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Lunch at the Tribeca Grill with Reynold Levy

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-07-22

His New York is that of Ebbetts Field and Polo Grounds, of long, languid summers at Brighton Beach, of romping through Prospect Park, of slapball and boardwalks, of parental encouragement of a love of books, of obtaining a law degree and a doctorate in international relations from Columbia University.

Reynold Levy, in short, is hard wired for New York. And just as well, because, quite possibly, only a hard core New Yorker could successfully serve as president and CEO of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, that iconic 16.3-acre repository of institutions that reinforces this city's credentials as the world's cultural capital.

And just as well that the 60-year-old Mr. Levy has run a major corporate foundation as well as a leading global refugee agency, not to mention the 92nd Street Y, and a task force that helped ease New York out of a dark fiscal crisis. Just as well, too, that he's taught at Harvard Business School.

Most of all, it's just as well that Mr. Levy is a consensus builder whose stewardship reflects acumen but also an avuncular character. When Lincoln Center's trustees selected him to supervise the show three years ago, the organization had fallen on bad times. The mandarins of its 12 constituent units - which include the Juilliard School, the Metropolitan Opera, and the New York City Ballet - had been squabbling, not the least over the center's $510 million annual budget. Staff resignations were cascading.

"Lincoln Center was somewhat adrift," Mr. Levy said. "It was a pivotal moment for the institution, which is woven into New York's very fabric. The events of Sept. 11, 2001, had hurt our city, and especially funding for the arts. I hoped that my presence would help reframe the challenge that the center faced, that I would help resolve the internal conflicts."

And how did set about tackling those tasks?

"My style is that of total immersion," Mr. Levy said. "The first question I asked myself was, 'What can I do as CEO to remove obstacles to cooperation?' And 'How could we navigate our way to calmer waters?' I think that a key hallmark of leadership is to help other people realize their dreams. Lincoln Center is blessed with gifted trustees and staff members who I'm privileged to help support - first and foremost, the chairman of the board, most recently Bruce Crawford."

Their biggest dream was institutional when Mr. Levy became Lincoln Center's eighth president on May 1, 2002. The center, founded in 1960, had launched a $1.2 billion renovation program, but it was widely perceived to be floundering. Mr. Levy needed to exponentially increase the engagement of the center's critical support groups: the trustees, the eclectic - but temperamental - artistic community, institutional managers, and the paying public.

"I would ask people, "What do you see for Lincoln Center?'" Mr. Levy said. "I was encouraged by the responses I received. Everyone I spoke to felt strongly that the center was integral to New York's life."

In time, he helped restore espirit d'corps at the center.

Mr. Levy also worked to strengthen the institution's nexus to city, state and federal officials. He pointed out that Lincoln Center's 12 resident organizations injected more than $1.5 billion into the metropolitan area's economy, that some 15,000 jobs were sustained as a result - including 9,000 direct fulltime and part-time jobs at the center itself.

And in what was music to New York's municipal authorities, Mr. Levy highlighted that taxable property values in Lincoln Square had grown by 2,608% since 1960, compared to 447% for the rest of Manhattan.

Mr. Levy also went about energizing fund raising.

"Lincoln Center would step out and create a campaign office and fresh campaign literature," he said. "We would match the fundraising of our constituents."

That translates into the center coming up with 20% of the first $25 million raised by its resident organizations, and 15% of every $1 million thereafter.

As he starts his fourth year in office, are there new goals for Mr. Levy?

"I like to think that I've brought to my work at Lincoln Center a little bit more of patience and a sense of proportion," he said. "When you've seen babies die of malnutrition, as I did during my refugee work, you tend to look at life with a different perspective. I think we're so privileged to be New Yorkers, to be living in this extraordinary city."

Then he paused a bit, and added:

"But the life of a city is always a work in progress. And like the city that is its home, Lincoln Center, too, is a work in progress."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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