A creative strategy

Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser believes that more than enough money is available to support the arts in Israel.

shekels good 88 (photo credit: )
shekels good 88
(photo credit: )
"Complaining is useless," asserted Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center, in an interview on the situation of arts and culture organizations in Israel. Soft-spoken to the point of self-effacement, Kaiser is passionate about the arts and has strong opinions about arts management. With an impressive record as executive director at the Royal Opera House in London, the American Ballet Theater and the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, each of which he not only rescued from severe debt, but led to renewed growth and achievements, Kaiser could write the book about financial turnaround - and he did. The indefatigable Kaiser is eager to share his knowledge with the world and in addition to writing several books (Strategic Planning in the Arts: A Practical Guide is available on-line for free), he has worked with arts organizations in 60 countries, most recently leading a two-day symposium on the topic at the Mishkenot Sha'ananim Conference Center in Jerusalem. Kaiser found the arts managers to be very "responsive, an experienced audience... the Israeli cultural world very strong, passionate [and] sophisticated compared to the rest of the world... far more organized, there is more fundraising than I expected." Viewing Israel as "being in transition from looking toward support from the government," he says, "The main challenge facing Israeli arts and cultural organizations is changing their perception with regard to fund-raising and building and developing a strong functioning board that will be helpful to the organization. I think government support for the arts is wonderful. But I fear that most governments in the world are finding that it is impossible to keep up with the dreams of artists. "In fact, arts support from government is falling in much of the world, including the major European capitals. (If the total amount is not falling, the amount granted to any one organization is almost always falling.) As a result, a pragmatist must look for other means of support instead of just simply complaining about the lack of government support. "In terms of fund-raising, a lot of money is currently raised in America - that money is rarely there forever. In the mid-1990s, with the end of apartheid, South Africa received a lot of money from the US and Europe. Eastern Europe, with the fall of communism, received a lot of money. I appreciate that Israel is in a different situation. I am certain that the special relationship between Israel and the United States will last and will result in funding from the US to Israel. But I question whether the amount of funding will be maintained forever as a percentage of total Israeli arts spending. I believe every country must expect to take a greater responsibility for its own arts funding." DOES HE think Israel has the financial resources to support the arts? "Absolutely," Kaiser replies, explaining that the primary source is "private contributions given by the middle class. [Organizations should place] emphasis on membership programs, gifts of $50 to $250. Few organizations in Israel have them. If you receive $50 from 1,000 people... If a dance company in Soweto can raise money this way, a dance company in Israel can, too. "Not every company is going to be a national company, nor does it need to be. Small companies can suffice with a more modest budget. They may not all grow to be huge. Not every choreographer needs to perform before an enormous crowd; they need to do their work." Kaiser is a vehement supporter of long-term planning as a key element in arts management, yet Israeli arts organizations often claim that given the uncertain financial and political environment, long-range planning is beyond their capacity. Kaiser disagrees, finding this "a dangerous perspective. You can't sit back and let the environment happen and complain. You create the future by planning - creating a strong board, fund-raising and marketing. You can't control the environment but you can have proactive plans, they may have to be flexible plans... otherwise, you will never be able to compete. "It's a problematic approach [to say that planning is impossible]. A year ago when I saw this [US] economy is moving in a direction that is challenging, I planned for it so when things began to go sour in September, we had already looked to the future" Based on audience response, part of the problem may be one of misinterpretation, with arts organizations interpreting "planning" as involving their future projects, while Kaiser's concept of planning includes not only the plans one would like to make, but speculation on what changes are likely to occur in the surrounding environment. Trying to convey arts management strategy in two days leaves the possibility for misinterpretation and what is often termed "fatal mutations" wide open. "I am very concerned," says Kaiser, "It worries me very much. The only solution is to keep coming back and keep talking. Over time we set them straight." In the week following Kaiser's visit, Mifal Hapayis held a conference to discuss cultural policy. As he did not attend, Kaiser could not comment on the conference itself, but expressed the view that "a lottery can be helpful to the arts. In England there was a problem that they only supported physical infrastructure." ONE OF the questions regarding funding the arts here is the criteria used to determine who will receive funding. Some argue in favor of measurable criteria (number of participants, cost of scenery, number of performances, audience size), while others feel that there should be more room for discretionary decisions based on a qualitative view of the project involved. Asked to comment on his preferred policy, Kaiser responded, "Absolutely [in favor of qualitative decision making by] panels of informed individuals, decisions made not by a single person's evaluation, but by a group." Kaiser feels governments can play a positive role in encouraging the arts by "embracing their culture... in how they treat contributions, help create useful board structures, planning their grants - encourage matching. "The British Council has done a wonderful job of exporting British culture in an organized, strategic fashion. I believe the Chinese Ministry of Culture has also been doing a great job more recently. I think that a planned approach to exporting culture is a great help in building visibility abroad. And I believe that arts exports are a central feature of a cultural diplomacy program." As for Israel's financial struggles, he says, "People tell me that all over the world. Israel is a lot wealthier than many of the countries [I have worked in]. In Damascus they are raising money to pay members of the orchestra; if it can happen in Damascus, then it can happen in Tel Aviv." Recalling that when he became executive director of the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, "they said the situation was hopeless and the company would go bankrupt... Royal Opera - the same - I raised $100 million in 18 months." Yet he does not deny the difficulties involved: "It's a big problem - how do you start? There is a lack - you don't have a ready pool of arts managers." The workshops he leads are a response to this worldwide lack. He plans to return here next year to "train people to become leaders in their own country." In addition, the Kennedy Center offers an International Summer Internship Program at no cost to the participants who spend the month of July for three consecutive years, in an intensive training program at the center. The deadline for interested applicants is December 1, 2009 (www.artsmanager.org.) Can planning and fundraising strategies developed in the US be successfully applied in other countries, including Israel? Kaiser is confident in his reply: "Israel is no different. Every country wants to feel that it is different... There is an answer: work, planning, discipline. Look at how much has been accomplished in Israel - building, research, arts. Complaining is not how Israel got built." How does he summarize the results of his first workshop here? "I changed a mind or two." The writer blogs at www.midnighteast.com, an English-language site about Israeli culture.