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Michael Kaiser

Michael Kaiser

Posted: December 7, 2009 08:38 AM

Are We Forgetting the Mission of the Arts?

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Over the past 25 years, I have bristled when anyone says or writes that arts administrators have taken over the arts and that artistic initiatives are taking a back seat to financial concerns. I feel slighted. My work, and the work of my fellow arts managers, after all, is aimed at finding the resources necessary to allow the artists to do their work. If we are not successful, there will be neither the donors nor the audiences required to fund the artists.

But I must admit that the more I travel around the nation and the world, the more I realize that money concerns truly have begun to overwhelm artistic decisions in too many arts organizations. The fear that the organization will not survive has driven many arts organizations to produce safer, more accessible, and, unfortunately, more boring art, especially in this current economic downturn.

This is a deeply scary phenomenon. If arts organizations do not take risk, they cannot create the next great work of art. If not-for-profit arts organizations begin to think like for-profit entertainment companies, we will not produce the next generation of great playwrights, composers, artists and choreographers.

It is already difficult to tell the difference between many not-for-profit theater companies and their for-profit counterparts. Not-for-profit organizations receive a tax advantage because of our educational role, our ability to take risk and our missions which place artistic accomplishment above financial reward. Yet too many of us are ignoring these objectives.

This is not just an American problem. The larger amounts of government funding available in other countries should, and does, allow arts organizations to make bolder choices than their U.S. cousins. But the level of government funding is shrinking in most countries and arts organizations are struggling to find ways to build audiences and attract private donors. Once again, playing it safe is becoming a favored approach.

I understand the motivation. The arts suffer inflation more than other industries and no one is providing us with a cushion to protect us if a risky project fails in spectacular fashion. It is scary to be responsible for the salaries of so many people with so little money coming in. But I also understand that without risk there cannot be art and that the organizations that do the most innovative and exciting work will also have the biggest financial rewards, and thus, ultimately, the most stability.

At the Kennedy Center, I know that I need to achieve fiscal balance every year. But it is not accomplished by selecting only safe works. I think of every season as if it were a stock portfolio; balancing the riskier projects with safer, more accessible programs. This season, for example we have a large VSA arts festival devoted to artists with disabilities and co-producing a world premiere play by Terrence McNally; neither project is assured to be successful. These are balanced by productions of "Mary Poppins" and "A Streetcar Named Desire" starring Cate Blanchett, two sure winners. If every season does not have a few wonderful, surprising moments, than I will not be able to maintain the interest of my large donor and audience bases. Without their support we obviously cannot continue to build a larger, more diverse calendar of performance and educational programming.

When I hear artists evaluating a project based on audience size, a project's attractiveness to donors, and other measures of financial success, it makes me sad. While every artist must be realistic about the fiscal implications of a given work, this should not be their primary concern. We need our artists to be thinking expansively, to be challenging themselves to be truly creative and to be challenging their administrators to find the resources required.

But boards and administrative staffs have bullied their artists and dulled their creative impulses.

Maybe money is taking over the arts after all.