Monday, 25 July 2011

Reminders - After four weeks at the Kennedy Center

I was asking myself a few months ago Why things aren´t happening?. Well, they are. It´s true that ideal working environments do not exist and the Kennedy Center is no exception. But it is, without any doubt, a great school.

The face of the Kennedy Center in the last decade has been Michael Kaiser. A charismatic leader, who knew how to translate his vision into a concrete mission that orientates the Center´s activity. He also knew how to bring into his team an excellent group of professionals – intelligent, experienced, hard working, dedicated – who embrace his vision and collaborate with him in order to make the dreams come true. This team´s cohesion is truly impressive. This is what happens when there is a clear mission, determination, tenacity, a true sense of responsibility (see post On leadership).

Another impressive thing is the clear notion that everyone´s time is valuable and shouldn´t be wasted. The Kennedy Center invests little time in meetings and a lot of time in action. Further to this, punctuality is a rule rarely ignored. The President meets with the Vice-Presidents once a week, for ten minutes, and this doesn´t seem to have a negative effect on internal communication or the team´s efficiency when carrying out their duties. There´s a lot to do and... it´s done. This is what happens when work is vey well planned, procedures clear and each member of the team knows what he/she has to do and takes responsibility for it (see post On planning).

There is also the pleasure, enthusiasm, pride and dedication we feel in those people who support the Kennedy Center, either financially or with their work as volunteers. Because they ‘form part’. This is what happens when an institution is aware of the importance of the ‘family’ for its future and knows how to take care of it (see post On family). The majority of the fellows are now going back home determined to build their own.

What has been referred so far are concepts and practices that form part of the Kennedy Center philosophy and were transmitted to us during the seminars and meetings we had with a number of people, both members of the Kennedy Center team and special guests. But there was one thing I believe was not exactly part of the curriculum. Among all the people we had the opportunity to hear, there were some who spoke with such passion about what they do, with such energy, with such shining eyes, that they reminded us that this is what happens when a person, a professional, is at the right place; when one has the possibility to give, everything one knows and everything one can; when one is availed; when one feels that he is learning and growing; when one feels challenged; and when one feels aknowledged.

At the International Summer Fellowship we learn a lot thanks to the generosity with which the Kennedy Center staff share their ideas and experience with us. But we also learn thanks to the contributions of the fellows themselves, intelligent, interesting and enterprising people. Sharing with them brought pleasure, inspiration and enrichment. What I wished the most before starting this fellowship was for my certainties to be challenged. They were not. I would rather say that many of my certainties were confirmed. There were not exactly discoveries in the last four weeks. There were reminders that turned into great lessons which had a great impact. This is what I am carrying back with me; this is what will guide me until I come back to the Kennedy Center next year.

Monday, 18 July 2011

On planning - Third week at the Kennedy Center

Michael Kaiser (Photo: Raphael Khisa)

Michael Kaiser, President of the Kennedy Center, is not afraid of dreaming high. Because he knows how to plan his dreams. Michael Kaiser dreams five years in advance. He thinks of the things he would like to see the Kennedy Center presenting and, together with his team, he gets to work in order to see them materialize.

One of the greatest efforts the Kennedy Center team has to undertake is raising the money that is necessary for the dreams to come true. The State is not a factor to be considered here. Being the Kennedy Center a memorial for President John Kennedy, the federal government covers maintenance and security costs. Money for programming and operational costs must be generated, through fundraising (a responsibility of the Development Department) and earned income from box office and other services provided by the Center (a responsibilty of the Marketing Department). The Kennedy Center´s annual budget is $150.000.000, of which $75.000.000 are raised by Development.

Cultural institutions are not a business like any other. Not only because they are not-for-profit, but mainly because they do not become more ‘productive’ year after year, the way the term is generally understood. Costs are constantly increasing. A specific theatre play is not performed nowdays with less actors than 100 years ago. A symphony cannot be interpreted with less musicians than 200 years ago. The number of people involved stays the same, the costs of production increase. In what concerns earned income, on the other hand, and ticket sales being the main source, the outcome is also rather stable. A room with 500 seats will have the same number of seats tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, next year. We cannot make a room larger in order to have more people in and make more money and, anyway, in our kind of business, ticket prices could never be as high as to allow us to recover our investment in production. Thus, in that sense, culture is not a profitable business. In order for us to continue doing what we are doing, we need to fill the gap between costs and income, that keeps growing. This is why cultural institutions need financial help. Where shall we look for it?

Something that becomes immediately obvious is that it is not very intelligent on the part of a cultural institution to rely only on one source of funding. If, for any reason, that source disappears or weakens, the institution´s future is joepardized. It is necessary and compulsory to look for multiple funding sources, able to guarantee sustainability. The results of the almost exclusive dependence on state funding are felt by many cultural institutions in various countries. Financial support from corporations has also seen better days. Not only because of the economic crisis, but also because the interests and priorities of corporations change and there is no way of guaranteeing a permanent or eternal relastionship. What can, on the other hand, gain a permanent character is the relationship with individuals, more or less wealthy, who embrace our mission, share our vision, want to be part of our family. Without neglecting or undervaluing the support of corporations and foundations, the Kennedy Center invests on the development of its relationship with individuals (see previous post).

As Michael Kaiser explained in a deeply inspiring seminar he gave last week, a plan is not a wishlist. A plan is concrete actions and measures for the dreams to come true. Forward planning has various advantages: it gives enough time to the Kennedy Center to stimulate interest and enthusiasm among people and organizations that might contribute financially; it allows to negotiate better with potential partners, since there exists a large array of ‘dreams’, some of which might be more relevant to them than others; it allows to organize and produce everything having enough time and keeping calm. Staff at the Kennedy Center are always very busy, but they are not desperate or disorientated.

Apart from the seminar with the Kennedy Center staff, we also had the opportunity to hear two very inspiring ladies: Sandra Gibson, former CEO of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters who spoke about the challenges the cultural sector faces today (independent of country, although it´s obvious that some countries are paying more attention than others); and Julie Simpson, Executive Director of Urban Gateways, a reference in what cocerns arts education in the USA.

The projects presented by the fellows last week came from four continents and were quite diverse:

Archa Theatre (Czech Republic)
Kwani Trust (Kenya)
Eifman Ballet (Russia)
Evam (India)

Word becomes flesh, by The Living Word Project (Photo: mv)
On Friday night the fellows had the opportunity to be at a very special place in the washingtonian cultural scene. Dance Place was founded 30 years ago and, apart from presenting shows every weekend, it also offers dance classes and various educational programmes. We attended Word becomes flesh, a performance that was part of the Hip-Hop Theatre Festival of Washington, which celebrated its 10th anniversary. The Kennedy Center is one of the festival´s partners.

2nd Annual DC African Festival (Photo: mv)
The ‘extracurricular’ weekend programme included the second edition of the Annual DC African Festival, organized by the Mayor´s Office for African Affairs aiming this year to celebrate africa´s cultural and economic contributions to the District of Columbia; the Corcoran Art Gallery, which is now presenting the exhibition Washington Colour and Light – bringing together artists of the Washington Colour School -, as well as the exhibition Renunciation by photographer Mads Gamdrup, whose works explore the desert as a “space of unexpected promise”; Freer and Sackler Art Galleries of Asian Art, where we can now see the exhibition Family Matters, which presents 16 portraits of members of the Qing Dinasty; and returning to the National Museum of African Art to see once again the extraordinary video on senegalese artist Ousmane Sow.

And thus we have entered the fourth and final week of the fellowship for this year. On Wednesday, July 20, the Kennedy Center and the DeVos Institute of Arts Management are organizing a debate with all the fellows and 13 executive directors of cultural institutions from New York on the subject The International Context: The Changing Role of Governments in Arts Funding and Advances in Audience Outreach and Development. I´ve heard it has 'sold out'.

Special thanks: Faisal Kiwewa

Monday, 11 July 2011

On family - Second week at the Kennedy Center

Sk(in), by A. Balasubramaniam. The Phillips Collection (Photo: mv)

It is very frequent to hear the Kennedy Center people talking about ‘the family’. This is how they refer to all those people who support the Center´s activity, contributing with their time, knowledge, experience and money.

The nucleus of the Kennedy Center family are the members of the Board. A group of influent, well connected people, who believe in the Center´s mission and want to contribute actively to its success and growth, using all their means, including financial. Another part of the family is composed by hundreds of volunteers, who feel the Center as home and put at its service their time, qualifications and experience. There are also part of this family all those people who buy tickets to the shows or become members and funders (individuals, corporations, foundations), contributing with sums that go from $60 to thousands or millions of dollars annually.

What motivates these people? What makes them contribute so generously? There are various reasons, among them, prestige, social status, visibility, tax benefits, privileged access to some of the Kennedy Center´s offers, opportunity to meet or spend time with people with common interests. I believe, though, that the principal force that brings all these people together around the Kennedy Center is the art that is being produced and presented there: art which enthuses, surprises, touches, inspires. It´s upon this base that everything is built, including the family.

The Kennedy Center is totally conscious of the importance of the family for its sustainability (the fact that the Center is the memorial to President John Kennedy means that the federal government covers the costs of maintenance and security, but that´s all). By permanently investing on the quality of the experience (a total experience, that goes beyond the performance and includes all visitor services), the Center aims to maintain its family, but also to make it grow year after year. As I was saying in a previous post, this is not a relationship between a building and the people who come to it. It must be a relationship between the people who work in it and the people who come or might be interested in coming. At the Kennedy Center we become witnesses of this effort that involves everyone, from the President to the security guard and the volunteer usher. But we also become witnesses of the mutual wish of those people to be part of this family.

The Kennedy Center Millenium Stage.
Among all the seminars we attended last week, I was particularly interested in finding out more about the Kennedy Center´s programme Millennium Stage, which offers 365 free entry shows every year, that is one per day, always at 6 p.m. Talking about family and sustainability, and because I believe that the sustainability of cultural institutions also depends on the diversification of audiences, I wanted to understand better if the programme lives up to its motto, “Performing Arts for Everyone”. I always get a bit suspicious when I hear the people involved using the expression “for everyone”, especially when it seems that “for everyone” is mainly associated to “free”. I was surprised to find out that the Kennedy Center has no data on the people who attend these performances. Thus, we are unable to know if they are people who come for the first time or if they attend frequently; if they only attend free entry shows (and why) or if they also buy tickets (thanks to the opportunity of access created by this programme, or not); if they are people whith whom contact was established thanks to the Kennedy Center´s community partnerships or if there is no connection to them. Independent of the understanding the Kennedy Center has of the expression “for everyone” and based on the programme´s objectives, I believe that this kind of data is necessary in order to be able to evaluate its success.

Last week there were more presentations of projects the fellows are involved in in their countries. Very diverse projects, ranging from cultural institutions with national status to small individual initiatives:

Gateway Arts Society (Nigeria)
Agora (Egypt)

Wolf Trap: "Lawn people" waiting for the concert to start. (Photo: mv)
On Saturday night, first year fellows had the opportunity to participate in a truly american experience. We went to Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts and attended the concert of Debbie Gravitt, Christiane Noll e Jan Hovarth, three Broadway divas, with the National Symphony Orchestra. People of all ages come here quite early, carrying pic nic blankets, chairs, food and drinks, and enjoy the most varied performances. The place was packed. The experience was very-very special, even for those who are not great musical funs.

The weekend plans outside the Kennedy Center included a visit to Fondo del Sol Visual Arts Center. Publicised as the second oldest latin community museum in the US (after the Museo del Barrio in New York), aiming to represent and foster the diverse cultures of the Americas and the Carribean, it is nothing more than a house smelling of must that contains an agglomerate of objects, badly exhibited and badly interpreted. Fortunatley, we have The Phillips Collection around the corner, when we can breath and marvel at Sk(in), by indian artist A. Balasubramaniam; at the The World Series photographs (2010-2011) which Allan deSouza (of indian origin, born in Kenya and raised in England) created in response to The Migration Series (1940-41) by american artist Jacob Lourence; at the Kandinsky and the Harmony of Silence exhibition, which explores and analyses the process that led to Painting with White Border.

Mount Vernon: cultural interpreter. (Photo: mv)
Another surprising and unfrogettable experience was the visit to Mount Vernon, George Washington´s estate. Apart from the beauty of the house and the surrounding areas, what enriches the experience are, undoubtedly, the cultural interpreters, some of whom dress up in costumes and play their role in the first person. All of them very-very well prepared in order to answer the visitors´s most diverse questions. Another important complement to the visit is the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center, which, through objects, interactive experiences and films presents the extremely rich story of the life of George Washington and his wife Martha.

It was a full week. Another one is starting.

Monday, 4 July 2011

On leadership - First week at the Kennedy Center

Bololô, by brazilian artist Henrique Oliveira at the National Museum of African Art.
In theory, we learn that an institution reaches its objectives, efficiently and effectively, when the whole team knows, embraces and works towards fulfilling the mission. This mission, says the theory, must be written; it must explain who, what and where; it must be clear and concise. Because the mission is the base for strategic planning. It seems obvious. It makes sense. But the truth is that, so far, I had never seen the theory put into practice, even in smaller institutions.

Until I arrived at the Kennedy Center. Last week we had seminars with the President, three Vice-Presidents (marketing, development, education), two Directors (development) and three Managers (marketing). And all of them, without exception, speak the same language; they all the Kennedy Center´s mission; they are all aware of their objectives, their role, of what is expected of them. And it becomes obvious that this allows them to plan better, to be more focused on what they are doing, to take decisions fast and without great hesitations, to be coordinated. As a result, a huge institution, that could be chaotic, seems to function like a clock. I couldn´t help asking Michael Kaiser, President of the Kennedy Center, how this can be possible. If he himself explains the mission and objectives to each employee (which seemed rather improbable to me) or if he talks to the Vice-Presidents, they with the Directors, these with the Managers, etc, until reaching the base of the pyramid (running the risk of loosing the message during the process). How is it possible for all these people to be speaking exactly the same language? “We talk a lot”, he answered me, “at all levels”.

Seminar with Michael Kaiser (Photo: Consuelo Hidalgo)
Michael Kaiser´s answers are usually simple. They seem to be stating the obvious. Nevertheless, what he didn´t say, but seems equally obvious to me, is that leadership makes all the difference. When the person at the top knows what he/she wants, is focused and determined, puts the theory into practice, does not deviate, brings around him/her people with experience and capacity (actually, looks for the best), promotes dialogue and thinking and is not afraid of making decisions (even the tough ones) and assume responsibility, then yes, adding a lot of conversation to these attributes, at all levels, we have a team that knows what it´s doing, how and why. And we can see and feel the results of their work. Michael Kaiser is a leader, without a doubt. It has been a privilege watching this team working and in the nest few weeks we´ll have the opportunity to follow them closer.

The Summer International Fellowship Program brings together this year 36 professionals from 32 countries. The day at the Kennedy Center begins and ends with the presentation of projects in which the fellows are involved. This is one of the best parts of the day. Each person makes a short presentation of the mission and objectives of the institution or project, talks about the challenges he/she is actually facing and we then discuss them in the group. Last week we had the chance to get to know a bit better the following projects:

Esplanade (Singapore)
Dejvické Theatre (Czech Republic)

Last week we also had the chance to attend a National Symphony Orchestra concert presenting the 2011-2012 season. The NSO is the Kennedy Center resident orchestra and this free entry, approximately one hour long concert aims to present the orchestra and some of the next season´s highlights in order to encourage the purchase of subscriptions. The excerpts of the works presented had been very carefully chosen and were briefly introduced – with a lot of enthusiasm, passion, sensibility and sense of humour – by orchestra conductor Ankush Kumar Bahl. One is left feeling that he/she cannot miss what´s coming ahead. Yesterday the public was able to attend the NSO´s dress rehearsal for the Independence Day commemorative concert that takes place today in the Capitole gardens.

Outside the Kennedy Center, I was finally able to visit the National Museum of the American Indian and to participate in a tour guided by a member of the education depatrment, someone who belonges to the Lakota nation and has the title of cultural interpreter. This cultural experience was concluded at the museum restaurant, the Mitsitam Native Foods Café, that offers a wide range of indian dishes from all over the continent (‘mitsitam’ means ‘let´s eat’ and the recipe book is available at the café and the museum store).

Poster of the exhibition Indivisible at the National Museum of American Indian.

The exhibition Artists in Dialogue at the National Museum of African Art, which brings together south-african artist Sandile Zulu and the brazilian Henrique Oliveira was also highly recommended to me. This is the second of a series of exhibitions where the museum invites two artists to create new works in dialogue with each other. In this museum I also had the opportunity to visit the temporray exhibition African Mosaic: a decade of collecting, which presents objects that were purchased or donated to the museum in the last decade. The majority of the visitors at the time of my visit had gathered in the area where one could watch the video of senegalese artist Ousmane Sow while creating his impressive sculptures.

Today we all celebrate Independence Day in a special party organized at the terrace of the Kennedy Center. It is a privilege to be able to be here and celebrate it with the Americans and with colleagues from all over the world, some of whom dream of this day coming soon for them too.