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How do we keep arts vital in an age of online entertainment?

When was the last time you went to the theater, or watched a modern dance concert? Why are Americans less connected to the arts? In his new book, “Curtains? The Future of the Arts in America,” Michael Kaiser, a former chief of the Kennedy Center, American Ballet Theatre and others, considers what arts organizations can do to thrive and survive. Kaiser discusses his book with Jeffrey Brown.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now: The plot thickens for the arts in America.

    Jeffrey Brown has our conversation for the NewsHour Bookshelf.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Have you been to the theater lately, seen a modern dance concert? Have your children? Will those theater dance and other arts institutions survive?

    The questions are at the heart of a new book with a question in its title, "Curtains?: The Future of the Arts in America."

    Author Michael Kaiser has headed many arts organizations, including the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the American Ballet Theater and the Alvin Ailey dance troupe. He now heads the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland.

    And welcome to you.

    What's the — if I say, what's the essential problem, is it economic, cultural? What is it? How do you sum it up?

    MICHAEL KAISER, Author, "Curtains?: The Future of the Arts in America": We have faced many challenges in the arts for many years, but more recently, so much entertainment and arts are available online or in movie theaters. And they are becoming very important competitors to those who present live performances in their theaters.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Just a new world of technology and entertainment and choices?

  • MICHAEL KAISER:

    Just as newspapers are challenged by the existence of online news, so are theaters and opera companies and ballet companies, particularly those in midsized cities, competing with the very large, famous organizations whose art is now available to people electronically.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You're also writing though about a first generation of an audience that has grown up — I forget — you put it as without a kind of traditional arts education, without exposure to the arts in the media, for example?

  • MICHAEL KAISER:

    Absolutely.

    We — I enjoyed a great arts education in the public school system when I was growing up, but children today, most children don't. And so we have a generation of children who are coming out of high school without the kind of background in the arts that I had and that many of my peers had.

    And as a result, as they age and as they would typically become our subscribers and donors and board members, we worry that they won't be there for us and for the arts in the future.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And, therefore, you write too many people feel like the arts are irrelevant to them.

    It's come to that. They just have no connection.

  • MICHAEL KAISER:

    Both because of the education, but also because of ticket pricing.

    We used ticket prices to balance our budgets for so many years, our tickets have gotten so expensive, that many people have felt priced out of the market and thought the arts aren't for them because they simply can't afford it.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    One of the things that struck me in the book is something we talk about on this program a lot, is the gaps in American society, the income gap, the wealth gap. You're talking about a kind of arts gap.

  • MICHAEL KAISER:

    I am.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Arts for some, not for others.

  • MICHAEL KAISER:

    That's true.

    And we enjoyed over the last 50 years this explosion in arts accessibility to people all over America. We expect a theater company or a dance company or an opera company in our towns, even midsized towns, and I worry that that accessibility will change and diminish over the next 20 years.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    But can you give us some examples? What do you see around — you travel around the country a lot. Who is — where is this hitting? What kind of companies, for example, are being hit?

  • MICHAEL KAISER:

    It's hitting orchestras first.

    We read so many stories about orchestra union problems and union negotiation problems. That's just a manifestation of a diminishment in ticket sales and in contributions. So when you look around the arts world right now, you see many, many organizations either doing less work or going away entirely.

    This is true particularly of arts organizations of color, which is a very important part of our arts ecology that is starting to shrink.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Which were fragile always. Right?

  • MICHAEL KAISER:

    Which is always fragile and is more fragile now.

    And now we're seeing it in midsized American cities and in their large classical organizations. And I worry that they will not be able to sustain themselves.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    But what you do see and you write about is — and again we see this in the rest of society — winners and losers.

  • MICHAEL KAISER:

    Absolutely.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Some at the high end are going to do very well, you write, many at the low end, because they can get along basically on a shoestring. It's the great middle.

  • MICHAEL KAISER:

    It's the great middle that is at risk.

    And the great middle is what made the arts accessible to all Americans over the last 50 years.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So, what's to be done?

  • MICHAEL KAISER:

    What's to be done is arts organizations have to get more creative about the actual art they make.

    I find that what happens is, so many boards and staffs feel the way you compete in this environment is to do what people want. So, we have lots of "Swan Lakes" and lots of "La Boheme"s.

    But the problem is…

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Doesn't that bring people into the theater?

  • MICHAEL KAISER:

    Well, not if there are great "Swan Lakes" and "La Boheme"s available in the movie theater, online from the Bolshoi or the Royal Opera House or La Scala.

    Then you have to do something that's really special. Artists have to get back to dreaming and stop planning their art to a budget. And an arts organization is doing great, including work consistently, even if it's of modest size, it's going to create and keep its audience and its donor base.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    But should arts organizations and arts managers be thinking of their institutions more as commodities, more as businesses or…

  • MICHAEL KAISER:

    We always had to think of ourselves as a business to the extent that we needed to balance our budgets to sustain ourselves.

    But we have to think of ourselves more as creative enterprises who do really interesting work that engages our community. And those organizations that dream big and create amazing projects are going to do very, very well.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    I asked you for a negative example. Can you give me a positive example? Where are you seeing the kind of new thinking, or dreaming, I think is the way you put it?

  • MICHAEL KAISER:

    Sure.

    The opera companies in Philadelphia, the opera company in Saint Louis both do great work and exciting work and interesting work. They get a lot of coverage. They're both midsized art — opera companies. They're not the size of the Metropolitan Operation or La Scala.

    But they maintain the interest of their communities and their donor bases because their work is so interesting. So I think the organizations that do interesting work are the ones that are going to survive and compete well against online arts.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And so your question in the title, "Curtains?" what's — the answer is to be determined?

  • MICHAEL KAISER:

    To be determined, and I hope not.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right. On that, Michael Kaiser, thank you very much.

  • MICHAEL KAISER:

    Thank you.

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