incoln Center, the first major urban performing-arts center in America, was well on its way to completion a half-century ago. The New York City Ballet, the New York City Opera, and the New York Philharmonic had already moved there, and the Metropolitan Opera followed suit in 1966. Theatrical productions began to be mounted in the Vivian Beaumont Theater by the end of 1965, and the Juilliard School and the School of American Ballet relocated to its 16-acre campus a few years later. This unprecedented consolidation remains to this day unrivaled in scope: No other performing-arts center dominates the artistic life of a great American city so totally.
In recent years, though, Lincoln Center has weathered an equally unprecedented series of crises. The New York City Opera stopped performing there in 2011 and closed its doors two years later. Shortly thereafter, the Metropolitan Opera was forced to contend with a fiscal meltdown that threatens its very survival. Meanwhile, the New York Philharmonic, whose concert hall is closing in 2019 for desperately needed interior renovations, announced that Alan Gilbert, its music director, will be stepping down from that post in 2017 after a tenure widely regarded as lackluster. And though Peter Martins, the ballet master-in-chief of the New York City Ballet, has said nothing of his own plans for retirement, it is unlikely that the 68-year-old choreographer will stay at the helm much longer. Only Lincoln Center Theater, the smallest of Lincoln Center’s top-tier constituent groups, is by all accounts both managerially and artistically sound.
Hence it is unusually timely that Reynold Levy, who served as Lincoln Center’s president from 2002 to 2014, has published a memoir noteworthy both for its candor and its smugness. As its title suggests, They Told Me Not to Take That Job: Tumult, Betrayal, Heroics, and the Transformation of Lincoln Center is even more self-serving than most books of its genre.1 Levy all too clearly sees himself as the heroic figure who single-handedly wrought “transformational change” in the face of “seemingly intractable problems,” and he believes that most of Lincoln Center’s remaining difficulties are the result of certain of its constituents having stubbornly refused to take his advice.
But he was genuinely successful in putting much of Lincoln Center on a sounder footing, and They Told Me Not to Take That Job, for all its vanity, supplies a necessarily biased but nonetheless illuminating account of what happened to the New York City Opera and the Met on his watch—as well as hinting at what may happen to other organizations that make the same mistakes.
he strength of Levy’s book is paradoxically rooted in its two most glaring weaknesses. They Told Me Not to Take That Job sheds no light on the varied artistic problems of Lincoln Center’s constituents, of which Levy appears to be largely ignorant. Nor does it place these problems in the wider historical context without which they cannot be fully understood. Levy writes instead from the perspective of a manager for whom “success” is measured solely in financial terms or their nonprofit equivalent, attendance figures (or, as performing-arts executives say, “butts in the seats”). Yet it is precisely this narrowness of perspective that allows him to cut through the obscuring haze of high-minded art-world rhetoric and single out the managerial malpractices that sank the New York City Opera and may yet sink the Met.
In the case of City Opera, Levy argues that the blame can be placed mainly on Susan Baker, the chair of the board of directors, who made two devastating blunders. First, she brought in as general director Gérard Mortier, who canceled the company’s entire 2008–09 season while the New York State Theater (now the David H. Koch Theater) was being renovated, then announced a follow-up season of modern operas devoid of the box-office appeal that had built up the populist reputation of a company originally known as “The People’s Opera.”
Having delivered this near-fatal blow to City Opera’s already shaky finances, Mortier suddenly resigned and fled to Europe. Baker and the board then replaced him with George Steel, an inexperienced manager with similar musical tastes who administered the coup de grâce by moving the company out of Lincoln Center, where it had performed without a break for four decades, and transforming it into a part-time troupe that mounted four productions a year at various locations in Brooklyn and Manhattan. (At its peak, City Opera had presented 20 full-scale productions each season.) It went bankrupt shortly thereafter.
Undeceived by the progressive repertory choices that fooled many critics into taking Mortier and Steel seriously, Levy saw at once that they were both incompetent to manage an American opera company and that Baker and the board had thus been grossly negligent in hiring them:
All of his professional life, Mortier had operated in the European way. National and municipal governments supported opera, with very generous sums. He had hardly ever raised funds in the private sector or fretted about the state of the box office…Nothing emerged from months of Mr. Steel’s [subsequent] tenure to instill confidence in the organization’s future. Indeed, in his first full year as director, Mr. Steel presided over a $5.9 million deficit, hardly a source of encouragement.
In the case of the Met, by contrast, Levy places most of the blame on the shoulders of one man, Peter Gelb, who became the company’s general manager in 2006. If anything, he is too kind to Gelb, saying only that his “management and artistic responsibilities are simply too much for any one executive to shoulder, no matter how creative and hard-working.” In fact, Gelb is an irresponsibly big spender with erratic artistic judgment who was unwilling to demand substantial cuts in labor costs from the Met’s powerful unions until it was too late. Faced with a credible strike threat, he hinted that he would do anything necessary, up to and including a lockout, to drag the company back from the brink of the financial apocalypse whose approach he had accelerated by drawing down the Met’s fast-shrinking endowment fund to meet current expenses. In the end, though, Gelb settled for face-saving token pay cuts, abandoning the hoped-for work-rule reforms that have long eluded other big-city managers and leaving once-sympathetic onlookers wondering whether he had exaggerated the company’s plight as a negotiating tactic.
Levy’s indictments are plausible as far as they go. They ignore, however, the fact that Lincoln Center’s original designers made irreversible miscalculations whose long-term consequences are now glaringly apparent and increasingly dire.
To begin with, Lincoln Center’s key venues are too huge to be used with any kind of artistic flexibility. They are suitable only for large-scale presentations, thereby diminishing the intimacy that is more and more intrinsic to the appeal of live performance in the age of on-demand home entertainment. This is especially true of the 3,800-seat Metropolitan Opera House, whose cavernous interior swallows up any production conceived on a less-than-spectacular scale, as well as the 2,600-seat Koch Theater, whose idiosyncratic acoustics and backstage facilities were tailored specifically for the performance of large-house ballet. It was never meant to accommodate an opera company and has not done so adequately at any time in its history. In addition, Lincoln Center’s performing spaces, in common with other concert halls and opera houses built in the ’60s, lack the inviting aura of 19th-century auditoriums like Carnegie Hall or the Vienna Staatsoper. Not only are they “modern” in an anonymous, off-putting way, but their public areas are famously uncomfortable.
Can Lincoln Center overcome these built-in weaknesses? Certainly the demise of the New York City Opera, which allowed the Koch Theater to be used exclusively for dance, represents a vast improvement over the days when the theater was whipsawed between the contradictory needs of City Opera and the New York City Ballet. And as Levy rightly brags, his renovations of Lincoln Center’s physical plant—opening up the once-forbidding plaza and making it more of an inviting place to visit and hang about—made its facilities far more attractive to audiences.
Nevertheless, it is incontestable that Lincoln Center’s “footprint” is greatly diminished from the far-off salad days when it appeared to be offering American culture a roadmap to the future. One reason for this, of course, is that its constituents are no longer led by such larger-than-life artists as George Balanchine, Leonard Bernstein, and Beverly Sills. No matter how well run the New York Philharmonic may be today, a talented but uncharismatic conductor like Alan Gilbert cannot hope to attract the attention that Bernstein drew effortlessly throughout his tenure, any more than a second-rate choreographer like Peter Martins was able to make the public at large care about a company that had once been led by Balanchine and Jerome Robbins.
But even if such giants still walked the earth, it is unlikely that Lincoln Center will ever be again as it was, for the fine arts no longer occupy a significant place in American mass culture. Because the national media (including PBS) no longer cover them more than sporadically, it is impossible for the leaders of Lincoln Center’s constituents to become generally known outside New York. Even if Alan Gilbert were as exciting a conductor as Bernstein, the fact that he does not appear on TV or make major-label recordings prevents him from becoming a celebrity.
This is why Lincoln Center has evolved into an essentially provincial entity whose activities are important to art-conscious New Yorkers, though they do not set the tone for other cities. By the same token, its problems have largely ceased to have national relevance. While it would be shocking if the Metropolitan Opera were forced to close its doors, such a development would have little or no effect on how other, smaller American opera companies go about their business. The company’s demise would merely be seen as proof that it had grown too unwieldy to survive in the fast-shrinking world of 21st-century classical music.
In the end, Lincoln Center is best understood as a historical accident, one that has had a distorting and destructive effect on the performing arts elsewhere in America.
Lest we forget, Lincoln Center was the brainchild not of a creative artist but of Robert Moses, New York’s greatest and most controversial urban planner. His purpose in building it was not to make the fine arts flourish in Manhattan but to use them as an engine of urban renewal on the Upper West Side. Planners in other cities who imitated its gigantism did so without understanding that the only reason Lincoln Center “worked” (to the extent that it did) was that it was built in the bulldozed heart of an island city whose richest citizens, unwilling to submit to the inconvenience of living on the other side of the rivers that surrounded them, could afford to shield themselves from encroaching urban decay. The well-heeled residents of those other cities opted instead to flee to the suburbs, thereby undermining the financial basis for the numerous downtown performing-arts centers that sprang up in Lincoln Center’s wake.
These mammoth multipurpose campuses, comparatively few of which house fully professional performing-arts ensembles of any distinction and most of whose auditoriums are far too large for the groups that they do house, have inevitably been forced to shortchange the fine arts in order to stay afloat. Most of them now spend more time presenting rock bands and Broadway road shows than operas, ballets, or orchestral concerts.
If a new generation of middle-class Americans chooses to move back into the inner cities, large-scale performing-arts centers might start to make fiscal and artistic sense. But even if that should happen, Lincoln Center will never again be culturally influential in the way that it was in the ’70s and ’80s. Today, high art in America is decentralized and deprovincialized, with organizations of the first rank having taken root and flourished all across the country. Regional groups such as the San Francisco Symphony, Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet, and the Houston Grand Opera are now at least as influential as their older counterparts in New York. Nor has this development been anything other than desirable: America’s fine-arts culture is much healthier, now that Manhattan has ceased to be the artistic capital of the country.
But one thing about Lincoln Center is and always will be relevant. In his chapter about the Met’s financial crisis, Reynold Levy cites a remark that I made in a column I wrote for the Wall Street Journal immediately after the company and its unions reached a settlement: “Given sufficiently bad management, no arts organization is too big, too old, or too famous to fail. Not even the Metropolitan Opera.” Indeed, the Met is more likely to fail precisely because it is so big. And this may prove in the long run to be Lincoln Center’s legacy: It has had a paralyzing effect on the capacity for innovation of the fine-arts groups that once gathered together so hopefully under its outsized umbrella.
1 PublicAffairs, 376 pages