It is official: I am a lame duck. My contract as President of the Kennedy Center expires at the end of next year and the board has just assembled a search committee to look for my successor. I am deeply grateful to have had the opportunity to lead this amazing institution and have enjoyed (almost) every minute of my tenure. But after 12 years as President, it is time for someone with a new and different vision to run the national cultural center. (I was meant to depart at the end of 2011 but I needed to stay to ensure that our affiliation with the Washington National Opera went smoothly. It has.)
I hope the Search Committee finds a remarkable person to run the Kennedy Center, someone who can take the institution to new places and can educate and entertain our audience in ways I could not even imagine.
But I would caution the members of this Committee (and any other search committee working in the arts today) not to ignore several key 'truths':
-- The health of any arts institution emerges from its programming. While board members searching for a new leader often believe that fundraising skill and experience are the keys to success, no one can raise funds for a boring institution for very long. I know that my stated enjoyment of fundraising has gotten me many jobs, but I know equally well that I have been lucky to work with organizations that did stellar work.
-- There is not one correct way to run an arts institution. The board should not be looking for 'another Michael Kaiser.' The search committee should be hoping to find someone who can tell a coherent story of their own that links programming, marketing and fundraising success.
-- The new leader must not alienate the remainder of the senior staff. The leader of every institution gets far too much of the credit when things go well. In fact, it takes an entire staff to make an arts institution function. One must be very careful that the new leader can work with those staff members who are most integral to the success of the organization. I have observed too many new leaders gut the senior staff and then fail. The organization loses not just the new leader but the strong staff who were critical to its success.
-- The ability to program well for a large, multi-genre arts organization like the Kennedy Center is about creating an exciting set of programs for each season. The chief executive functions as a portfolio manager, assembling programs that address many constituencies and prove attractive to ticket buyers and donors. It is not about having one or two good ideas -- it is about conceiving and assembling an annual package. The committee must test the ability of each serious candidate to create such a season.
I am confident that the Kennedy Center Search Committee will find a great new leader. I, for one, cannot wait to see how the institution grows and changes in the coming decade.