Michael Kaiser has been hailed as a turnaround king for rejuvenating major arts organizations including the Kansas City Ballet, the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater Foundation, the Royal Opera House, and the American Ballet Theater. Now president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, he has received numerous honors for his work; in 2006, he was named Musical America’s Impresario of the Year.
But ask Kaiser about his greatest accomplishment and you might be surprised: he says it was to donate a kidney to his sister in 1988. Susan, who has severe diabetes, nearly died from renal failure; her kidneys are fine today.
Kaiser earned a bachelor’s degree in economics and music at Brandeis University in 1975 and a master’s in management at MIT, and he’s been breathing life into organizations ever since. After MIT, he formed his own strategic management consulting business and worked with clients such as Corning Glass Works and IBM, but he sold his firm in 1985 to move into arts management. His early efforts saved organizations on the brink of dissolution. But the Kennedy Center, where he arrived in 2001, was in no such danger; instead, his mandate was to raise its stature. He has done just that by vastly expanding its educational and artistic programs. A 2002 Stephen Sondheim celebration was one of his innovations, and he has revitalized relationships with international groups, including the Kirov Ballet and Opera.
Kaiser also trains thousands of his colleagues worldwide in management skills for the arts. “Offering our expertise internationally helps to rebuild relationships with other cultures and improves our country’s image,” he says. He recently published his fourth book, The Art of the Turnaround: Creating and Maintaining Healthy Arts Organizations, and he’s now writing a book about his international work. He also recently created Artsmanager.org, a website that provides resources to arts managers globally.
Kaiser says that his work is as creative as that of any performer. He trained as an opera singer in high school, then studied privately in Boston and at Tanglewood. “But I knew, by age 21, that I wasn’t good enough to be a professional opera singer,” he says. “Then I discovered how fascinating arts management was, when I served on the board of the Washington Opera [from 1983 to 1985].”
MIT also inspired him: “It was astonishing to see how financial systems work through courses with luminaries like [Nobel laureate] Bob Merton, who was the best teacher I’ve ever had.”
During rare moments of leisure at home in Washington, Kaiser enjoys watching performances of a different kind–football, baseball, and basketball.