SA Symphony Names ‘Turnaround Specialist’ as Executive Director

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Michael Kaiser was named the San Antonio Symphony’s interim executive director Wednesday.

Courtesy / Ilan Mizrahi

Michael Kaiser was named the San Antonio Symphony’s interim executive director Wednesday.

Michael Kaiser, who recently served as a consultant for the City of San Antonio and Bexar County’s task force examining the financial sustainability of the San Antonio Symphony, was named the Symphony’s interim executive director Wednesday.

Kaiser brings extensive experience as an international arts manager and “turnaround specialist,” according to Kathleen Weir Vale, board chair of the Symphony Society of San Antonio.

“He’s got a formula for success that’s unbelievable,” Vale said. “He doesn’t have a discernible failure rate.”

Kaiser previously led significant financial turnarounds at the Royal Opera House in London, and the American Ballet Theatre and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, both in New York. He will serve in his interim position with the San Antonio Symphony through December, when a permanent executive director is expected to be hired.

Vale had already begun studying Kaiser’s fundraising and budgetary methodology at the beginning of the year, following the Symphony’s near-demise in January. With a newly revitalized board and mission, she distributed Kaiser’s books, including The Art of the Turnaround from 2008 and Leading Roles: 50 Questions Every Arts Board Should Ask from 2010, to each board member.

“They understand his principles,” she said, “and now he will make dead sure that we implement them.”

Kaiser takes over the interim executive director role from Karina Bharne, who accepted a job as executive director at Symphony Tacoma in June. As consultant to the San Antonio Symphony Transformation Task Force, Kaiser helped develop a long-term strategy to maintain a 72-member symphony on a 30-week season schedule and craft other recommendations to ensure the Symphony’s long-term viability.

Kaiser takes the helm in a period of relative calm, beginning with a balanced budget to close the 2017-2018 season, a new collective bargaining agreement in place with the orchestra’s musicians, and programming for the 2018-2019 season completed.

Some of Kaiser’s ambitious outreach, marketing, and engagement strategies are already being embraced by Symphony management, Vale said, and during a June 19 meeting with task force members, City, County, and media representatives, Kaiser said his recommendations were intended to “complement what’s already being done.”

During that meeting, he characterized the relationship between the Symphony and its community as a “marriage,” and its state as moving from sickness to health. The purpose of Symphony programming, he said, would be “to welcome people into your family” and that the goal was to “embrace all of San Antonio.”

To that end, Vale expects Kaiser to focus on diversity, which is “pretty much our watchword at this point,” she said, citing diversity on the board and staff, in programming and operations, and among musicians and audience. “We’re talking about economic diversity, geographic diversity, ethnic diversity, racial diversity, age diversity, bringing in young people.”

During the June meeting, Vale said, “We are so fortunate to have his wisdom and his guidance.” After his hiring was announced, she echoed that sentiment, and said Kaiser’s leadership is already underway. His first session with development staff is Monday, she said.

Kaiser will continue to operate out of Washington, D.C., where the DeVos Institute of Arts Management consulting firm he leads is based, but he and his team will spend three out of five days each week in San Antonio working with the Symphony, Vale said.

One thought on “SA Symphony Names ‘Turnaround Specialist’ as Executive Director

  1. Shouldn’t Sheryl Skulley be held to task for the near demise of SA Symphony? Shouldn’t a city manager compensated as grandly as she is be responsible for the health of all of SA’s arts organizations? Didn’t she see that the Symphony was heading into financial trouble? Why didn’t she step in to remedy the situation before the near cancellation of the season? Or is having a healthy symphony in the sixth most populous US city a low priority for SA?

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