The Art of the Turnaround: Creating and Maintaining Healthy Arts Organizations

For most of us, the arts are an important if overlooked part of our everyday lives. Whether it's the music from the clock radio that lifts us out of sleep in the morning, the gallery hopping we do on vacation or when visiting a new city, or the occasional Broadway play or dance performance, the world would be a much duller place without art in our lives.

But even for those truly immersed in the arts, the cold, hard facts of organizational success and survival, especially in the worlds of ballet and opera, are seldom appreciated. Where does the money, both public and private, come from? How important are marketing campaigns, positive press coverage, and a competent staff? And what does effective leadership look like in an arts context? For any arts executive or program staffer interested in learning how to revive the fortunes of an ailing organization or build on the success of a healthy one The Art of the Turnaround by Michael M. Kaiser is a must read.

In the book, Kaiser, dubbed "the Turnaround King" by Sid Smith of the Chicago Tribune for his role in the rescue and revival of several prominent arts organizations, offers a detailed, sometimes humorous look at the inner workings of performing arts organizations, as well as theories and best practices developed over a successful twenty-year career in the field. Indeed, Kaiser opens the book with the ten rules of a successful turnaround: someone must lead; the leader must have a plan; you cannot save your way to health; focus on today and tomorrow, not yesterday; extend your programming planning calendar; marketing is more than brochures and advertisements; there must be only one spokesman and the message must be positive; fundraising must focus on the larger donor (but don't aim too high); the board must allow itself to be restructured; and the organization must have the discipline to follow each of these rules.

Interestingly, Kaiser stumbled on arts management as a career after selling his management consulting firm, Michael M. Kaiser Associates, in 1985. A few months later, Kaiser found himself sitting in the Jaguar of a client who also happened to be a member of the board of the Kansas City Ballet, then on the verge of bankruptcy and looking for a new managing director. Although he had absolutely no education in ballet, Kaiser accepted the job and, over the next two years, helped to turn the company around one of five case studies he offers in the book. (The others are the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, American Ballet Theatre, the Royal Opera House in London, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, where Kaiser currently serves as president.)

Kaiser's success in reversing the fortunes of the organizations he was involved with had much to do with instinct, persistence, and, at times, ruthlessness. For instance, when he took over at Alvin Ailey, half the members of the board donated less than $500 a year to the company. Kaiser quickly implemented a requirement that board members increase their donations to at least $10,000 a year. Not surprisingly, many resigned and, according to Kaiser, are still angry with him. On another occasion, he decided, much to his board's collective chagrin, to promote the company by having its dancers featured on a Jumbotron screen in Times Square.

For all his success, Kaiser is not shy about sharing his missteps and mistakes. And whether he's describing his dealings with bickering board members or the behavior of a rabid British press upon his arrival in London to take over the directorship of the Royal Opera House, he is always direct and refreshingly honest. Beyond that, the book is filled with lots of behind-the-scenes information and color. Indeed, the way Kaiser explains the "deceptively simple movements and familiar spirituals" used to communicate a wide range of emotions and events in the Alvin Ailey chapter resonated powerfully in this reviewer's mind.

In fact, even though I seldom go to the ballet or see a show on Broadway, I found The Art of the Turnaround to be much more entertaining than I expected. But it's more than just a good read. As the author reminds his readers in the final chapter, "More than anything else, people associated with a sick organization want someone to provide hope, to offer solutions...." In The Art of the Turnaround, Michael Kaiser succeeds on both counts, and for that arts organizations and leaders have much to be grateful.

Yinebon Iniya
Information Control Manager
Foundation Center
New York, New York