They Told Me Not to Take that Job

Tumult, Betrayal, Heroics, and the Transformation of Lincoln Center


By Reynold Levy

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When Reynold Levy became the new president of Lincoln Center in 2002, New York Magazine described the situation he walked in to as “a community in deep distress, riven by conflict.” Ideas for the redevelopment of Lincoln Center’s artistic facilities and public spaces required spending more than 1.2 billion, but there was no clear pathway for how to raise that kind of unprecedented sum. The individual resident organizations that were the key constituents of Lincoln Center — the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Opera, the New York Philharmonic, the Juilliard School, and eight others — could not agree on a common capital plan or fundraising course of action. Instead, intramural rivalries and disputes filled the vacuum.

Besides, some of those organizations had daunting problems of their own. Levy tells the inside story of the demise of the New York City Opera, the Metropolitan Opera’s need to use as collateral its iconic Chagall tapestries in the face of mounting operating losses, and the New York Philharmonic’s dalliance with Carnegie Hall.

Yet despite these and other challenges, Levy and the extraordinary civic leaders at his side were able to shape a consensus for the physical modernization of the sixteen-acre campus and raise the money necessary to maintain Lincoln Center as the country’s most vibrant performing arts destination. By the time he left, Lincoln Center had prepared itself fully for the next generation of artists and audiences.

They Told Me Not to Take That Job is more than a memoir of life at the heart of one of the world’s most prominent cultural institutions. It is also a case study of leadership and management in action. How Levy and his colleagues triumphantly steered Lincoln Center — through perhaps the most tumultuous decade of its history to a startling transformation — is fully captured in his riveting account.



A Kid from Brooklyn Becomes a President (Again)

I was warned. They told me not to take that job.

“It’s a freewheeling circus, Reynold. And there’s no ringmaster.”

“Why would you want to cope with so many self-reverential personalities run amok?”

“Only Darwin and Hobbes would fully understand what’s really going on over there.”

To compete to be the president of Lincoln Center was regarded by my friends and mentors as bordering on a self-destructive act.

The most recent incumbent, Gordon Davis, had lasted all of nine months. The board chair, Beverly Sills, was mired in controversy, exhausted after seven and a half years in that role, and eager to leave. Lincoln Center’s much-touted redevelopment project was tied in a Gordian knot.

The widely admired developer Marshall Rose, who so successfully spearheaded the restoration of Bryant Park, had just resigned from his post as chair of Lincoln Center Redevelopment and was quoted on the way out as saying, “[I] was stabbed in the back.”1

If that sounds Shakespearean, the allusion fits. Rivalries abounded. Personalities clashed. Egos reigned. Reputations were badly damaged. And the whole circus was reported on assiduously by a delighted press, analyzed to a fare-thee-well by the newspapers and weekly magazines:

First, its President of 17 years, Nathan Leventhal, stepped down just as the [redevelopment] effort was getting underway. Then, the Metropolitan Opera held the project hostage in a very public battle over management issues. Then, the economy took a dive, terrorists attacked New York, and now Lincoln Center’s new President, Gordon J. Davis, has decided to resign after less than a year. Can the institution still hope to raise $1.5 billion to rebuild its complex over the next ten years? Some top cultural officials have said no, that the project was likely to be postponed or abandoned, perhaps simply because the Met and the other constituent arts groups still cannot agree on how to proceed.

              —Robin Pogrebin, New York Times, September 29, 2001

. . . a study in the treacherous—some would say dysfunctional—politics of the city’s largest and most fractious arts organization. Hamstrung by rivalries among the Center’s warring constituent members; undercut by Ms. Sills, who seemed unwilling to cede power to her new President; and derided by staff members . . . a disillusioned Mr. Davis finally called it quits on September 27.

              —Elisabeth Franck and Andrew Rice, New York Observer, October 8, 2001

Lincoln Center is a community in deep distress, riven by conflict over a grandiose $1 billion redevelopment plan . . . instead of uniting the Center’s constituent arts organizations behind a common goal, the project has pitted them against one another in open warfare more reminiscent of the shoot-out at the OK Corral than of a night at the opera. “To say that it is a mess is putting it mildly,” says Johanna Fiedler, the author and a former staff member at the Metropolitan Opera. “There is nobody running the show right now.”

              —Leslie Bennetts, New York Magazine, February 4, 2002

What is wrong with Lincoln Center? The problem goes deeper than the virtuoso bickering over redevelopment which, to judge from reports, fills the corridors of what is called “the world’s largest cultural complex.” The chief personalities of the place—Beverly Sills, Joe Volpe, Paul Kellogg, and the rest—make entertaining copy, and it would almost be a pity if the soap opera were to end.

              —Alex Ross, New Yorker, April 1, 2002

The situation at Lincoln Center was in a state of disarray. Disagreements proliferated, and civility had all but disappeared. Relationships and processes that had bound constituent artistic organizations together were unraveling, very publicly. At stake was the very future of Lincoln Center as the leading performing arts institution in the world.

There were real challenges and threats to be managed. The nine performing arts organizations, two educational institutions, and one branch of the New York Public Library all confronted some combination of these realities: declining and aging audiences; a post-9/11 flagging economy; competition for consumer discretionary income; and significant reductions in government support—federal, state, and municipal—for annual operating requirements.

Yet the most pernicious dangers emanated from inside Lincoln Center, in the form of self-inflicted wounds. In the absence of forward-looking leadership, resident artistic forces behaved more like rivals and adversaries than partners and allies. Staff and trustees were highly unrealistic about the energy and determination needed to remedy decades of deferred maintenance, to fix a deteriorating infrastructure, and to enliven tired and uninviting public spaces. Instead of reimagining how cultural encounter and civic engagement might meet in the twenty-first century, Lincoln Center had become a nasty mixture of shortsightedness and pettiness.

Parochialism prevailed. Lincoln Center was a quarrelsome, unpleasant place. Its leaders seemed tired, bereft of ideas, and lacking in energy. The best years of the oldest American performing arts center, the largest and most prominent in the world, were increasingly described in the past tense by observers, commentators, and insiders.

Fortunately I was forearmed, because I chose to disregard the warnings.

After six years of traipsing through much of the Third World and many failed states as the president of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), one of the world’s leading refugee assistance organizations, somehow the stresses and strains of Lincoln Center, with its sixteen acres and twelve world-class arts institutions, struck me as manageable.

After having dealt with Laurent Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Slobodan Milošević of Serbia, and their followers, Joe Volpe, the volcanic general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, seemed to me if not a pleasure, well, hardly daunting.

And having ordered food drops from the air over Kosovo; rushed assistance to malnourished children in Burundi, Tanzania, and East Timor; and let the world know that the Eastern Congo and South Sudan are the planet’s two most dangerous places, because I had witnessed human agony and depravity there with my own eyes, Lincoln Center and its key figures, with their bombast and betrayals, somehow fell into a proper context. Whatever the quarreling was about, surely life or death was not at stake.

Another motivation for me to compete for the job was that although I am a very well-traveled and a reasonably well-read guy, I am an unabashedly proud New Yorker. The events of 9/11 shook me and my seemingly impregnable, defiant city to our psychic foundations. Rather than “retreat” to the challenge of teaching and writing in a just-offered, tenured post at the Harvard Business School, I was haunted by a question: How could I help, even in a small way, recently elected Mayor Bloomberg to nurture my hometown back to recovery?

For much of my adult life I had watched JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark airports embarrassingly deteriorate. Second-tier American cities and third world countries had more modern transportation infrastructures. I had rooted in vain for New York City to once again compete for large trade shows and professional conventions by modernizing the utterly outmoded Javits Center. I also had seen little forward movement on converting the Farley Post Office at 34th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues into a new Moynihan Station, which has been on the drawing board as the much-desired eventual replacement for the deteriorating Penn Station. Few people believed that the Second Avenue tunnel would be completed, and certainly neither on time nor anywhere near budget. I watched sadly as major ideas for the development of Governor’s Island moved from one stage of drift and indecision to another.

All of these and other projects critical to New York’s economic future were stymied by political battles among mayors, governors, Assembly speakers, and Senate majority leaders. The projects were victims of what Senator Chuck Schumer politely called the culture of inertia.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg promised a different future. And I hoped that my professional habit of getting things done might be put to good use.

Ever since my stint as executive director of the 92nd Street Y from 1977 to 1984, I had been beguiled by the performing arts. I was, and remained, a Lincoln Center loyalist, enamored of its ten first-class resident arts organizations and two teaching academies. The opportunity to help them overcome their many self-imposed obstacles to progress and to lead in Lincoln Center’s preparation for the next generation of artists and audiences was simply too tempting. And so was being in charge of the largest and most consequential presenter of arts in the world.

ORIGINALLY I THOUGHT the chances of my being selected by the search committee were even at best. True, my seven years with the 92nd Street Y had brought about a much-noticed revitalization of all the performing arts at that venerable organization. But the powers that be at Lincoln Center might have viewed the Y as modest in size, an upstart, a marginal player.

Their possible attitude reminded me of a story I used to tell as the Y’s executive director whenever I needed an excuse for being late to an appointment downtown. Traffic traveling south on Lexington Avenue was often at a standstill. Hailing a taxi meant risking a delayed arrival. The subway was also notorious for equipment breakdown. I ran the risk of being held up in a train that would just not move. So, when seeking forgiveness, I would mention Isaac Stern, who performed at the Y for years.

Fairly early in his career, he was pacing up and down in his famous agent’s office in a distressed state. Isaac was represented by the legendary impresario Sol Hurok. They were very close, and Mr. Hurok treated Isaac like a son:

“Isaac, you look very upset. What is wrong?”

“Papa, each year you schedule me on the west coast at the start of the season. By the time I cross the country and reach New York in the late spring, my playing has improved, and I am ready for the tough-minded, demanding New York newspaper critics. But for some reason, this year, my very first solo recital is here in Manhattan.”

“Isaac, I have forgotten. Where did I book you?”

“I am playing at the 92nd Street’s Y Kaufmann Concert Hall.”

“Oh, Isaac, quit worrying. That is an out of town engagement.”

Would the search committee in 2002 dismiss my Y experience as not only “out of town,” but also too far in the past to be relevant, as I had left that executive director post eighteen years earlier?

In my favor, I had been the architect of the AT&T Foundation, the largest corporate-asset-based philanthropic entity in America. The arts was one of its leading priorities. Together with Exxon and Philip Morris, the AT&T Foundation was the most generous corporate benefactor to the performing arts in the country. Most Lincoln Center artistic organizations regularly received handsome charitable gifts from the foundation during my tenure as president or chairman from 1984 to 1996.

But few institutional philanthropists contributed enough to loom large in the economic life of the ballet, the theater, the orchestra, and the opera, to name but four of the beneficiaries of AT&T support. My leadership there was nice, perhaps a plus, but hardly dispositive.

If that was the case for my time at the AT&T Foundation, it was even more so for my role as chair of the Nathan Cummings Foundation, a formidable family fund with a substantial performing arts program to its credit.

Even my business responsibilities at AT&T—helping to lead its media, public relations, advertising, and public affairs programs and assisting in charting a course for the company to conduct business overseas—might have been viewed as of marginal relevance to playing the role of the Lincoln Center’s president.

Teaching, consulting, and writing seemed to gain me no credit in search committee deliberations. I was not asked a single question about these roles, except whether I expected to give them up entirely if I was offered the job.

My time as president of the largest refugee relief and resettlement agency (1997–2002) was regarded as somewhat exotic work, its applicability to Lincoln Center hard to fathom.

I had two opportunities to overcome any doubts, misperceptions, and reservations, at full search committee meetings. And although I had not previously met two of the most influential members—Frank A. Bennack Jr., president of the Hearst Corporation and vice chair of Lincoln Center, and Bruce Crawford, the chair of the Metropolitan Opera—and knew Beverly Sills, Lincoln Center’s chair, only slightly, the interviews seemed to go smoothly.

When one of my primary rivals, a quintessential insider, Joseph Polisi, at that time the president of The Juilliard School for some thirteen years, publicly withdrew from contention, my prospects improved. Little did I know with how many job applicants I was actually competing, including former cabinet members in the Clinton administration and corporate leaders of some repute from around the country.

I described the forces at play to my wife Elizabeth, whose response was unforgettable.

“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?”

She was absolutely right to pose that question.

Why was I drawn to this post, notwithstanding all the warnings and the prevailing negativism?

Generally, I favor the underdog. When two sports teams play against one another, and I am a fan of neither, I routinely root for the club that comes from the town with the highest unemployment rate. The 92nd Street Y—dispirited, running an operating deficit, underutilized, talent deprived, and needing an infusion of energy and leadership—had been just the place for me.

In 1982 AT&T, at that time the largest company in the world, was just about to divest itself under court order of local telephone companies and compete in every American market for both services and equipment, as well as to conduct business abroad. Under such circumstances, it was turning to outsiders for help. I was flattered to be asked to be one of them. And what I knew about the business initially consisted of picking up a phone and waiting for a dial tone.

I, a New Yorker, was working in a firm dominated by midwesterners; a Democrat in a rock-solid Republican corporation; a fellow who preferred Beethoven to Willie Nelson, and tennis to golf. Four strikes against me, I was told. It was the perfect challenge.

The IRC had trouble meeting payroll and severe problems making financial ends meet. The nobility of its cause and the compelling need for its services threatened to be overwhelmed by a scarcity of revenue, the absence of cost controls and risk enterprise management tools, and a breakdown of management accountability. Institutional crisis was fast approaching. Maybe I could lead in the repair of a broken, but very worthy and much-admired, organization.

So the mission ahead at Lincoln Center appealed to me. I was drawn to the challenge of resolving conflict in its conspicuously failing physical transformation. It was mired in controversy. I was confident that I could solve the stalemate and help lead the organization out of a cul-de-sac.

But I hoped to do much more than break an impasse.

I wanted to associate with the glamour and the glitter, to be ultimately responsible for the production and presentation of classical performing arts and of the new, the fresh, and the innovative. I yearned to encourage gifted staff to bring to their indoor and outdoor stages the most daring, audacious, and ambitious work. I was drawn to the soaring wonder of the performing arts at their finest.

Really, though, what I longed for was to expand, and by a wide margin, the Lincoln Center practice of subsidized tickets and free performances that lowered the barriers to entry for working-class families. This is the Lincoln Center that welcomes all and invites New Yorkers and visitors from every economic class to come early and stay late. I yearned for it to remain or to become a destination in and of itself, an oasis of relaxation and greenery in a crowded and dense town, a mainstay contributor to the quality of life in New York City, and a very important source of civic pride.

At this book’s opening I quote E. B. White, who described three kinds of New Yorkers: those who were born here; those who commute; and those from out of town or another country, who arrive in New York City as their final destination. Lincoln Center must serve all three, but it needed to extend itself, with special attention, to welcome those first-generation New Yorkers, “the settlers,” who give the city passion.

As a kid growing up in a poor and working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn during the 1950s and 1960s, I attended PS 100, situated between Brighton Beach and the edge of Coney Island, and Abraham Lincoln High School, located on Ocean Parkway. Both offered an excellent education for students willing and able to take advantage of a superb faculty and a tradition that highly prized excellence in teaching and learning. And both placed no small emphasis on the performing arts as a pathway to education; a method of transmitting national and universal values; a source of social cohesion; and a way for kids to develop self-confidence, poise, empathy, and a capacity to imagine.

The band, the symphony, the chorus, the chamber music group, and the annual musical theater competition; the class trips to Broadway and Off Broadway, and to museums: all these in-school and extracurricular activities were led by an inspiring faculty deeply committed to exposing their students to the joys of music, dance, theater, film, and visual art.

What existed in abundance for most school kids in those decades had largely disappeared from New York City’s public school system by the end of the twentieth century. As I prepared to meet with Lincoln Center’s search committee, I wondered whether its members would encourage a new president to take the lead in restoring the arts to school curriculum and exposing kids in unprecedented numbers to the treasures at Lincoln Center.

Lincoln Center should be devoted to the first-generation New York family, that Metro card–holding, brown-bag-carrying youngster, those children 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. Lincoln Center needed to show the way not just by enunciating that precept, but by practicing it. I was confident that our doing so would be neither unnoticed nor unemulated.

MUCH OF MY OWN enthusiasm for the performing arts and concern for their financial well-being originated in my childhood and late adolescence. Abraham Lincoln High School and the intellectually ambitious students drawn to it nurtured my exhilaration in learning. Lincoln was a very large public high school. There were about as many students in my senior class as there were in the total undergraduate enrollment at Hobart College, where I was destined to go. I remember looking around the college campus and asking, “Where is everybody?”

Hobart professed justifiable pride in an outstanding faculty that cared about teaching in small classes and in the pursuit of a liberal arts education as an intellectual adventure. I couldn’t wait to partake of it.

My only major concern was money. Hobart offered a generous scholarship, but it was less than half of what I needed for tuition, room, and board. Some of the remainder I could borrow from the state and federal governments at a very low interest rate, but debt was a condition I hoped to avoid as much as possible.

From the beginning of my time in Geneva, New York, in 1962 until graduation in 1966, I took every job I could. I arrived two weeks early in my freshman year to work at the bookstore. There was no pay, but I received free books. I worked the food line in the cafeteria for $1 a meal and all I could eat. Later, when it became clear that I was a very good student, I served as a tutor to both members of fraternities and athletes, who needed all the assistance they could afford in swimming upstream intellectually to pass some fairly demanding required courses.

My dad offered to help, but we never discussed how much money would be involved or how often he could send it. Then, in my first week at school, a lovely letter from him arrived with a check for $7. He sent heartfelt wishes for success at Hobart and promised to forward the same sum every week. He wished it could be more.

Well, forty weeks of school times $7 per week equaled $280, about 5 percent of the some $4,000 I needed for tuition, room, and board. I knew that Dad was doing all he felt he could to support me.

Soon after receiving Dad’s letter, I joined my newfound friends at a local pub and pizza hangout named after its owner, “Dutch.” I signed over the check to Dutch to pay for a pizza and a Pepsi. As a kid from Brooklyn, I knew something about decent pizza, and what Dutch offered wasn’t bad at all. Given how few culinary choices there were in Geneva, Dutch’s affordable fare and friendly atmosphere made me feel very much at home.

A week later, on a break from studying, I made my way back to Dutch’s. As I entered, he greeted me and led me over to a corner, asking how I was faring at school. We exchanged pleasantries, and then he put his arm around my shoulder and said, “Son, I am sorry to tell you, but your dad’s check bounced.”

I was mortified. Dutch said it was no problem, last week’s food and drink would be his treat and not to worry, but he felt I ought to know.

When I returned to my dorm room, I wrote Dad a letter. I exaggerated the number of jobs I was able to manage and told him that while I appreciated very much receiving his weekly checks, really, they were not necessary.

He never sent another. The bounced check was never mentioned. He must have felt relieved by my freeing him of the obligation to send me something weekly. Finances at home were obviously much tighter than I had ever imagined.

I learned many lessons at college, and not all of them were in the classroom. Financially, I was on my own. And I have been ever since.

Really, I did not mind. In fact, it occurred to me that until my freshman year in college, I had never given much thought to our family’s financial circumstances. True, sometimes my birthday gift as a child would come months late, whenever the household’s cash trickle allowed. For me, sleeping in the living room next to my younger sister, Joyce, was quite natural.

My pleasures as a child were simple, and Dad had a knack for making them fun. For example, on Saturdays, on the rare occasions when we were alone, while my mom was at the beauty parlor, we would go up to the rooftop of our apartment building, where one of the tenants maintained a pigeon coop. On those occasions, Dad would remove his trumpet from its case and play tune after tune. I was totally absorbed, a joyful, admiring audience of one.

We’d then return to our fourth-floor apartment, where Dad would prepare lunch for just the two of us. His menu was consistent: scrambled eggs and my choice of either rye toast or an English muffin, with sliced tomato on the side, and Tropicana orange juice to drink.

We had no formal dining room, so usually as a family we ate together in a nook at the tail end of our tiny kitchen. But with Mom not home, we didn’t need that much space, so Dad would open the oven door, which served as our table, and we both sat at footstools, happily conversing.

By the time I was nine years old, and my dad was thirty, in the afternoon, weather permitting, I was allowed to join my friends in the immediate vicinity of our apartment building. One of us—Johnny Rodriguez, Elliot Wienerman, Mark Feldman, or Allen Rome—would bring a pink rubber ball—the only kind worth using, a Spalding—and depending on how many friends gathered, we played street games to our heart’s content: hit the penny, off the wall, curves, punch ball, stick ball, stoop ball, slap ball, kings, handball, paddle ball, running bases.

If the weather was inclement, then I was in for a real treat. Dad would roll up the throw rug in the living room and lay out brown butcher block paper. He would find a set of magic markers in a desk drawer and put a 78-rpm record on the Victrola to play Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, or Vivaldi. He would ask me to imagine what the composer might have been thinking or what kind of mood he was trying to convey and then draw whatever came to mind.

It was an exercise in creativity, and we would discuss my earliest attempts to think about what the sounds I was hearing meant to me and how they moved me. Translating them into another form of art was always exciting. Dad made sure that the drawing was Scotch taped to the front door to greet Mom when she returned home.


On Sale
May 12, 2015
Page Count
384 pages

Reynold Levy

About the Author

Reynold Levy was the president of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts from March 1, 2002 to January 31, 2014. He has held leadership roles at the International Rescue Committee, at AT&T, and at the 92nd Street Y. He has taught at the Harvard Business School. Currently, he is an adjunct professor at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, a special advisor to the private equity firm General Atlantic, and a consultant to nonprofit institutions and foundations. He lives in New York City.

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