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Michael Kaiser Headshot

Primal Scream Day

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Imagine this scene: Yankee Stadium is filled to the gills with arts managers who wait quietly and expectantly. There are museum directors, opera producers, dance executives, theater managers and symphony administrators. Representatives from marketing, fundraising, finance and production sit side by side with staff from every other area of operations. The scoreboard is ominously dark. Suddenly, it shines with just two words in huge letters: BOARD MEETINGS! The crowd rises as one and screams and screams. Not polite ball park cheers but blood curdling yells. The shouts come from the depth of their souls. The scoreboard eventually goes dark and the crowd begins to quiet once again. Everyone waits with anticipation. Then another three words emerge on the scoreboard: FOUNDATION GRANT PROPOSALS! And the screaming and wailing begins anew.

Welcome to Arts Management Primal Scream Day.

I am sure this is an idea that will reside only in my (addled) mind. But it seems to me that there is a collection of activities arts managers must endure that elicit universal dismay, fear and disgust. Try as we might to manage our organizations in an orderly, professional fashion, there are pitfalls and roadblocks that make all of our jobs more difficult and scary.

Challenges come from rogue board members, uninformed journalists, misguided donors or undisciplined divas. I had one board member ask me to change the music for the children's gala performance of the ballet Cinderella scheduled for the next week because she didn't think her children would like the Prokofiev score. I had a donor suggest we fire our orchestra at American Ballet Theatre and simply hire someone to wave his arms in front of the pit; he argued that no one would know that we were dancing to a recording if they could see a fake conductor in action. One important artist refused to appear unless we hired a private jet (at a cost of $56,000) to bring her boyfriend to the Kennedy Center. Early in my career, a foundation funded a program to ensure the fiscal health of a group of arts organizations and then eliminated all funding to the individual organizations!

I know my experiences are far from unique. All arts managers share a common set of problems. Perhaps if we could share our collective unhappiness and scream with abandon, we would be cleansed, refreshed and ready to tackle our difficult jobs anew. Maybe just the act of acknowledging that we all share the same pool of challenges would help us.

Some of you may think the heat has gotten to me. Many of you are probably far more relaxed about the crazy Catch-22s we face, the ill-informed people who affect our work, the problems we encounter when people are really not as dedicated to our missions as we are. Perhaps few of us would be willing to gather for this cathartic experience. But I, for one, would be willing to pay top ticket to participate in this ritual with my colleagues.