Michael Kaiser wants you to do some planning, and I want to be inspired

You must believe me when I say, "I adore what Michael Kaiser has to say."

That said, I can't quite put my finger on why, after hearing him speak at The Overture Center in Madison yesterday, I now am filled with a feeling of frustration.

I heard many of my colleagues talk of how inspired they are by the gospel that Michael Kaiser is preaching as he does a 50 state tour to talk about Arts in Crisis in the good old U.S. of A. I think Michael Kaiser is doing the world of arts producers a whole heap of good. He is a brilliant speaker, uses personal anecdotes to great effect, and produced more than one laugh from the crowd assembled in the Capitol Theater yesterday.

Still, I can't feel inspired by all the talk generated from the discussion yesterday. Not yet. No, no.

I agree with Mr. Kaiser on almost every single point that he addresses on how to deal with arts in crisis. I could go on and on and give you the rolling details of his talk, but I encourage you to check out Lindsay Christians' very fine encapsulation of the day at 77 Square Arts (and read her often, because she just does damn fine work). Rather than recap, I will offer my own anecdotal perspective.

If you want one big take away from what Michael Kaiser has to say, it is this: PLAN COOL ART. Boil it down, and that's what the man is saying.

This is where the sad part comes in for me. Have we as a nation of consumers, and I as one of the dropped-on-his-head-and-so-chose-a-life-in-the-theatre-believers strayed so far away from the basic guiding principle that doing cool art is what people want to see? Really? Someone should kick me in the mouth if this is the real truth.

Many years ago I produced a play called PSYCHO BEACH PARTY. It was a gimick play, and I did it because my theater company needed some cash. We gave away beer, filled the cast with sexy talented kids, and threw in a few drag queen cat fights and my mom in her stage debut for good measure.

What I really wanted to do was figure out a way to produce THE BLACK RIDER, a Tom Waits musical. Imagine that, huh?

The PSYCHOs in swimming suits brought in some bucks, but not nearly enough, and folks who saw it wanted more of that kind of stuff. But I wasn't having it. The trick didn't really work. It was the first play I recall having produced that, despite its carnival atmosphere, I didn't really think of as "a cool event" (though I adored the whole company and the free beer).

My grabbing-at-straws project was the harbinger of doom in so many other respects in my role as a producer of plays for a scrappy little theatre company that "thought they could."  I could be a case study for Michael Kaiser.

The thing I have to come back to is, "It is no one's fault but our own," that this arts crisis is actually an arts crisis. Its real, it's hard, and it's kind of unbelievable that we're all walking around with our tongues wagging screaming "Horrible economy! Horrible economy!"

Maybe I've just been doing this too long, but I'm no longer inspired by the common sense that Michael Kaiser preaches. I take nothing away from those who are inspired by the words being said by this incredible man in each of our 50 states in the coming months. Indeed, I wish I had that purity of heart to think in that manner. I'm disenchanted enough to think that the folks who really, really need to listen to Michael Kaiser still have cotton in their ears.

Communication can be hard and annoying . Often I find myself thinking, "I'll just ram this idea through, because it will be so much easier to get so-and-so done myself," when considering something I need to accomplish as a theatrical producer or plain old human being. Yet, I know, because I have been that "ram it through" kind of operator in the past, that the better decision is always the one that comes when people feel they have a vested interest in the success of a planned move.

I had the opportunity to ask Mr. Kaiser a question yesterday, one about the role of social media in our world. Mr. Kaiser mentions that he has one rule when he comes in to lead an institution: THERE WILL BE ONLY ONE SPOKESPERSON FOR THE ORGANIZATION. I applaud this contention, and understand and embrace the merits of that forthright stance with a zealot's passion. When I asked Mr. Kaiser how you enforce this practice in a world that operates on the Web 2.0 (or 3.0 depending upon where you think we are) mentality that the social interaction that people have via the internet in community places like Facebook and Twitter, I prayed and hoped for an answer.

He admitted he had none. Sigh. I wish the smart guy in the suit onstage had all the answers.

It pointed up something else that I struggle with daily, and this is the way that we all relate to one another in what the strategic thinkers like to talk about as the new creative economy. This creative economy has a new meet-up spot. The days of relationship building over a scotch and some talk about the great art being done at a particular company aren't gone, but they certainly have changed when a whole segment of our society wakes to start thinking about what their wittiest Facebook status update can be. The master plan for this kind of community building seems to grow more and more elusive to me as new iPhone apps are created and Steve Jobs recovers from a liver transplant so he can get cracking on the newest Apple game changer.

Plan, plan, plan artists and administrators. Do it often, do it with a long view into the future and do it without fear. Do it because it is your life's work, and do it because people really like cool art. They really do.

One thing I wish I had asked Michael Kaiser (and something the group of artists and arts administrators in the room maybe had lodged in the back of their heads) was, "How many hours a week do you work on this stuff?" In defining a state of crisis, I believe you need to envision a state of success. Success as an arts administrator should, in my very humble opinion, never mean 70 hour weeks and an inability ever sit with your family and talk about dumb stuff over a meal you make together. I would like to know how many hours a week Michael Kaiser works, because though I envy his sheer brilliance, I don't aspire to ever have the type of calendar he must keep.

I've rambled. A bit more than I thought. It's so hard to fundamentally agree with everything the messenger says, and yet not get that kicked-in-the-gut feeling by that messenger's rhetoric. I pray that arts administrators, artists and boards drink the Kaiser Koolaid and start planning projects that make the world think that arts kick it hard, and kick it often. Just don't let the public know that it's being done of the basic equation of GOOD ART+GOOD MESSAGE=GREAT COMMUNITY.

Michael Kaiser in Madison...

Was fairly cool. But I'm itching a little from it all. And it's not just because I didn't get to eat any of my favorite Madison custard (Michael's, if you are curious) on the way home. It's really because I'm not sure I heard anything more than common sense for an hour and a half today. The fact that we've gotten to the point in the arts world where a 50 state tour is warranted for common sense talk is alternately frustrating and hopeful Frustrating because we in the arts producing world have in some way been culpable for our own crisis, inspiring because there really are some pretty reasonable ways to fix it.

More thoughts later, now on to the custard in my own fridge.

I have a man crush on the new NEA Chair

The former NEA Chair, Dana Goia, was a poet (and he worked for big business, too, presumably writing haikus during his coffee break).

Not Rocco Landesmann. Our incoming NEA Chair is a Broaday impresario. And one of the most sought after pitchers in the Broadway Show Softball League.

Look at that arm. Clearly he's throwing heat. I suspect he learned that form as a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (yep, seems that he might be one of those raging liberals, too).

Rocco Landesmann by all accounts is one of the more curious picks to lead the National Endowment for the Arts. Curious in the sense that it makes so much freakin' sense that it's outrageous that it possibly happened in Washington. But outrageous things like a national conversation about public health seem to be sweeping the nation these days.

We now have an NEA Chair who believes that the arts deserve a "place at the table." I am not making this up. I wish I had attribution on that statement, but I promise I've heard him say it and I'm not just dreaming. I give a big thumbs up to that statement because I believe the same thing. Arts+table setting=good thing. You put arts at the table, they show up, they have good manners, and people are so glad they are there to buffer the other table guests like national defense and anything coming from Timothy Geithner and his friends at the Treasury

That the NEA Chair is a pitcher for the Broadway Show League is no silly, little stupid thing. He also wanted to buy a major league baseball team a few years back and no o. He hired Rose O'Donnell to sing in public. This is a guy who takes some chances.

That's the thing that impresses me most about our new NEA Chair. He is not afraid to make his opinions known. He's not afraid to get a little dirty (you don't stay clean being a Broadway producer, folks), and not afraid to do a few things that people might have opinions about. Like him or hate him, he's gonna make sure a lot of people know that we still have a National Endowment for the Arts and that it is a pretty relevant part of our national cultural rep. By the by, our new NEA Chair didn't sit by and wait for someone to suggest him as a possible candidate for the job. By all accounts, he raised his hand high and said, "Pick me, because I'll kick open some doors."

And let's face it, having an NEA Chair named Rocco is just kind of tough and it's time that the arts looked as buff as Michelle Obama's biceps (do not get me started on that one, do not)

Mom and Dad and Crazy Uncle Clair

You've heard the news, no doubt. Eric Dillner has resigned from The Skylight.

In the eyes of many, this is the most thrilling bit of triumph in the air today in Milwaukee. It is being cheered as a major victory, drinks are being poured, and parties planned.

I stopped drinking six years ago, so I'm not popping any corks tonight. I'm thinking about what's next. (Sobriety is such a bitch, I tell you.)

The news of Eric's resignation came with another bit of news that seems like manna from heaven: Joan Lounsberry and Colin Cabot are making a return engagement to The Skylight.

I am rabidly fond of both of these giants. Colin Cabot is the man that everyone talks about. You know the one. The fella who actually can sell ice to eskimos. Bow tie wearer that I am, I'm also particularly enamored of Colin's sartorial flair.

But the return of Joan Lounsberry somehow is even more pleasant to me. Joan did the nicest thing ever for me. She decided not to hire me to work at The Skylight.

Years ago, I applied to be the Artistic Administrator for The Skylight. Joan was the Managing Director and I knew that I was up against my pal Christopher Libby, who at the time was producing a little play I was directing called BENT. Joan really knew at that time of my life I wanted to do art, not make spreadsheets. So she chose Christopher who ultimately succeeded her as The Skylight's Managing Director. Spurned in a way, and inspired even more, I ended up digging my heels in and taking what I learned from my experiences with BENT and turning that into a theater company called Bialystock & Bloom that I proudly ran for 12 years.

So I guess you could say that Joan Lounsberry is pretty much to blame for all those scandalous plays being performed in Milwaukee. (Love letters or notes of complaint for that unintended outcome on Joan's part may soon be addressed to her c/o 158 N. Broadway, Milwaukee, 53202.)

With my whole heart, I bow to the collective wisdom of these legendary arts promoters. There is not in my mind a more perfect union to start the process of fixing the yuck that has become Skylight.

And yet...

Okay, you're probably thinking, "Can't this West just give it a rest and do a little jig?"

Nah. This isn't time to rest and clink glasses. The Skylight has a major public relations dilemma to still deal with, a Board that is clearly split on how to go forward based on recent votes for or against certain management decisions and a mountain of financial problems. This is not the institution you pour champagne over yet.

There has been much talk of how The Skylight is all about family. Well, I believe that's true. I also believe that Mom and Dad have just been called in to start fixing some colassal problems

I'm thinking of Joan and Colin as the ultimate Mom and Dad in this situation. They are the proven leaders of the family. And like Mom and Dad, when you run the credit card up a little too high or can't really figure out how to make rent, they have, out of a great place of love, chosen to help without lecture or debate rather than selfishly turn away from a family they helped create.

I've had the great fortune of having a similar real life Mom and Dad. What I've learned from them and their enduring generosity in the face of some monumental missteps I have gone into in my life, is that a time comes when the kids need to be able to fly without Mom and Dad.

The Skylight has a great chance to succeed with Mom Joan and Dad Colin. I will gladly help them in any way I can. But I help with the hope that the transition to come is a generational one.

"What is The Skylight?" is a question that I think is an important one to ask. Is it the Skylight of June 15, 2009, the time before we were all made aware that the management was capable of the thought and deed of doing away with the theatre's entire artistic staff? Is it the Skylight that was crammed into an old garage on Jefferson Street? Or is it The Skylight that the next generation of artists and arts lovers nurtures forward informed by its always fascinating past?

Institutional change is bound to come. I suspect that the battle has been won today, but the war is far from over. For the Skylight to thrive into the future, and dare I say it, change for the future, we can't just trust that Mom and Dad will always be there to pick up after our mess.

Much of the old guard of The Skylight is to be congratulated for stepping up and raising some money. You do not need to look too far into this story to understand that the money did a lot of the talking for all the decisions we've seen unfold in the last 24 hours. There are, however, some lessons that the Moms and Dads of this story can take away from their kiddos.

I don't foolishly believe that the internet fervor and debate surrounding this topic was what won the day for reversing a short sighted decision; but it didn't hurt. It's a whole new world, Moms and Dads. This story has unfolded on blogs and Facebook posts in ways that no one but the generation to lead the next chapter at Skylight could have foretold. Our communication is evolving (or perhaps devolving) as rapidly as some air conditioned server farm can take in the new user data for oodles of new Facebook and Twitter users. Yesterday I myself "friended" my own mother on Facebook. And yesterday, my real mom trash talked me.

That is a whole new world.

It's time to recognize that our responsibility as a community that promotes art and culture as a good thing is to never ever take anything for granted. We need to be smarter than those who came before us. We need to think ahead more often. And we need to talk to folks we've never considered talking to about all the things that are on our minds. Boards and artists and administrators are talking to each other in ways that they never have because of this flare up in Milwaukee, and we really need to lean into that energy and use it actively for good.

We also need to remember Crazy Uncle Clair. I contend that The Skylight many of us have been fighting is one we've never known. I've always believed through this Skylight blow up that artists and art lovers were fighting not so much for that pie-in-the-sky thing called artistic integrity, but for an artistic movement based on one man's spur of the moment flash of brilliance "to have a little fun." I never knew Clair Richardson, but I've seen his spirit embodied in the discussions that teenagers have had in Catalano Square in the past couple of weeks. I've seen Clair's candor and passion in the forthright speechifying of artists with 30 plus years history in this community. I've witnessed Clair's saavy risk taking in the generous volunteers who have supported The Skylight as dedicated Board members. Like Clair himself, all these folks have been imperfect servants of a greater cause. But like Clair, too, they have all been pretty damned exciting to watch.

I'm happy that my Skylight family includes Mom Joan, Dad Colin and crazy Uncle Clair. It sure will be fun to spend some time with them working like dogs to make art in Milwaukee mean even more than is does right now. At the same time, I'm excited to know that they will go home, and, indeed, must go home at some point so the kids can start decorating their own house.

Okay, go ahead celebrate. Tomorrow the real work begins.

Stimulus money awards for arts groups fearing downsizing in WI

Today, there was an announcement about awards given to Wisconsin arts groups through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Huzzah to the winners.

The Business Journal mentions that our own Governor Jim Doyle believes "the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds will be used to support arts programs throughout the state by funding artistic directors, gallery curators, volunteer coordinators, artists and directors of education. The grants preserve a total of 28 positions."

(Take away whatever you want from my font bolding and bigging.)

Here are the winning organizations and their award amounts:
  • Walker's Point Center for the Arts, Milwaukee $15,000
  • DanceCircus Ltd., Milwaukee: $10,000
  • Theatre Gigante Inc., Milwaukee: $15,000
  • Kanopy Dance Theatre Inc., Madison: $25,000
  • Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra, Milwaukee: $15,000
  • James Watrous Gallery, WASAL, Madison: $25,000
  • Madison Ballet, Madison: $25,000
  • Madison Creative Arts Program Inc., Madison: $10,000
  • American Players Theater, Spring Green: $15,000
  • Folklore Village, Dodgeville: $25,000
  • Kids from Wisconsin, Milwaukee: $10,000
  • Museum of Wisconsin Art, West Bend: $25,000
  • South Milwaukee Performing Arts Center, South Milwaukee: $25,000
  • Festival Choir of Madison, Madison: $15,000
  • Musical Offering Ltd., Wauwatosa: $10,000
  • Florentine Opera Company, Milwaukee: $25,000
  • Francis Hardy Gallery Inc. of Door County, Ephraim: $20,000
  • Milwaukee Children's Choir, Milwaukee: $8,500.

Super duper all of you troupers.

I notice that Kids from Wisconsin are on this list.

Hmmm, says I.

I recall recently standing in a park where a certain Managing Director of a certain opera/musical theater company in town recently told a group of artists that a replacement for one of the many artists who had withdrawn from the upcoming season at a certain opera/musical theater company in town because of outrage over the elimination of the the artistic staff of said opera/musical theater company because of the perils of the economy is a former Kid from Wisconsin.

Those Kids from Wisconsin are good at everything it seems.

Congrats to everyone on this list, and good luck to everyone who applied and didn't get funding. Keep fighting the good fight everyone.

Fourth Floor Rehearsal Hall, 158 N. Broadway, July 26th

Tessa Bartels is a lovely and charming woman. Byron Foster has a super sense of humor and you can tell by the sparkle in his eye that he is full of wit. Susan Godfrey is a charming lady with a great smile. John Flanagan is as smart as he is funny, and he's mightily equipped on both those fronts.

These are the Skylight Board members I met with in the Fourth Floor Rehearsal Hall of 158 N. Broadway last night. Hardly a vicious group. Not rancorous in the least. Certainly not patronizing, and indeed one might call them civilized to a fault. They all were very eager to listen to a group of artists that had been invited to a small meeting at The Skylight, and though their ears were big they ultimately were unable to give us any answers that would satisfy us that the decisions that were made at The Skylight were proper ones.

The artists in the room, identified as something of a leadership group in this Skylight crisis (a label we all accepted for purposes of discussion with a clear acknowledgement that we were only representing our peers) were yours truly, Pam Kriger, Norman Moses, Richard Carsey, Leslie Fitzwater, Paula Suozzi, Becky Spice, Ray Jivoff, Michael Wright, Alissa Rhode and Tony Clements (via Skype proving that the social media impact of this story knows no end).

There was one other person in the room last night, a man who has helped to change lives in the past several weeks, paying for that with a tremendous, life altering change of his own. That man was Eric Dillner.

I've written often that I believe Eric Dillner must step down from the Skylight for the greater good of the company. Last night was my first opportunity to look Eric face to face and say those words.

I did not shirk. And I did not shirk several times.

I did not mince words and clearly told Eric and the assembled Board members that I believe that Eric must step down for Skylight to succeed at this point. But I also did something else that gives you a glimpse into how I really feel about this whole situation.

I defended Eric. Complicated, no?

I will continue to defend something about Eric Dillner that needs to be acknowledged. The man nobly recognized a long brewing financial disaster at The Skylight months ago. He started the process that needs to be started, one that will continue to be daunting for a long time to come. Unfortunately, he tripped badly. Very, very badly. His actions after the trip have been divisive to the point of outrageous. I don't believe these actions were planned, and that perhaps is the greatest tragedy in this tale. For right or wrong, Eric is the fall guy in this very sad state of affairs.

However, sympathy goes only so far. Eric must step down or the Board must decide to reverse their decision so that the Skylight can work on the plan for recovery, not the plan to build trust in every corner of their stakeholder pool.

I have heard interim Skylight Board President Terry Kurtenbach make the clear analogy that the Skylight's large line of credit and projected deficits is essentially like having a checking account that is overdrawn by $400,000. I've also listened to long standing donors of some means say they are withdrawing their support to the Skylight because Eric Dillner still remains on staff. What I can't understand is why the current Skylight Board continues to add to that overdrawn balance, when it's really gonna to be an uphill battle just to get to zero?

I have great respect for the Board members I met last night, and the Board members I know are continuing to serve The Skylight. However, there does come a point when I start to question if the full Board, in making the decision to continue to back Eric, is being financially responsible to the institution. That point has come for me.

I know that if I essentially kept writing bad checks, that my bank wouldn't be happy. I personally must ask if the Board if acting in the best interests of The Skylight by not firing Eric Dillner. My all apologies to Mr. Dillner, you must be fired, so the Board can do the responsible thing for the institution.

I've reached the place of acceptance that tells me that the Skylight is a different place. The artists that were in that rehearsal room last night, a place where we have laughed and worked together, one in which I met my wife and have taken my daughters, a spot where we have come together to solve problems and work on jokes that would hopefully amaze audiences, were the artists with some years in at Skylight (I'm being kind to that old codger Norman Moses right now).

It has become frighteningly true that we can all be replaced. We've all suspected it since we've started performing, but the admission that many of the roles for next season at The Skylight have been recast, puts that in starker terms.

I suggested to Tessa Bartels, who I believe is the perfect person to serve in the new role of Skylight Board Vice President of Artist Relations, that perhaps the artists in that room were merely the wrong invite list. Here and now we have been clearly told we can be and have been replaced. It is time for the Board of the Skylight and the management to assemble their own leadership core from artists that are supporting their decisions. There must be some out there somewhere.

I applaud the decision to make last night's meeting happen, and I believe there will be more open community forums to come. But for me, my need to hear more is over. There are other artists who don't feel the way I and my peers in that room did last night, and I'm sure the Skylight Board will enjoy working with them. I hope the Skylight Board and management can quickly find artists who agree that the decisions that were made were the best options available. And when those artists start to ask questions about why the Board feels the ongoing support for their mismanaged decision is the best course, I hope they are willing to accept silence. So far, that silent answer is the one I feel we as a community have been asked to accept.

No more for me. I don't accept it. Silence got us into this situation, I don't believe it will get us out of it.

Video Twenty-Five: Catalano Square, July 24 (The Final One)

Here are final thoughts from the July 24th meeting at Catalano Square with Terry Kurtenbach, Eric Dillner and concerned Milwaukee artists, donors and patrons.

Please, for any further clarification contact me or Terry Kurtenbach or Eric Dillner at the following e-mail addresses:

Jonathan West: jonathanwest@artsyschmartsy.com
Eric Dillner, Managing Director of Skylight Opera Theatre: ericd@skylightopera.com
Terry Kurtenbach, Interim Board President of Skylight Opera Theatre: tkurtenbach@deloitte.com