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Book Review: Reynold Levy and Drama at Lincoln Center

They Told Me Not To Take That Job: Tumult, Betrayal, Heroics, and the Transformation of Lincoln Center by Reynold Levy. PublicAffairs. 2015. 376 pages.
Reynold-Levy-Lincoln-Center
“Reynold, you are a competitive guy. I am sure you will secure this offer, and the place will be lucky to have you. But are you sure you want this headache of a job, in view of all that you are learning about the poisonous environment at Lincoln Center?” Elizabeth Levy asked her husband.

As Reynold Levy explains in “They Told Me Not To Take That Job: Tumult, Betrayal, Heroics, and the Transformation of Lincoln Center,” he wanted to become president of Lincoln Center for a myriad of reasons. Levy was attracted to the glamour of its world-class artists who performed there. But he also wanted to expand Lincoln Center’s outreach to children, particularly those receiving one or more forms of public assistance. “No kid should grow up in the cultural capital of the world without being exposed to the best in the performing and visual arts,” Levy writes.

The challenge was getting beyond the strong egos and institutional politics that plagued Lincoln Center. Board meetings for the Lincoln Center Redevelopment were especially tense. Not only did the veritable New York City institution need a physical makeover, it required a spiritual renewal if it would continue to survive.

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Explaining how Lincoln Center works requires a treasure map filled with hidden clues, secrets and traps. As Levy explains, resident organizations include the Julliard School, Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera, the New York Philharmonic, New York City Ballet, Lincoln Center Theatre, and the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Each of the eleven resident organizations operates as 501c3 entity, which included a separate board of directors, mission statement and operating budget.

Prior to Levy’s arrival, Lincoln Center’s budget was balanced because the facility delayed much-needed maintenance on the space. He writes how some resident organizations were barely making ends meet, though the facility would manage the costs itself if they deferred renovations.

The redevelopment committee was set up with preposterous rules. For example, all resident organizations had to unanimously approve of any decision regarding the physical redevelopment of Lincoln Center. One veto would prevent action from being taken. Stagnation was the result. No one worked together.

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Meanwhile, Levy brought an impressive resume to the table. He was a chief executive officer of the 92nd Street Y, the International Rescue Committee, as well as the architect and president of AT&T Foundation. He was chairperson for two private foundations, Nathan Cummings and Charles H. Revson.

Perhaps just as important, Levy has been in the role of a scrappy outsider. Coming from a financially strapped family, Levy details how he put himself through Hobart College. He took extra jobs and stayed out of debt. His father attempted to help out with a small amount of money. After a check bounced, Levy kindly told his father that the checks were no longer necessary.

Levy’s father also gave him an appreciation for music and dance. Listening to Dizzy Gillespie on an old record player, his father would invite him to draw what the composer might’ve been thinking. The interpretation of sound through magic markers provided Levy with a creative outlet and an understanding of culture that went far beyond being an observer.

These childhood lessons followed Levy throughout his time at Lincoln Center. After Levy got the job, he showed up to work on his first day as president of Lincoln Center driving his father’s four-door 1993 Mercury Marquis. Before his father died, Levy promised him that he would drive the car for as long as it lasted. The security guard stopped him, confused by the nine-year old car. Levy’s predecessors drove new cars to Lincoln Center. This old car was a symbolic difference.

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Lincoln Center by Taga.

Lincoln Center by Taga.

Levy made vast changes to Lincoln Center. The governance structure and economic model desperately needed updating. He sought to expand the Board of Directors to include people living outside of New York City. Most of all, he wanted to open Lincoln Center for weddings, company product introductions and memorials. Not only did the facility raise revenue, it became an essential community space.

Rather than rely on talkbacks for community involvement, Lincoln Center developed Charles Benenson Grove, an area for artists and the public to commune informally. Bringing the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week to the facility also helped the community to see Lincoln Center in a new way.

“I endeavored not only to edify through extensive precirculated reading material and often through presentations by board committee chairs and senior staff, but also to lighten up the boardroom. Why just leave brochures on the seats of trustees, when staff costumed to impersonate a Shakespearean character, or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, or a jazz trombonist could hand the relevant literature to trustees as they came off the elevator? Why just announce the renewal of the Big Apple Circus residency in Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center, when one could have the silent clown Grandma suddenly enter the boardroom, sit on the laps of selected trustees, engage in some hijinks, and unfurl a ‘Thank You Lincoln Center’ banner?”

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Although the tone in the beginning of Levy’s book might make readers think it will be one long exhale of resume accomplishments and humblebrags, this book has an edge. Levy doesn’t hold back on his blunt assessments of people and their skills. Assets and liabilities of prestigious organizations and their management are all on the page for everyone to read. At times it’s refreshing; other instances can seem brutal and maybe even unnecessary. It’s easy to let your mind wander to the question, “What’s the other side of the story?”

He does, however, use these lessons to illustrate lessons in nonprofit arts management and leadership. The last chapter is devoted to lessons he learned.

He warns against neglecting valuable employees. “Their morale, their sense of importance and self-worth, and their belief in having contributed to the success of the enterprise matter a great deal to whether they stay or take flight.” Amen. Losing valuable employees can be hazardous to the wellbeing of your organization. In many instances, the only person you have to blame when valuable employees leave is yourself.

Executives and senior managers at arts organizations are prone to seeing their colleagues as a means to an end. Levy reminds readers that employees are not pawns who only exist to do the bidding for their seniors. It’s simply not enough to engage in cursory niceties. Trust, leadership and people skills are vital; yet in the nonprofit arts world, they are in short supply.

Levy’s book is not just for people in the New York metro area. It provides lessons for anyone interested in the performing arts.

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