After 9/11, whole sectors of the American arts scene shut down completely.
Audiences feared crowded spaces that were seen as potential targets for terrorists. Instead, people hunkered down at home or gathered in small groups.
Americans curtailed leisure travel. A battered economy also meant that donations to nonprofit arts nearly evaporated.
This did not deter Michael Kaiser.
As president of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. — a city that, along with New York, had been a direct target of the 9/11 attacks — Kaiser viewed the arts as an essential part of any recovery. In a meeting with orchestra players, he urged the artists to carry on.
Kaiser reopened the Kennedy Center on Sept. 12.
"I heard mostly from artists who were still in mourning, and they didn’t think anyone would want to come out," Kaiser recalled. "Instead, every show was sold out. People wanted to get out of their houses and stop watching CNN. They wanted to be inspired.
"I believe the work we do is critical. If we believe we are critical, we need to be there when our community needs us."
Kaiser even refused to cancel an ambitious Stephen Sondheim festival, for which the center needed to raise an additional $10 million. In 2002, critics wrote deliriously about the center’s "Sondheim Celebration." It opened to record-breaking sales.
In 2009, after the financial crisis of 2008, Kaiser took the lessons from this and other crises to shell-shocked arts leaders and backers in all 50 states. The man who had been dubbed the "turnaround king" for his work as early as the 1980s at endangered groups such as Kansas City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Alvin Ailey Dance Theater and London’s Royal Opera House then expanded his role as international arts consultant whose advice was universally respected and almost universally followed.
Now associated with the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland, Kaiser met by Zoom with more than 50 Austin arts leaders on May 20. The somber-looking Austinites, whose traditional artistic activities had come to a halt two months earlier because of the coronavirus crisis, listened carefully and asked sharp questions.
Don’t be surprised if some of Kaiser’s advice, some of it at first glance counterintuitive, shows up in Austin during the coming months.
Among Kaiser’s timely suggestions:
1. Don’t waste too much time or energy on digital replicas of in-person performing arts during the early phases of the crisis. "There’s a glut of online offerings," Kaiser said. "And a ton of competition out there. Ask: Is it fully worth it? … Make sure it is good and interesting and important. Quality over quantity."
2. Don’t be fooled by the fact that current successful belt-tightening, stimulus grants and loans have protected your assets. More difficult times lie ahead, especially for groups that depend on earned income, such as sales of tickets, merchandise and refreshments, like the city’s largest performing arts companies.
Smaller groups, which often depend heavily on government grants, face different challenges on razor-thin budgets. In Austin, those traditional revenues include a share of hospitality taxes from hotels that now sit mostly empty. According to hotel analyst company STR, Austin hotel occupancy dropped to as low as 20.6% overall early in the pandemic and as low as 3.4% in the central business district. Although rates rose in April and May, arts leaders anticipate a 75% drop in hotel tax revenues, a portion of which is dedicated to the arts.
Kaiser advised, however, against hibernating by furloughing an entire staff and waiting for the "all clear." He discouraged duplicating online-only fundraisers — they work only once, then the novelty is gone. And tempting potential mergers between at-risk arts groups, he said, are a lot harder to pull off than one might imagine.
"Cash reserves are our very, very, very best friends," Kaiser said. "There’s always a demand for good art. Nobody comes to an arts organization to hear how bad things are."
3. The current transitional phase of the pandemic crisis, as governors and mayors open up their states and cities, might be the hardest. "We don’t know how long it will go on," Kaiser said. "When will people feel truly comfortable coming together? The extra money from the last months won’t be there. People forgave the price of their tickets to your galas already. There’s nothing left to give away. For six to 18 months, there will be restraints on contributed income, since we are in a recession. Foundations have been generous, but they will be hit, too, by stock market values. And for a while, you’ll have almost no earned income."
4. Well then, what can arts leaders do during the extended time before people feel entirely comfortable reassembling in large groups? Keep in personal touch, Kaiser said, with artists, donors and staff members, whom he calls each arts group’s core family. Make sure they are OK, especially those who might feel cut off by lockdowns. Don’t ask for money because of "COVID, COVID, COVID." Emphasize, rather, the coming great and essential work of a post-pandemic artistic renaissance.
Also, toss out annual budgets. Plan instead for quarters.
It’s OK to announce a season and then to sell subscriptions. Warn subscribers that at the end of a season, there might be a giant do-over. Nobody will complain if things change.
And sign as few contracts as possible.
5. Plan to come back at the appropriate time with something really big, singular and exciting to remind people of the power of in-person performance.
Several Austin arts groups already have started along these lines. Zach Theatre has not released details, but instead of opening its next season in the fall with a postponed show, for instance, staff members are planning a special series of performances in its plaza where safe distancing is possible.
"Ask, ’What are we going to do to get everyone incredibly excited?’" Kaiser said. "Then harbor your resources. Spend time on great planning. Keep in contact with donors, subscribers — the family — in a very personal way."
What kind of singular event might work when the time comes?
From the way Kaiser described the contours of such a bold return, Austin artists could look to the model success of Leonard Bernstein’s incredibly ambitious "Mass" in 2018. A joint effort led by a new producing company linked up most of Austin’s major arts groups for a sprawling mix of music, dance and drama that originally opened the Kennedy Center in 1971.
Some critics pronounced the project unfeasible in advance.
Yet it proved to be the sensation of the season. It packed the Long Center for the Performing Arts for two performances and won multiple awards at the end of the season.
"A smart, vibrant, exciting strategic plan is your best fundraising tool," Kaiser said. "It’s not about what you’ve done in the past but what you are going to be in the future."
Yes, but when do the artists who labor in large-scale performing arts return?
"It’s all about safety. All about morality," Kaiser said. "We have to live up to our values. We can’t bring people together until it’s safe. If you can bring people together safely, yes, but there is a moral imperative."