Wanted: Young American Visionaries for Lincoln Center and BAM

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Wiley Hausam on the search for major leaders in performing arts: "If I were a betting man, though, my favored currency right now would be the Euro."

With two of the most important performing arts curation posts in the country now seeking new leaders, this is a good time to think not only about what type of individuals are most likely to be appointed, but also, why.

The speculation over who will succeed Joe Melillo at BAM, who began running the Next Wave Festival in 1983 and has served as executive producer since 1999, has gone on for months, if not years. Now we add Nigel Redden, director of the Lincoln Center Festival, who is leaving his post after 20 years. Not far behind, I’d imagine, is yet another Baby Boomer, Jane Moss, who joined Lincoln Center in 1992 as vice president of programming and is now artistic director. All three are esteemed, and rightly so. At the very least, we NYC arts lovers owe them a huge debt of gratitude for bringing us hundreds, if not thousands, of the world’s finest performances.

It’s hard to believe, but we are actually, finally, at the moment where the older end of the Baby Boomers will hand over the reins of the American performing arts to a younger generation! At some point in the future, this will also happen among the leaders of the largest Broadway-centric nonprofits, including Lincoln Center Theater (André Bishop, since 1992). Roundabout Theatre Company (Todd Haimes, since 1983) and Manhattan Theatre Club (Lynne Meadow and Barry Grove, since 1972 and 1975, respectively.)

Can any American under 55 actually succeed at BAM and Lincoln Center and bring to NYC an exciting new vision? The standard they have to meet is the highest in the world. In my view, there are eight requirements to be met.

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First, the successful programmer must fill large theaters, often 2,500 seats or more, many times a year, year after year, with performances and audiences in one of the world’s greatest cities and where, with so much competing work every night, even a minor misstep or a little bad luck can result in empty houses and big deficits. Performances you would see in small, downtown spaces of 150 or 500 seats simply will not do. The frame is not big enough. The audiences are small. The new artistic directors must balance boldness with broad appeal.

Second, the successful programmer will need to possess all the qualities of both Redden and Melillo: They must be intelligent and educated (not only artistically, but in every sense of the word); they must be a citizen of the world; and they must charm and captivate donors and board members. Most important, they must possess a network of relationships with the world’s finest artists in music, dance, theater, opera and performance art as well as relationships with the most important curators abroad. In order to connect with New Yorkers, they must have the best artistic taste in the world and also an uncanny sense of what and who are about to pop.

They need to possess a particular type of genius.

At Lincoln Center, a new artistic leader must have a deep understanding of symphony, ballet, opera and classical theater, including the great artists in these disciplines and the masterworks of these forms, while not being so devoted to them that their programming fails to fully inhabit the artistic world of this moment. Aesthetically, they cannot be too far ahead of the moneyed, basically conservative, middle-aged and older audiences — who are typically the donors keeping these large institutions from going out of business with large annual gifts.

At BAM, the curatorial challenge is larger. They must honor the great artists who made Next Wave what it is, like Robert Wilson and Laurie Anderson, while clearing the stage for the next Wilson, Anderson, Peter Brook, Pina Bausch, Ariane Mnouchkine and Robert Lepage — if such great artists with the potential for broad appeal exist. That is a very real if: the so-called experimental world remains an elite club of largely privileged white people with comparatively tiny audiences who nevertheless influence a segment of our culture. And then, the successful programmer must make stars of brilliant young artists just as Harvey Lichtenstein did at BAM in the 1970s. They need sympathy for, and a working knowledge of, popular music.

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Third, these leaders must have a compelling, contemporary vision for live performance! My personal belief is that their vision must be propelled by a powerful, urgent desire to move on from the white, male, Eurocentric aesthetic that has informed and dominated American performing arts since the founding of our nation. They must fully imagine, and then build, an evolved, hybrid, inclusive, collaborative future for live performance with the wealth of artists scattered worldwide. Making a truly new vision real is extremely difficult, yes, but essential. They need to possess a particular type of genius.

Fourth, they must be an extremely experienced administrator and sometime producer of large-scale works in a large institution.

Fifth, they must have experience presenting or producing work either in NYC — preferably, as the politics here are quite particular — or in another major global city, such as London, Paris or Berlin, where there is a demanding and discerning audience, and a complex, competitive arts ecosystem. Los Angeles and San Francisco just aren’t on that level, despite what you might read in the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle.

Sixth, they must be strong enough to politely and successfully deflect the strong programming suggestions of NYC’s wealthy and powerful boards of trustees, even knowing that they do so at the risk of their own jobs. I agree with much of the recent observation made by Anne Midgette in the Washington Post that inappropriate trustee inference (artistically and managerially) is one of the major threats to the future of American nonprofit performing arts.

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Seventh, they must be adept and enthusiastic fundraisers. In partnership with their head of administration, development directors and board chairs, they must charm many millions out of skeptical, older, white, “high-net-worth individuals” who usually have conservative artistic taste. (Note that qualification three and seven directly conflict with one another.)

A truly new vision real is extremely difficult, but essential.

Eighth, they must be capable of forming a deep, abiding and successful working partnership. In the case of BAM, their partner will be Katy Clark, its relatively new president. From the outside, it’s unclear who their partner or boss might be at Lincoln Center. By far, the best example of partnership at an American arts institution during the past 35 years was Melillo and Karen Brooks Hopkins, who miraculously raised, with devoted staff and board chairs, all the funds BAM needed for many years.

Thinking about all this, it becomes obvious that we’re talking about more than one person per institution—that no one could possibly imagine, know and oversee all this, right? These new artistic directors need small teams of discipline-specific curators behind them.

What about the candidates? Although there are a couple dozen very talented performance curators across the country (many of whom I consider to be colleagues and, in some cases, friends), I worry that not enough of them are truly qualified to assume all the functions of these positions — which is different from possessing genius. For me, the important question is: Why is there any shortage of completely qualified, visionary American talent? Simply put: they haven’t been given the opportunity to prepare themselves for these demanding jobs.

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By now, it must be clear that I admire Melillo and Redden greatly. But neither groomed a successor, which they should have done. There are no other presenters in America with large enough stages and budgets and adventurous enough audiences where a younger curator can gain the necessary experience to take on these positions.

BAM and Lincoln Center are among the biggest and most important presenters in the world. They’re members of a tiny, global club that includes the Barbican Centre in London, the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland, the Holland Festival in Amsterdam, the festivals in Avignon and Aix-en-Provence in France, the Manchester International Festival, White Nights in St. Petersburg, and a few other opera houses and performing arts centers. They shape the performing arts.

The other six to 12 major North American arts presenters essentially get to tag along on whatever art BAM and Lincoln Center choose to bring to this country. Fairly often, they are invited to join a brief tour and help amortize expenses. That includes the Music Center in LA, the Luminato Festival in Toronto, the Spoleto Festival in South Carolina, and a few excellent university presenters with larger budgets, such as UC Berkeley, UCLA and the University of Michigan. The Kennedy Center has a more global perspective and has initiated some large, interesting and successful projects, curated by VP Alicia Adams under its former president, Michael Kaiser, who is a master administrator.

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I cannot help but to conclude that all this is why two other relatively new, major NYC players—the Park Avenue Armory and The Shed (opening in 2019) have hired artistic directors from abroad: Pierre Audi, who is French-Lebanese and also runs the Dutch National Opera; and Alex Poots, who is Scottish and the former director of the Manchester International Festival, respectively. Clearly, the major and minor festivals in Europe, Australia and Asia have trained the important performance curators of the future, whereas, other than BAM Next Wave and Lincoln Center Festival, which North American performing arts festivals are on the same level? There should be more of them.

BAM and Lincoln Center need to watch out for the Armory and The Shed. These two institutions alone may easily realign the constellation of artistic excitement in NYC — and, in so doing, draw in many of the city’s major arts donors. The fast-rising generation of million-dollar donors wants to be where the glamour and celebrities are. They are watching.

The new artistic leaders of BAM and Lincoln Center will be immensely important appointments; I sincerely wish their search committees great success. The future of everyone who works in, and loves, the performing arts will be affected by their decision. If I were a betting man, though, my favored currency right now would be the Euro.

  • Fred Plotkin

    And why must they be under 55? Talent, skill, contacts, even energy do not diminish past that age and valuable people of every age should not have a sell-by date.

    • Mary

      Only the old garde would think the candidate must be over 55, white, male and European.

  • Fascinating! I’m sorry to be only reading this now. The construct of “experience” should be deconstructed.