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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Richard Schwartz

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-12-23

Richard Schwartz is bathed in creativity. Literally.

There's the creativity of his wife, Sheila, who's written a play, "Benefit of the Doubt." There's the creativity of their daughter, Jenny, also a playwright. There's the creativity of their son, John, who's producing his second movie.

And then there's the creativity of nearly 4,000 arts organizations across the state to whom Mr. Schwartz provides annual support that, in some cases, keeps some of the nonprofits alive.

And his own creativity?

"Oh, that's different," Mr. Schwartz said. "I've been a businessman all my life. I continue to help people make good investments. But my current job is in public service. It's as challenging as anything I've done in business."

His job is that of chairman of the New York State Council on the Arts. Mr. Schwartz's challenge is to supervise the distribution of $37.5 million in grants from his 47-year-old agency's annual $42.5 million budget (the balance is retained for administrative costs and unexpected expenses).

The other challenge is that Mr. Schwarz must speak up for his budget, which has to be approved by the state. By charter, he isn't allowed to raise money in the private sector. Because of the state's fiscal difficulties, the Council's budget has suffered cuts over the years; at one point, a decade or so ago, it had more than $50 million available for disbursement.

"The arts are a huge economic engine for New York," Mr. Schwartz said, citing a study that the renowned consulting firm, McKinsey & Company, pro bono.

The study showed that arts organizations in New York bring in $13 billion in revenues each year through exhibits, performances and other cultural activities.

"What we have here is an arts ecosystem," Mr. Schwartz said. "The small organizations that we help support in turn feed talent and material into the bigger arts institutions. Just look at how many Off-Broadways plays end up on Broadway itself. It's important that actors, directors, producers, among others, be trained at an early stage."

Among the plays that Mr. Schwartz's council supported during their Off-Broadway tenure were "Doubt," and "Rent," both of which became huge hits on Broadway; the latter was made into a movie, which opened not long ago.

But Mr. Schwartz doesn't ignore the big cultural institutions in New York. The Council's grants go to the Museum of Modern Art, and the Asia Society on Park Avenue, among others.

Indeed, after his lunch with this reporter, Mr. Schwartz spotted Richard Holbrooke and Vishaka Desai, chairman and president respectively of the Asia Society, who were dining with the television correspondent Lesley Stahl. He went across to their table to greet them.

That sort of bonhomie comes easily to Mr. Schwartz. He attributes it to the tutelage of his father, David, who ran a leading clothing business called Jonathan Logan, and the pleasant manner of his mother, Irene. David Schwartz had every expectation that after his son graduated from Cornell University with a government major, he would join the family business.

When he joined his father, the company generated about $40 million in annual sales. By the time Mr. Schwartz sold Jonathan Logan 25 years later, the company's sales had risen past $400 million.

"I had no idea what I would do next," Mr. Schwartz said. "So I started an investment company."

He still runs it, 20 years later. But the day to day work is largely done by his three-person staff.

Mr. Schwartz's own days are mostly spent at the Council's offices on Varick Street, meeting with grant aspirants, board members - who include Kitty Carlyle Hart, who headed the Council once - and city and state officials.

He came to Varick Street via Washington. Not long after he'd sold his family business, Mr. Schwartz was appointed by President Reagan to join the governing board of what's now known as the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Not long after that, he came to the attention of Governor Cuomo, who appointed Mr. Schwartz to the Hudson River Valley Greenway Council.
Mr. Schwartz - at that time a resident of Scarborough, N.Y. - became acquainted with Assemblyman George Pataki, Republican of Peekskill. Scarborough and Peekskill are both river communities.

Not long afterward, Governor Cuomo appointed Mr. Schwartz as a member of the 20-person New York State Council on the Arts. And three years after Mr. Pataki became governor in 1994, he named Mr. Schwartz chairman of the Council, a position he has held for the last seven years.

"It's a unique position," Mr. Schwartz said. "There's no politics in our grant making. There's no cabal that sits around giving out grants. We have a rigorous system of evaluating applications. The Council's role is to enable them to strengthen their operations."

The reporter asked Mr. Schwartz again about his creativity.

"There's the satisfaction of knowing that you're doing certain amount of good without running into controversy," he said. "I am able to interact with the government, with the state legislature. Most of all, I'm able to constantly interact with incredibly creative people in arts organizations all over the state. For someone coming from another world - business - that's exhilarating."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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