Title: Leading Roles: 50 Questions Every Arts Board Should Ask
Author: Michael M. Kaiser
Publisher: Brandeis University Press
Publication Date: October 2010
Hardcover: 192 pages
Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, has been traveling the country, appearing in all 50 states to spread his message of how to create healthy arts organizations. His first book, The Art of the Turnaround, which was reviewed in the December 2008 issue of Senza Sordino, has become must reading for orchestral musicians, and also (hopefully) for orchestra managers. Where his first book focused on ways to turn around a struggling arts organization through positive arts management, his second book is an indispensable guidebook for everyone who serves, or might ever serve, on a board of directors for an arts organization.
Leading Roles: 50 Questions Every Arts Board Should Ask is a series of 50 questions derived from actual sessions held during Mr. Kaiser’s “Arts in Crisis” tour. The answers that follow the 50 questions are concise, inspiring, simple, and brilliant. As your ICSOM delegates might have reported, Mr. Kaiser appeared in an interview setting at the 2009 ICSOM Conference in Norfolk, and then took questions from the floor in a town-hall–style exchange. Everyone who attended that session of the Conference witnessed his unique talent for articulating an inspirational message about the future of the arts.
I would hope that anyone serving on a board of directors for a symphony orchestra would eagerly read this book. The musicians of almost every ICSOM orchestra encouraged their management to read The Art of the Turnaround, and it is equally important for us to urge our managements and boards to read this book as well.
We need our boards to seek to engage with advancing their understanding of the field, and Leading Roles would be an excellent starting place. But, in too many places we encounter board members who feel that their success in the for-profit world translates to an understanding of the nonprofit world. As is pointed out throughout the book, the mission of a for-profit organization is clear … to make a profit. The mission of a nonprofit arts organization must be “about art and not about commerce.”
My favorite sentence in Leading Roles appears after the question: “Our organization is in a crisis. What do we do?” Mr. Kaiser’s brilliant answer is: “The first thing to do when it becomes clear that an organization is in crisis is to relax. Do not panic.” Once again, Mr. Kaiser presents a logical argument: “Too many arts organizations cut programming first, because it is discretionary and does not require eating into the infrastructure. But when one cuts programming, one also cuts the organization’s revenue generating capacity, for both earned and contributed income. Putting infrastructure ahead of mission is rarely a successful strategy.”
Another illustrative moment in the book seems deceptively simple, but it is profound. Mr. Kaiser reveals that at the Kennedy Center, every board meeting includes an artistic performance. If the board is discussing funding an educational program, then a children’s chorus will appear in the middle of the meeting. This serves to remind the board of the importance of serving the mission of the nonprofit organization, and if the focus on the mission is ever lost or drifts, the financial health of the organization is put at risk. “Simply cutting artistic and educational programming to achieve a balanced budget is not the way to establish long-term stability.”
Other sections of the book address board composition, governance, planning, and mission. Especially interesting is his emphasis on the importance of a “clear, concise, complete, and coherent” mission statement. So many of our organizations spend a great deal of effort in developing mission statements, but then they fail to apply the mission to the work. Mr. Kaiser suggests that everything an organization does should be measured by the mission statement, and every project should be evaluated by how it serves the mission of the organization, which for arts organizations is always to produce great art.
He also addresses arts marketing in an inspirational way. He emphasizes that a board must ask whether “the programming and marketing [are] exciting enough to achieve the earned-income budget” and whether the board is “doing enough marketing to justify the revenue projections.”
He speaks of specific marketing strategies, and how to market appropriately to the changing trends as subscriptions sales decrease and single ticket sales become more important. The importance of both institutional marketing and programmatic marketing is emphasized. One strategy explored is group sales, and Mr. Kaiser describes how the Kennedy Center even developed a specific merit badge that Girl Scouts could earn by attending arts events, innovatively reaching out to younger people.
Other quotes that we all wish we would hear more frequently from arts managers include:
The financial plan is not the mission; it is a prerequisite for achieving the mission.
All not-for-profit organizations, especially arts organizations, require the good will of large numbers of people.
Financial executives tend to be experts at measuring financial problems, not solving them. Solving the problems of an arts organization requires someone who knows how to create revenue.
The board must analyze if enough of the annual budget is being devoted to making art.
It is preferable to cut everything but art and marketing.
A well-run arts organization that produces great art, markets it aggressively, and has a strong, functioning board can almost always build on its contributed revenue and fill its income gap.
Arts organizations across the country are seeking to engage with Michael Kaiser’s message. He has been extraordinarily successful, and arts leaders want to re-create that success. Notably absent, though, are many of America’s symphony orchestra managements and boards.
The musicians of ICSOM must continue to be our own positive advocates in a managerial climate that is resistant to a positive message. Mr. Kaiser’s new book is a powerful tool that can assist us in articulating our vision.