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Remarks by President John J. DeGioia

Honorary Degree Ceremony for Michael Martin Kaiser

Gaston Hall
Georgetown University
March 14, 2011

Mr. Kaiser, honored guests, and members of the Georgetown community… welcome. I am especially grateful to Denyce Graves, who will share a very special musical performance with us today, and to Mr. Kaiser’s parents, Harold and Marion, for joining us. Thank you all for being here today.

As we acknowledge the 50-year anniversary of the inauguration of John F Kennedy, the namesake of our national center for the performing arts; as well as the 40 year anniversary of the Kennedy Center’s public opening [1971], it’s fitting that we gather here today to recognize a leader who has contributed so significantly to that Center’s growth and success over the last ten years, Mr. Michael Kaiser.

Working in the arts management field for over 25 years, Mr. Kaiser’s contributions have extended beyond the walls of the Kennedy Center, as he has made a national and global mark. 

In each of these settings, his ability to guide arts organizations towards achieving their fullest potential is unparalleled.   With his daring leadership style, his commitment to the communities he serves, and a belief in the transformative power of the arts, he has brought this expertise to a wide variety of arts companies and impacted countless others.

Michael would likely be the first to admit, however, that these turnaround success stories are not due to his work alone. His role is to provide the impetus, the inspiration, and the environment for his colleagues to do their very best work. What distinguishes Michael’s leadership is his ability to lead with the artists, managers, and community members.

We can imagine the challenge – of coming into a new organization – and asking for big changes. But Michael not only manages this challenge; he also embraces it, with grace, humility, and a responsiveness to the needs of others. This small distinction—leading with, not leading for—makes all the difference.

Underlying this type of leadership are four core principles or commitments —aspects of Michael’s work that I find especially characteristic and closely related to the depth of his contribution. These are a commitment to excellence in the arts, in engaging the community, in supporting volunteerism, and in harnessing the power of the arts for social good.   I’d like to share a few examples of each.

The first principle is his ability to promote great art. When Michael designs a plan for an arts organization, first and foremost, he emphasizes the quality of the art and an environment in which the artists, performers, and musicians can do their very best work.

He seeks new opportunities for growth and innovation, and promotes above all else, the standard of excellence for artistic expression. In promoting the American Ballet Theater’s first full-length feature…to hosting six critically acclaimed plays by Stephen Sondheim at the Kennedy Center…to bringing world renowned artists and musicians to the U.S. for international cultural festivals, Michael has helped to initiative many new and exciting artistic performances and collaborations. Former National Symphony Orchestra Director, Leonard Slatkin, has described the Kennedy Center under Michael’s leadership as a place of “relevance both to the intellectually curious and to the novice.”1

Yet essential to his revitalization efforts is an emphasis on the depth of engagement in the community – composed both of traditional arts patrons and of members often denied access to the arts. Michael’s commitment to expanding arts access has been a defining feature of his leadership, and has led to the creation of new arts education programs in schools and a sustained tradition of free performances daily on the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center. Just this past month, a Millennium Stage performance during the “maximum India” festival drew a crowd of over 500. 

Michael’s focus on this area also has been directly supportive of a program that has become an important opportunity for partnership between Georgetown and the Kennedy Center, our annual “Martin Luther King, Jr. Let Freedom Ring! Concert.” Michael was a leader in our efforts to design this free concert to be held on the Millennium Stage nearly ten years ago. The event brings together members of the Georgetown University, Kennedy Center and Washington, D.C. communities to celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King through performance. 

The Concert has expanded tremendously since it was created, so much that it is now held in the Concert Hall, the largest venue at the Kennedy Center, and today features original music sung by the joint Georgetown University/ Kennedy Center Let Freedom Ring! Choir – composed of Georgetown students, faculty and staff and members of a number of Washington, D.C. churches – the presentation of the annual “Legacy of a Dream Award,” and a musical tribute from a notable guest. Michael has been instrumental in ensuring the growth and success of this event, and we are deeply grateful. 

Michael’s service to the community extends beyond the arts organizations he manages through the volunteer projects he has created and supported throughout his career. In one example of his commitment to volunteerism, a commitment shared by the Kennedy Center, he developed the “Arts in Crisis: A Kennedy Center Initiative” to support the work of arts managers across the country, with weekly online meetings, email correspondence, and a unique personal commitment to sharing his learning. Through this program, he has mentored 600 organizations from all 50 states.

The last of the four principles is perhaps the most significant – his global perspective and impact. In his work, Michael shares a belief that art not only can be beautiful, but it can also be “good” for the world. This is the message he shares as a U.S. Cultural Ambassador and in the programming he brings to the Kennedy Center.

Art is not simply an experience of leisure or something we view at a distance. It has an immersive quality and one that can be transformative. It allows us to understand ourselves and those around us with new clarity, to experience the world in new ways, and to be reminded of the hopes and dreams we all share. Through our encounter with great works of art, through such performances, we expand our imaginations—our moral imaginations—and can build a better world.   

Michael has spoken about the power of art in the context of his work in places like Pakistan and Iraq, noting that he and the Kennedy Center have focused their efforts in countries that are “in transition and in trouble,” because that is where art can have the greatest impact. He has said, “I believe the arts have the power to heal. Expressing anger, pain and fear on stage is productive and effective.”2  By enabling this kind of expression, time and time again, Michael has helped to reveal the true good that is present in art, and the impact it can have on individuals and communities around the world.


Each characteristic element of Michael’s approach to leadership – his commitment to excellence, to community engagement, to volunteerism, and to art’s global impact, resonates deeply with us here at Georgetown. We are honored to welcome Michael into the Georgetown family. 

President Kennedy spoke in November 1962 at an event supporting the National Cultural Center3—the original name of the Kennedy Center before it’s dedication to President Kennedy—about the potential of art in society: “I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we, too, will be remembered not for the victories or defeats in battle or politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit” (John F. Kennedy November 29, 1962 at a “Close & Circuit Television Broadcast on Behalf of the National Cultural Center”). 

We honor Michael Kaiser today for his many accomplishments and thank him for his many contributions to the “human spirit.”

Ladies and Gentlemen, it is now my pleasure to present our newest alumnus, Michael Martin Kaiser.

1.  Auster, Bruce B. "Turnaround Artist." US News and World Report (Online) March 2003. March 2011.

2.  Arnold, Laurence. "Kennedy Center's Kaiser Aims to Expand Cultural Exchanges." Bloomberg (Online) December 2006. March 2011.

3. National Cultural Center roots date back to 1958, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed bipartisan legislation creating a “National Cultural Center.” The Kennedy Center opened to the public in 1971.


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