From Bad to Worse: Too Many Presidents at Lincoln Center

April 6, 2018; New York Times

Generally, you have to hold the board responsible when a nonprofit cannot seem to find the right fit for leadership. But is it only small nonprofits that have problems replacing their CEOs? Hardly.

This weekend, it came out that Lincoln Center is undergoing its second presidential transition in three years as Debora Spar steps down after only a year in office. Her predecessor, Jed Bernstein, resigned under pressure after only 27 months, his tenure marked by an inappropriate relationship with a staff member.

Here’s what we wrote then:

Mr. Bernstein’s departure could not be worse timing for Lincoln Center, the largest performing arts center in the world. With stalled plans to continue the capital campaign for David Geffen Hall, the newly-renamed home of the New York Philharmonic, one can only hope that Lincoln Center’s new president will be able to raise the remaining four hundred million dollars that this project will require without much more delay. The Philharmonic itself has only recently secured Jaap van Zweden to replace Alan Gilbert as artistic director, who will step down in 2017. Now, with these two new announcements, Maestro Zweden is poised to join a brand new team of leaders on campus when he comes on board next year.

It may be that Spar does not bear any special blame for her departure. But her short time in the position featured a series of budget-cutting moves, including scuttling the rebuilding of David Geffen Hall and eliminating the annual Lincoln Center Festival. Even still, a deficit is projected for this year, and one might guess that higher-level donors might steer clear for a bit after such evidence of instability and caution. After all, it’s not just Bernstein’s and Spar’s tenures that give the impression of a little dysfunction; before the 11-year tenure of Reynold Levy, who left five years ago, his predecessor, Gordon J. Davis, stayed only a short nine months. This is clearly an institution which is hard on its leaders or just does not do a great job picking them. But it is also a very big and demanding job that would require everyone rowing in approximately the same direction.

Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Opera, which is a separate corporation but a mainstay at Lincoln Center, is dealing with its own #MeToo moment in the firing of longtime music director James Levine, who is now suing the company. So let’s just remember, the next time we are telling ourselves that our financial problems would all be solved with a few more well-connected folk on the board…be careful what you wish for.—Ruth McCambridge