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

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