Centering the Kennedy The Many Roles of Michael Kaiser

  • The Delta Shuttle Sheet
  • -
  • 04/2002

by Karen Feld

Passionate about every aspect of the arts-that’s Michael M. Kaiser, 48, who took the reins as president of The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts just over a year ago. Already he has led the Kennedy Center in new directions, both creatively and in the area of fund raising.

A native of New Rochelle, New York, Kaiser has headed some of the world’s most prestigious performing arts organizations, including the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater Foundation and the American Ballet Theatre. No stranger to Washington, he lived and worked as a corporate management consultant in the nation’s capital for seven years. Most recently, he completed a building renovation and financial turnaround at London’s Royal Opera House as its executive director. He’s also a trained violinist and opera singer.

Kaiser’s not just passionate about the arts, he’s passionate about life itself, which helps explain why, 13 years ago, he donated a kidney to his sister so she, too, could share his zeal for life.

You have a background in music, the arts and business. Your position at The Kennedy Center requires using both right and left brain. How do you balance them?

You really have to start from the art side for the inspiration. Then you have to add the business side. One follows the other. At the end of the year you need to have done reasonably well financially, but that’s not the motivation for going to work every day. If you’ve broken even or earned a surplus but haven’t presented really good art, then you haven’t succeeded.

You’ve been here just over a year: What do you consider your biggest contribution thus far?

MK: I hope what I’m doing is opening up imaginations and perspectives so people start to think of the Kennedy Center in a way that is vibrant and vital. I hope my major contribution throughout my whole tenure will be that people realize that we are truly the national arts center. That’s why I’ve proposed a privately funded performing-arts museum to be built adjacent to the Kennedy Center.

SS: What are you trying to do artistically at the Center?

MK: We have two missions. The first is a local responsibility: We are the local and regional arts center, so we have an obligation to present a very wide range of art-from jazz to musical, straight drama, chamber music, symphonic music, ballet, modern dance. If we don’t show it, it won’t be seen. Then we have a national mission, which is to lead.

SS: What are your goals on the national side?

MK: I’m trying to turn the Kennedy Center into a destination. We believe that people come to the Kennedy Center if they are in Washington anyway, but people don’t come to Washington just to go to the Kennedy Center. We want to focus each year on a few projects that truly have national and international resonance. The Sondheim Celebration has everyone taking notice. We’re returning the Kennedy Center to producing theater, and we’re embarking on a focused look at one composer [Stephen Sondheim] from May through September.

The Kennedy Center’s 10th Annual Gala on April 14 marks the height of the Washington spring social season, attracting arts patrons, corporate leaders, politicians, entertainers and other influential community members. The gala benefits the Center’s educational programs.
Info: 202-416-8338 or www.kennedy-center.org/

SS: Who has been the biggest influence in your own life in terms of the arts?

MK: My grandfather was an orchestral musician, a violinist in the New York Philharmonic. That certainly got me started. I worked with Barney Simon, who ran the Market Theater in Johannesburg. He was a tremendous inspiration as well. I studied with a wonderful soprano named Phyllis Curtin in Tanglewood.

SS: How did you make the transition to the business side of the arts?

MK: I wanted to be an opera singer and in college I discovered that I wasn’t good enough, so I turned my attention to a business career. I stayed involved with music as an audience member, as a donor, and eventually as a board member of the Washington Opera. That experience convinced me that I really did want to work more extensively in the arts, so I sold my business and found a job with a ballet company in Kansas City.

SS: Have you observed any differences between audiences in Washington, New York and London?

MK: Not as much as you’d think. Washington is a smaller town, so there’s a smaller total audience. In Washington you have a subgroup of people who will see very adventuresome work, but I also find people here with incredibly sophisticated taste. When The Royal Ballet came here, they didn’t want to leave, because they don’t get the same enthusiastic reception in London. Standing ovations happen more often in this town, and the artists feel that.

SS: How do you position the Kennedy Center now, and where do you hope it will be eventually?

MK: As one of the major regional arts centers in the country, we are unrivaled. As contributing to the national arts education of people, I think we are the top in the world. We actively produce educational programming in literally every state. We spend $12 million dollars a year educating children and adults around the United States. Now we want those people to come to Washington. When it comes to creating artistic programming that electrifies the world, we have a way to go.


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