June 05--What will the Muny look like years from now?
Will people still come to see "musicals" -- or will the art form have changed so much that it has a new name as well as a new look and sound? Will the audience be confined to St. Louisans, or will it include "virtual theater-goers" scattered near and far? What kind of performers will be "on stage" (if the stage is, in fact, still the center of attention)?
How can a theater that was the height of elegance when it was built during World War I continue to thrive after it marks its centennial in 2018?
The Muny will address those kinds of questions with a new initiative, the Second Century project. To lead the first step, a strategic planning study, the Muny has enlisted a heavyweight: Michael M. Kaiser, president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.
Kaiser plans to visit the Muny several times this season, but he said that his real work begins in September. "There's a lot I need to look at that goes beyond what's onstage," he said. "This is not an organization in trouble. It could just sit back. But the best time to look forward is when you are in a position of strength." The Centene Charitable Foundation is paying for Kaiser's work. The cost has not been disclosed.
Muny board chairman Clark S. Davis pointed out that it is extremely unusual for any arts institution to enter a second century. "A centennial is an occasion to throw a great birthday -- and we will," said Davis, who is chairman of the Second Century committee. "But it's also a time to think about the next century, about the future of musical theater.
"The Muny, like the rest of Forest Park, has enduring appeal. But what else can we do? Off-season productions? Sharing our work with people in other places? Improve our facilities? One thing I am very interested in is how we can promote and enhance the Muny's role as an incubator of young talent.
"Well, we have dozens of questions. We had to engage a consultant (who could address them) from a national and international perspective."
Enter Kaiser. During his 13 years at the Kennedy Center, he has expanded its education and artistic programs, overseen major renovation of most of the center's theaters, and created an arts-management institute that has advised arts organizations around the world. In August, Kaiser will leave the Kennedy Center to lead that institute, now called the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland.
In 2009, Kaiser created a program -- Arts in Crisis: A Kennedy Center Initiative -- that provided free consulting to nonprofit arts groups. He led 52 symposia on common arts-management issues: one in each state, plus Washington and Puerto Rico. Dennis M. Reagan, the Muny president and CEO, heard him speak at that time and was impressed. "Michael Kaiser has witnessed all the best practices that are out there," Reagan said, "and he will bring all that to the Muny."
"When I approach a project like this, I try to learn all I can," said Kaiser, who plans to finish his study early next year. "I read a lot, I collect data. What we're looking for is patterns -- patterns in funding, in audiences, in the art itself -- that could affect the Muny's future. How can the Muny take advantage of its strengths in an environment that is changing to become as important a player as it could be?"
Acknowledging that the historic outdoor theater -- "alone in its greatness," as the slogan goes -- has no real "comparables" to examine, he plans to look at trends throughout the industry, trends that affect St. Louis as well as New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. "If I believed important art could be made only in certain places, I wouldn't have spent the last 13 years in Washington," he said. "I don't put art into baskets."
Mike Isaacson, the Muny's executive producer, said he "felt intuitively that (Kaiser) was a really good fit here. And of course, I knew about his work with other organizations."
Before the Kennedy Center, Kaiser was general manager of the Kansas City Ballet, executive director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre Foundation and executive director of the American Ballet Theatre. Then he became executive director of the largest performing arts organization in the United Kingdom, the Royal Opera House, where he consolidated his reputation for successful turn-arounds. He has written a number of books and his weekly column appears in the Huffington Post.
"There is nobody in this field who has more experience and knowledge than Michael Kaiser does," Isaacson said. "The Muny is a National Treasure: capital N, capital T. If Denny and I can say on whatever day we walk away from this, the Muny will be here in another 100 years, that's success. Michael Kaiser is going to help us make sure that happens."
Judith Newmark is the Post-Dispatch theater critic. Follow her on Twitter @judithnewmark.
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