Lincoln Center's Mr. President

GUEST: Reynold Levy
AIR DATE: 11/17/2012
VTR: 10/04/2012

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And I first met my guest today, when he was President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, one of the world’s largest organizations providing relief, protection and resettlement services for refugees around the world.

Before that he had been head of the AT&T Foundation, where he worked so diligently to support the Performing and Visual Arts.

And still earlier, he had distinguished himself as Executive Director of New York City’s famous 92nd Street Y, a leading artistic, educational and social service institution.

But I’m a born and bred New Yorker, a West Side Manhattanite at that. And what looms largest for me is that my guest, Reynold Levy, and I had our first Open Mind conversation in 2002, shortly after he became President of Lincoln Center.

And over and over again, whenever I come within hailing distance, within sight or sound, of that truly magnificent New York – that American – that World Class cultural institution he has led to ever and ever greater glories over the decade plus he has served as its President, I want thank Reynold Levy for making Lincoln Center what it is today, and indeed for making so many of us – from near and from far – his devotees and Lincoln Center’s as well.

But now as 2012 ends, Reynold Levy is beginning to prepare to retire as the peripatetic President of this wonderful home to Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the School of American Ballet, the New York Philharmonic, the New York City Ballet, The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, The Film Society at Lincoln Center, The Julliard School, Jazz at Lincoln Center, The Lincoln Center Theater, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, and the Metropolitan Opera.

Now, my guest has already written – and we talked about Yours For The Asking, A Call to Alms…A…L…M…S, that is.

But there must still be many, many serious lessons this past decade has taught my guest about big institutions and small ones, about cultural life and politics in America, about big, big dollars – how to find them, of course…but even how, where and when to spend them.

So that my guest – the literary type – is sure to write some more…but I wonder what he would share with us now, as the curtain begins to come down at Lincoln Center. What would you say, what, what are you, what are you thinking about as you begin to prepare to leave?

LEVY: Actually, Richard, I’m extremely impressed by the good will and the voluntarism and the civic activism of an enormously energetic and resourceful group of citizens, of Trustees of Lincoln Center and the volunteers that are associated with them.

We’ve just completed an unprecedented physical expansion of Lincoln Center … we spent $1.2 billion dollars … we were on time and on budget and we rebuilt and modernized Lincoln Center … it’s public spaces, its infrastructure, its artistic facilities … straight through a very, very severe recession.

It would not be possible without the intense determination of a generation of New Yorkers who are bound and determined to prepare Lincoln Center for the 21st century in the same way their predecessors sixty years ago were bound and determined to create the first performing arts center in America.

There is something very, very special about this third sector in American life that lends itself and supports and encourages giving and volunteering. And, and that this is really a collective enterprise.

My second thought is I’m very much reminded of a quote from Jean Monnet the founder of the Common Market … who said “There is nothing special in the world that is not the product of gifted men and women. But there is nothing lasting in the world more than institutions.”

And I am surrounded by institution builders, by people who really believe in creating enduring organizations for the future.

And so, with the announcement of my retirement at the end of next year I’m extremely grateful for the coalition of support that we were able to assemble and the outreach that we were able to do to the corporate community and the individual community and the foundation community … to New York City government, state government and federal government … all of whom gathered around Lincoln Center for this first ever comprehensive capital campaign.

HEFFNER: Volunteerism … it’s so interesting that you focus on that. Do you feel that this is unique now in our new century, in our time?

LEVY: I think the … it’s, it’s by degree … not in kind. The number of non-government organizations around the world is, is spreading significantly. The rise of the non-state actor in foreign policy has become a phenomenon common commented upon by political scientists and, and foreign policy observers.

But the degree of involvement is, is amazing. Two-thirds of Americans give to charity, about $300 billion dollars a year. On average an American contributes five hours per week to a non-profit organization. If you combine the two, volunteerism and financial giving … far more Americans do both than vote in a Presidential election.

This is a form of citizenship that is alive and well in our country. And it’s part of the diversity of and the richness of America … it’s in no small measure what accounts for our great university system and the variety of liberal arts colleges and community colleges and state universities who are so dependent on private support.

I graduated from the University … I got a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia in 1973 and at the time 40% of the university’s funding was from the state of Virginia. Today that figure is 6%. And the difference has been made up by philanthropy … largely, but not exclusively from the graduates of that state university. And so it has been around the country.

HEFFNER: It’s so interesting again that you say that because my sense has been … and I hope you’ll put it to rest … that there is a kind of meanness of spirit that I sense, maybe because it is the political season, as we speak, but a kind of sense of meanness of spirit that characterizes us more than the giving qualities that you take note of.

LEVY: I don’t see that. I really don’t. And it could be a compartmentalization …

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

LEVY: Well, it could be a … when, when public life is dispiriting, citizens of good will turn their attention elsewhere. And so they turn their attention to non-profit organizations of all kinds … for gratification and as a way to discharge their public and civic obligations.

And so, you know, we have a major problem in the country with attracting able leaders to Congress, able leaders to the Cabinet and sub-Cabinet positions … White House positions … for many, many reasons. And more than a few who would otherwise be candidates for those positions, turn their attention to institutions like Lincoln Center to express their support for their city and support for their country.

HEFFNER: Good or bad?

LEVY: I would like the end of either/or. I think participation in public life is noble and extraordinarily important. And I find it extremely dispiriting to see Congressmen and Senators with hardly used passports, to see the degree to which our rhetoric has become so hot, how little light is shed. I do think there’s been a qualitative difference in the quality of our, our Senators and our Congressmen … and I say this in a bi-partisan way.

It’s very hard to find a Senator Keating or a Senator Javits, or a Senator Percy or even now a Senator Luger on the Republican side and likewise on the Democratic side the, the kind of dispassionate analysis of issues is hard to find. There’s simply too much partisanship.

HEFFNER: And you’re suggesting that perhaps that instinct, which is American to the narrow, is focused now on the doing good opportunities …

LEVY: Ah …

HEFFNER: … that the public sector, not the political sector provides.

LEVY: In hospitals, in colleges and universities, in think tanks and arts and cultural institutions … absolutely. The, the, the … in our … in the town from which we speak … in New York City … I have not in my adult lifetime seen the flourishing of so many non-profit institutions concurrently.

In the museum world, in the performing arts world, in the university world … it’s been very special and it means a great deal to the vibrancy of the city. It’s a competitive advantage for the city, it’s a source of civic pride, it’s a source of social harmony. It’s a major tourist attraction, it’s one of the reasons that people come to live and work in our town … is the richness and variety of these non-profit institutions.

I would also say that as, as I, as I think back on my time at Lincoln Center, this work cannot be done without extraordinarily resourceful and gifted colleagues.

And the not-for-profit sector has become a place where young people, who are very skilled and have choices decide to put a substantial part of their working lives, because of how gratifying that, that work is.

HEFFNER: You know, Reynold, you, you said that once before here and I wasn’t puzzled, but I wonder what are those skills that you address yourself to? What are those personal characteristics, because you have been so complimentary about your, your colleagues over the years here.

LEVY: Well, first and foremost is communications skills, the capacity to take the mission of Lincoln Center and describe it in terms that are palpable. To lay out our vision and to express to others how they can be helpful in its realization.

HEFFNER: Well, as you said once … you can take and your colleagues can take a potential donor, giver to one of your many wonderful performances … there it is …

LEVY: We can …

HEFFNER: … in real life.

LEVY: … we can, but we can also persuade that donor, that the brown bag carrying, thermos holding, MTA card holding New Yorker … that first generation New Yorker belongs at Lincoln Center as well,

That that child in, in, in a public school in the South Bronx deserves exposure to Lincoln Center through physical means … by coming to Lincoln Center. By having Lincoln Center come to them physically, or by means of digital media.

So the opportunity to, to say to donors what you so much enjoy should not be a luxury for the few. It should be offered to the many and, and one of the things that’s most gratifying about what’s happened at Lincoln Center in the last decade is that the architectural change … removing the barriers to entering, making Lincoln Center more accessible physically … introducing 21st century technology … wi-fiing the campus, providing food and beverage at many price points … making Lincoln Center a welcoming destination. Creating a new Lincoln Center commons called the David Rubenstein Atrium is a metaphor for our desire to reach out broadly to tourists from around the country and to those who don’t live in the immediate neighborhood of Lincoln Center to come and enjoy those many impressive organizations that you led the program with.

HEFFNER: Now … go outside of New York … what do we find? Without … you’re not someone to toot your own horn or your own institution’s horn. So I don’t want you to be too nice in talking about the rest of the country. To what extent is this kind of approach paying off elsewhere? Are we seeing the kind of growth of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts elsewhere?

LEVY: The experience is uneven. I think there are some standout institutions … the growth of regional theater, for example, and the number of very, very high quality theaters in the United States is exceptional. And extraordinary.

Modern dance used to be much more vibrant and the amount of travel of modern dance companies around the country used to be much greater.

The Federal government is not an important actor in the performing arts world any …

HEFFNER: Was it?

LEVY: … when the National Endowment for the Arts was first founded, it was. Both by precept, by example and by resources. When I was at the 92nd Street Y in the 1970’s, its challenge grant programs, its touring programs were vibrant and important, they are no longer. They’re not a significant player in the performing arts scene.

So, there’s a much greater dependence on individual and, and foundation giving.

I think the recession has had an erosive quality … on budgets and on spirits. And we read often about the travails of some orchestras around the country. About the closing of some performing arts institutions at, at the edges, at the margins around the country.

But I think by and large there’s a very forward looking spirit … take museums … just 20 years ago … museums were regarded as fossils, their death knell was predicted over and over again.

And today they are …couldn’t be more lively … as, as places that attracts a widespread demographic with great excitement. And in our town … two of our museums … both the Modern Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art are talking about opening up on the one day they were closed … on Mondays … to accommodate the enormous numbers of people who are enjoying them.

So I think it’s very much a mixed record, Richard. But there are some very, very positive signs.

HEFFNER: The recession, you didn’t let it get you down for a moment, did you?

LEVY: No.

HEFFNER: You used it.

LEVY: Correct. Correct.

HEFFNER: How so?

LEVY: Well, first of all I was very inspired by our Mayor. Early on after 9/11 Mayor Bloomberg gave an address in which he reminded New Yorkers that in the middle of the Depression, the Empire State Building was built, in a year in a single year … in … the … Depression. And, you know, I said to myself, “My lord, if, if that can happen, then surely we can get a coalition of actors who are willing to see this through, see the redevelopment of Lincoln Center through for the next generation of artists and audiences.

And, and in fact, we argued that. We argued that if we could be successful, this might be a good example to others . And there were times when Lincoln Center was not only the largest construction site in New York City, it was one of the largest construction sites in the country. And, and we’re very proud of that.

Not only because of what it accomplished, but because of the employees and families who had jobs as a result of our collective efforts.

HEFFNER: What next, and I don’t mean for you … because I’m going to wait a year until you tell me straight what you’re going to do next.

What next for Lincoln and for the performing arts, which are focused so much at Lincoln Center.

LEVY: I couldn’t be more excited. Could not be more excited. First of all the constituent groups, the constituent artistic organizations that comprise the family of Lincoln Center are moving forward in very dramatic ways artistically.

And I’m extraordinarily excited by their independent work, I extraordinarily excited by their collaborative activity together. And, and, and I’m, I’m fearful of singling any out, lest I leave one of the, one of my favorites not mentioned on the program.

The secondary is digital media. Is turning Lincoln Center inside out. Is emulating and expanding on the work that Peter Gelb has done to put operas in movie theaters. I think there are enormous opportunities for other performing arts forms to be put in movie theaters, to be put on Internet, too, to be put in digital devices, to be part of the teaching and learning process in universities and in elementary and secondary schools.

Lincoln Center decided it would create new sources of revenue that were unrelated to ticket revenue. It’s our new venture program.

And the latest of those new venues has had Lincoln Center creating a consulting practice for institutions around the country and around the world. And we just most recently finished work with our first client … we decided to start small … so we began with China. And so we worked with the city of Tianjin in the creation of a new economic model for a brand new performing arts center. That’s a very exciting development for Lincoln Center.

And not just because of the revenue that accrues to us. And not just because how much we learn as consultants, but because of the learning that’s being done by our clients. And the ways in which performing arts exchanges between countries can be encouraged and increased.

You know, after World War II there was an enormous effort to get American citizens to understand Europe and vice versa. Exchanges of scholars, exchanges of students … the German Marshall Fund and the like.

There’s been an erosion of the exchange of performing artists from country to country.

Lincoln Center wants to play a leading role in stemming that erosion and in increasing the exposure both of New Yorkers and visitors and of others around the country to performing arts institutions from around the world.

HEFFNER: Reynold, how do you explain that erosion? We just have a few minutes left, but it … that’s such an interesting comment.

LEVY: Well, there used to be very substantial European government support for their leading ensembles to go abroad. It was …

HEFFNER: They’re gone now?

LEVY: Yeah … very much so. It’s an impact of recession. I mean it’s one of the … one of the many things that is being cut in Europe. And, and unfortunately, the healing process to those cuts will take a significant period of time.

So, to the degree that Lincoln Center can be a stimulant and move against that grain … we really wish to as an institution.

HEFFNER: Do I gather correctly that there isn’t abroad the tradition of voluntarism that you could appeal to here in this country and did appeal to?

LEVY: I think that’s absolutely the case. But the current crisis may give rise to it … because …

HEFFNER: May give rise to it?

LEVY: … because governments are saying to their leading performing arts institutions … “We cannot subsidize you to the degree we did. You have to change you governing institutions to fiduciary institutions. We need you to raise money … both here at home and we may have to change tax incentives to do it. We may need you to create 501(c)(3) organizations in the United States … to become “friends” of the National Theater, “friends” of Oxford University, “friends” of Hebrew University and the like. Those are significantly expanding and we want you to pay closer attention to earned income.”

So tuitions are rising, that had been heavily, heavily subsidized in Europe. Ticket prices are rising and there’s a greater responsiveness to the realities of the kind of economic environment that non-profit institutions live in in America.

HEFFNER: Does digitization which has struck you as such a positive thing, does it strike people in the world of the arts abroad in the same way?

LEVY: Yes, it does. Yes it … very much so, very much so. I think the … first of all the price as a barrier to entry …

HEFFNER: Yeah.

LEVY: … is significant … and this is a complementary way of being exposed to the performing arts and we think it leads to coming into the theater … just as it did in sports.

There were always fears that radio and then television and then the Internet would decrease live attendance in sports, for example, or in the arts.

And nothing has been further from the truth. More and more people are going to museums and yet museum websites are as active as they have ever been. And as beautiful as they’ve ever been, but they’ve proven no substitute for the real thing, no substitute for seeing “that” painting live, no substitute for seeing what’s on that stage live.

So we think the digital media is complementary and really an invitation to enjoy the wonders of the arts.

HEFFNER: And you think Peter Gelb’s exploration in this area indicates that that’s so.

LEVY: Absolutely, Richard. I, I give Peter an enormous amount of credit. I think it’s the most important thing to happen to opera since simultaneous translation. It’s a huge and major development and millions of people are being exposed to opera for the very first time by taking their grandchild into a theater at a cost of $22 and enjoying a combination we never thought would happen … popcorn and opera.

HEFFNER: (Laughter) Reynold Levy it’s a pleasure to talk with you again and when you are really ready for the curtain to come down … at least at Lincoln Center, we must talk again.

LEVY: Pleasure to be here.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

And do visit the Open Mind Website at thirteen.org/openmind to reprise this program online right now or to draw upon our Archive of 1,500 or so other Open Mind and related programs. That’s thirteen.org/openmind.

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