Michael Kaiser’s bar mitzvah at Temple Israel in New Rochelle, N.Y., set him on the path of becoming one of the most accomplished and well-known arts leaders in the country. In August, he stepped down from the presidency of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to bring the DeVos Institute of Arts Management to the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. There Kaiser will continue to train next-generation arts leaders, a project he initiated at the Kennedy Center in 2001, by providing emerging arts managers with hands-on experiences from cutting-edge and world-renowned artists.
Prior to his 14-year tenure at the Kennedy Center, Kaiser served as executive director of London’s Royal Opera House where he wiped out a huge accumulated deficit, built an endowment fund and completed a £214 million ($344 million) redevelopment of the expansive facility. As executive director of the most successful modern dance company in the world, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, he also erased a nearly overwhelming deficit and set the company on its now-admired successful course. He did the same at both American Ballet Theatre during three years and at his first dance related job at the Kansas City Ballet.
His work has earned him the title in the arts field as the “turnaround king.”
Kaiser credits his Jewish upbringing for his commitment to the performing arts.
“I was raised in a Jewish home,” Kaiser said. “We went to religious school, attended synagogue, observed all major Jewish holidays, and discussed the meaning of Jewish custom and law. As German-born Jews, who escaped Nazi Germany, my parents were and remain today deeply committed to their Jewish heritage and determined that their children would understand the religion.”
For Kaiser, it was not just understanding the Jewish traditions; he loved participating in synagogue services, especially in the singing, and became close with his childhood congregation’s cantor. “I also served as a junior cantor for many services and on many occasions,” he said. “In fact, the cantor of my temple, Sumner Crockett, was the person who most influenced my decision to study singing since he asked me to participate in so many events – starting with my role as King Ahashveros in our third-grade Purim musical and continuing through our graduation from religious school in the 12th grade.”
Kaiser went on to study at Brandeis University, where he was drawn to both the music faculty and the economics program. For a brief time he aspired to a career as an opera singer but noted that he was “awful.” Instead he maintained his connection to the arts by working behind the scenes in arts management. At his first full-time job running the administrative side of the Kansas City Ballet, he realized he knew nothing about ballet. To fill in his knowledge gap, he took beginner ballet classes, not to become a dancer, but to understand the needs of dancers. Later at the Ailey company, he would occasionally go on tour with the busy troupe and work on crew as a stagehand, again to understand the dynamics and challenges a major touring company faces.
At the Kennedy Center, Kaiser expanded the educational and artistic programming for the nation’s center for the performing arts, initiated unparalleled international arts festivals and oversaw a major renovation of most of the center’s theaters. He founded the nation’s leading center for arts management training, the DeVos Institute, to jump-start the next generation of arts leaders, noting that he and his peers learned most of what they know on the job, not in the classroom.
Kaiser is known for being at his desk by 6:30 a.m. and awakens at 4 a.m. to do a five-mile run in his District neighborhood. What keeps him going in the highly volatile and competitive arts world? “A combination of really believing in the product and really being afraid of failure,” he admitted. “I like challenges and problem solving, though. That’s something I find very rewarding.”
Asked about the long history of Jews as major figures in the arts, both onstage and behind the scenes as composers, playwrights, directors and designers, as well as active supporters, funders and, very important for Kaiser, ticket buyers, he gets thoughtful. “Jewish people have always valued education and culture, so it is not surprising that so many Jews have become great achievers in the arts – as artists themselves, those who serve as producers and those who fund the arts. And, of course, music is a vital element in our liturgy and in the Bible. My grandfather was a violinist in the New York Philharmonic Orchestra for 40 years – just one of the thousands of Jewish artists who came to America.”
In his new position at the University of Maryland, Kaiser is primed to develop the next generation of behind-the-scenes arts administrators to support new works and creative endeavors representative of our nation’s diverse communities. He envisions the institute as providing hands-on training and experience – the Clarice has seven theaters that present both students and top-of-the-line professional touring artists. His advice to the next generation of artists, and arts administrators? “Be interesting. Keep doing interesting work. Do exciting, challenging projects. Try new things. Think not about being new just to be new, don’t be challenging to be weird, it has to come from your artistic aesthetic.”