07/28/2014 08:16 am ET Updated Sep 27, 2014

Employing Celebrities

SAUL LOEB via Getty Images

A group of Kennedy Center patrons recently visited London for four days, attending the theater (or should I write theatre?), visiting places of historical importance and enjoying social time together. During one luncheon at Guildhall, I interviewed Elaine Paige, the first lady of British musical theater.

Elaine was the original Evita, the original star of Cats (replacing Judi Dench who got injured during rehearsals), the original star of Chess and a leading light of British theater for the past 50 years. She has hosted a radio program for a decade and regularly tours the world. I met her, and became a friend, when she participated in the Kennedy Center's production of Follies. She is smart, kind and funny and gives a great interview. She talked about the audition advice Dustin Hoffman gave her just before her successful audition for Evita and how a black cat crossed her path the night she first heard the song "Memory" from Cats (at midnight no less).

To be honest, most of my donors only had a vague idea about Elaine and her accomplishments before the interview. But by the time it was over, they had fallen in love. They knew they had been in the presence of someone truly important. It made their trip to London extra-special and reaffirmed their belief that the Kennedy Center had access to the most important performing artists. It also reminded them why they were willing to contribute substantially annually to the institution. Where else did they have a chance to meet such an important performer in such an intimate setting?

In fact, one of the best ways an arts organization can differentiate itself from others in the community and can excite its patrons is to use celebrities to spice up an occasion. I have found that celebrated actors, singers, musicians, and dancers are very generous with their time. Asking one to teach a master class, appear on a panel, host a gala or be interviewed in front of an audience is perfectly acceptable; getting agreement only depends on whether the date and time work for the performer.

Elaine was preparing for a major tour this autumn and had time free in her calendar to participate in our program. She had enjoyed her participation in Follies (her last role in a Broadway musical), felt a debt of gratitude to the Kennedy Center, and was comfortable with me asking her about her life.

Summer is a good time to think through all the celebrities your board, staff and artists know or have worked with and think about ways to use one or two in the upcoming season. Gather a group of board members together and inquire about the celebrities from the arts, sports or politics that they may have access to. (Not every arts organization can attract stars of the highest caliber but virtually everyone has access to someone more famous than they are.) Then think about creative ways to employ them. It is a surefire way to make the annual gala seem special, to make a student recital truly memorable for participants (and the press) or even to spice up a patron trip to London.