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One month from the official July 1 date of Washington National Opera’s merger with the Kennedy Center, the first hints that all may not be running smoothly come…straight from the top.
Official statements from both parties have been nothing but ecstatic, with the bailout—-that’s “affiliation” to you and me—-heralded in terms ranging from cure for cancer to the liberation of Paris. Yet in his latest blog post on Huffington Post, Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser admits that “Merging Isn’t So Easy.” He offers “several reasons to proceed with caution,” including the time and effort that must go into squashing together boards and staff, as well as other casualties:
The emotional costs of merging must also be considered. Reducing staff is never easy or fun. The sense that the weaker organization is losing is also hard to overcome, no matter how much the leadership of the stronger organization tries to treat them fairly. (And there is almost always a stronger and a weaker organization in a merger.)
Remarkably, Kaiser manages to talk about all this without mentioning the Washington National Opera once. (He does reference the Kennedy Center’s past merger with disability arts organization VSA.) So to whom exactly is Kaiser referring?
Kaiser is currently leading fundraising seminars in the United Kingdom and was unavailable for comment. According to John Dow, the Kennedy Center’s press director, “This morning’s blog certainly includes WNO, but it is not specifically about it. It simply says that mergers are not easy or cost free. As you will know by reading his blog, Michael writes about current issues that affect the field of arts management. The issue about organizations merging is one that is being considered by several organizations at the moment.” The Kennedy Center would not comment on the timing of the blog post or whether it reflects any current difficulties in managing the WNO merger.
Called “the turnaround king” for his success in saving failing arts companies, Kaiser has been a blogger for the Huffington Post since 2009, and muses about all matters of arts programming, fundraising, and advertising in sometimes painfully earnest posts with titles like “I Like Older People.” His weekly column serves as an extension of his “Arts in Crisis” project, in which he offers free advice to struggling arts directors elsewhere on how to better run their companies. Sometimes this advice is not entirely well received, as he acknowledged in “Why My Peers Are Angry With Me”—-Kaiser had argued that even in a recession, companies should never cut marketing expenses and, well, coming from the federally subsidized Kennedy Center, that’s rich.
Of course even with its coveted access to Congressional coffers, the Kennedy Center will absorb a significant cost by taking on the dead broke (and newly Domingo-less) Washington National Opera, which lends a more ominous tone to Kaiser’s totally hypothetical musings about restructuring costs. So why does Kaiser suddenly feel the need to downgrade expectations of the merger’s success? Is it a sign of more layoffs than originally projected, or fewer productions in upcoming seasons? “I think you’re reading a bit into it,” Dow replies. Nothing to see here, folks.