Las Vegas arts groups advised to ‘dream big’

Las Vegas may be unique, but the challenges facing local arts organizations aren’t.

Just ask Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

On Friday, Kaiser visited Las Vegas, the 56th stop on a nationwide tour that will take the arts administrator to all 50 states.

Kaiser’s cross-country trek has convinced him that arts organizations across America — big cities, small towns and everywhere in between — share similar concerns, he said. Even in Las Vegas.

Kaiser met with more than a hundred Southern Nevada arts advocates — politicians, corporate officials, artists and arts administrators — at downtown’s Historic Fifth Street School to discuss, and answer questions about, the “Arts in Crisis.”

And while the economic crisis is real, audiences don’t want to hear about it, Kaiser said.

“We’re constantly whining about money in public,” he said. “But people don’t come to hear our problems — they come to find a respite from theirs.”

That means arts organizations should concentrate on producing innovative programming — and letting audiences know those programs exist through extensive marketing, Kaiser advised.

With “less money given to the arts, you have to compete harder,” he said. “If you give up and say, ‘We’re just going to be boring for a few years,’ you’ll be the first to be cut. So don’t cut programming.”

Besides, arts groups are used to doing more with less, he added.

“As my staff will tell you,” Kaiser admitted, “I squeeze every nickel till the buffalo poops.”

Arts programming has paid off in communities as different as Cooperstown, N.Y. — home of the summer Glimmerglass Opera festival as well as the National Baseball Hall of Fame — and Grand Rapids, Mich., where a public vote determines the winner of the annual ArtPrize art competition.

“I know Nevada is ground zero for the recession, but Michigan will give you a run for your money,” Kaiser said. “If you can do it in Grand Rapids, you can do it in Las Vegas.”

Beyond innovative programming, marketing plays a central role for any successful arts institution, he maintained.

“More tickets are sold to arts events than sports events” in the United States every year, he noted. But sports organizations “do a much better job of marketing themselves.”

It’s also vital for arts groups to participate in arts education, Kaiser said — not only to develop future audiences but to develop the kind of creative problem-solving the U.S. economy needs.

Beyond such practical suggestions — drawn from Kaiser’s book “The Art of the Turnaround,” which details his experience reversing the fortunes of such august arts institutions as American Ballet Theatre and London’s Royal Opera House — Kaiser also reminded arts organizations to “dream big.”

These days, “they’ve gotten so scared, they’re just trying to survive,” he noted. “In this economy, if arts organizations do a better job of dreaming and stop worrying about money, just for two minutes, you will change the way people think of you.”

Las Vegas’ big dreams include downtown’s Smith Center for the Performing Arts, which is under construction and on target for a 2012 debut.

“The challenge gets greater every day,” acknowledged Mayor Oscar Goodman, who spoke briefly prior to Kaiser’s comments. “But we’re not going to allow the arts to falter.”

Especially when so many local arts groups are just getting started.

After all, “when is funding ever easy?” asked Dan Decker, artistic director of the Las Vegas Shakespeare Company. “It’s always something. Our focus is to put quality on the stage.”

Local arts groups also need to work together, suggested Bernard Gaddies, founder of the Las Vegas Contemporary Dance Theater — a former member of another company Kaiser turned around, New York’s Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

“We’re all here for the same cause,” Gaddies said. “With the economic situation, we can’t afford to be separatists.”

Contact reporter Carol Cling at or 702-383-0272.

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