Arts must plan further ahead if they want to secure private funding – Michael Kaiser

UK arts organisations must programme further in advance if they want to attract more private sector funding, former Royal Opera House chief executive Michael Kaiser has claimed.

Kaiser, who is now president of the Kennedy Centre in Washington, was brought over to the UK earlier this month by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to give a series of free fundraising seminars for arts organisations across the country.

Speaking to The Stage following his tour, which saw him visit Newcastle, Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham and Bristol, Kaiser said the UK arts sector needs to plan further ahead if it wants to increase the amount of money it can generate from individuals and corporations.

He explained: “Many arts organisations are planning their art six, eight or 12 months in advance. I plan my art – the bigger projects – three, four or five years in advance, which gives me the time to find and cultivate new donors and bring them into the picture, but also to make bigger, more exciting, more surprising projects.

“One of the challenges in this country is that organisations – even some large ones – have typically gone to the same suspects [for donations] all the time. That also comes from doing your programme planning on too short a time frame.

“I just did a big festival of India. I had five years to study who was out there and cultivate new donors for that project. If I only had a year, I would go back to my same donors. I think that’s a big challenge that we have to overcome.”

He also stressed that while it might be harder for smaller arts organisations to attract corporate funding, it was “simply not true” that fundraising from individuals was harder for small, non-national arts organisations based outside London.

“Even for a theatre company that might have a turnover of £1.5 million a year, one can raise substantial sums. The mistake people make about fundraising is that people think it is about the rich. A vast majority of funding comes from the middle class, and a large number of donors are not going to give you £1 million or £50,000 or even £5,000. But they’ll give you £50 or £100 a year. It adds up.

“The notion that you have to rely on the super-rich and you therefore have to be in London is simply not true and not true anywhere in the world.”

Meanwhile, Kaiser also stressed the challenges being faced by arts organisations in the UK were the same as those being faced elsewhere – in Europe, Asia and the US – as most arts sectors shift towards a greater emphasis on private support. The Kennedy Center, he said, needs to raise $75 million from private sources.

Kaiser advised against the UK arts sector complaining too vociferously in public about funding cuts. He said: “There’s an awful lot of whingeing in public by arts organisations [in the UK] and while I can sympathise with the fear – everyone who runs an arts organisation is scared in every country including my own, including me – I don’t believe it’s helpful for attracting funds.

“People give funds to organisations they think are healthy, the organisations they think are doing exciting work, to organisations they think are going to manage their money well. Also people come to the arts for entertainment and inspiration. Sometimes I think we forget that – it’s a tendency we have to fight.”

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The Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, London. Photo: Noel Foster