`I'm loving this," says Michael Kaiser, "but now too many people know who I am." For those who don't know, he's the president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and suddenly that's enough to get him recognized on the streets of the nation's capital. The Ice Palace on the Potomac--long derided for its austere white-marble design--has become a hot ticket since Kaiser came to town, which means that the boss can't even get through his predawn workout without being peppered with well-meant advice on which new plays to stage. "For better or for worse, I've become a personality," he says. "I'm much more comfortable when the artists take center stage."
Too late. The spotlight has found Kaiser and he can't exit stage right. Not after he launched a recent public broadside with this grabber of an opening line: "The world of the performing arts is sick." His diagnosis elicited an angry chorus of "we're not dead yet" from a New York arts crowd that sees the pronouncement as a shrewd effort by Kaiser to trumpet the Kennedy Center by cataloging catastrophe elsewhere. Kaiser shrugs off the critics. He sees trouble ahead in the arts: There's not enough money these days and, even worse, not enough artistic daring. His prescription for success at the Kennedy Center, which announces its new season of dance, theater, and music this week: Do bold work, and market the heck out of it. His prescription for the rest of the arts nation: Do as I do.
Curtains. Not everyone is falling in line. The president of New York's Lincoln Center, Reynold Levy, thinks Kaiser overlooks quality work being performed around the country, from the ballet in New York to the theater in Chicago to the opera in San Francisco. Few, however, dispute that the money is drying up. "Some organizations won't make it and others will have to cut back," says Robert Lynch, president of Americans for the Arts, an advocacy group. Federal arts funding is stagnant and states are balancing budgets by proposing to eliminate arts funding, while corporations and foundations are giving less. The result is retrenchment: The Boston Ballet, the Pittsburgh Symphony, and the San Francisco Opera have all announced cuts.
Wrong answer, says Kaiser. "When arts organizations have their biggest challenges," he says, "they have to do their biggest work." That is the philosophy that landed him the top job at Kennedy Center in 2001. Kaiser made his reputation in the arts world as the man who took over troubled organizations, fixed them, and moved on. In 1993, he rescued the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater from debt and departed for the American Ballet Theater, where things were so bad they unscrewed every second light bulb to save electricity. With the ABT flat broke, Kaiser announced that the company would rebound by commissioning the first full-length ballet in its history. Mission accomplished, it was on to London, where Kaiser tackled management and artistic chaos at Britain's Royal Opera House. "He was given the wrench and sent down to the boiler," says Ted Chapin, head of New York's Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization. "When the pipes were connected, he gave the wrench back, and got on an airplane."