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day to not look to the future and to not plan well.”
“Not only are we going to go out and network and talk about this place, but while we are here, we are a tool as well,” Mr. Sansom says. “You don’t think that is a spinoff that just happened. Never think that Michael doesn’t think of every possibility. That is what is impressive about seeing someone strategically plan looking at every possibility and then seeing those possibilities through to the end.”