July 1, 2018; New York Times

Yesterday, NPQ ran a feature story on the (perhaps not so severe) trials and tribulations of large nonprofits. This story, from the Lincoln Center for Performing Arts, with $168 million in revenue in 2015 (down from $200 million in 2014) would seem to fit the bill.

A famous late 1970s Mexican telenovela was titled Los Ricos También Lloran (The Rich Also Cry), which later became the “first global telenovela.” As befits the form, there were many ups and downs; Lincoln can only hope that its own telenovela leads to a similarly happy ending.

Two months ago, NPQ’s Ruth McCambridge wrote about the nonprofit’s difficulty holding onto to executive leadership, with Debora Spar being the most recent CEO to depart. That article was not our first on the travails of the Lincoln Center and was titled from “Bad to Worse.” What is worse than worse? We’re running out of superlatives here.

Writing in the New York Times, Michael Cooper and Robin Pogrebin explain,

Looking forward to Lincoln Center’s namesake festival this summer? It’s been scrapped. Good luck finding the center’s new Hall of Fame that was promised a few years ago: on the back burner. And those long-delayed plans to radically remake the home of the New York Philharmonic? Being rethought.

Now on its fourth leader in five years, Lincoln Center—the country’s largest performing arts complex—finds itself suffering from shuffled priorities, financial difficulties and instability at its highest rank during a time when cultural organizations are struggling to retain and build donors and audiences.

There’s more. Cooper and Pogrebin add that, “More recent initiatives have fizzled, including an annual TEDx-like conference, several big digital projects and an international arts consulting arm. Efforts to create the new Hall of Fame, which [previous CEO] Bernstein had championed as New York’s version of the Kennedy Center Honors, have been postponed. One class of inductees was named in 2016. None since.”

André Bishop, producing artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater, informs the Times that the Lincoln Center’s “board seems fully in control.” According to Bishop, the institution is simply having to cut budgets and try new programs ‘in response to a rapidly changing world.’”

Katherine Farley, the chair of Lincoln’s board, says it would be “a terrible mistake” to view the CEO turnover as evidence of disarray. “This is a premier organization, and one where excellence from top to bottom is just what we do here. Sometimes you have to make a change.”

We are glad to know that everything is under control.

Then again, others beg to differ. “It just feels like the whole place hasn’t come together around what they need,” says Karen Brooks Hopkins, former Brooklyn Academy of Music president and an expert in arts management. “A lot of things are changing in the field—the pressure on them is intense.”

For their part, Cooper and Pogrebin explain, “Interviews with 20 current and former Lincoln Center officials—including Ms. Spar’s supporters and detractors—along with a review of financial records and previously unseen internal documents reveal a marquee cultural institution struggling to regain its footing.”

As Cooper and Pogrebin note, the “Lincoln Center’s original, most important, and least sexy mission is to serve as the landlord for the 11 independent arts organizations on its campus, including the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Ballet and the Philharmonic.”

In recent years, the Lincoln has increased its own content delivery. But some Lincoln tenants would prefer that Lincoln refocused on its support mission. For example, Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Met Opera, says that, “Today, with the arts facing the increasing challenges of developing new audiences and balancing budgets, we need Lincoln Center more than ever to remain focused on its original mission of supporting its great resident companies.”

At present, Russell Granet, who has run Lincoln’s education division, is acting president. At least for the moment, Granet has succeeded at eliminating the organization’s deficit through fund-raising and spending cuts (the latter including the scrapped summer festival, presumably).

Cooper and Pogrebin note that according to Marc Scorca, president and CEO of Opera America, which promotes opera nationwide, part of Lincoln Center’s challenge comes from competition from new venues, such as the Park Avenue Armory, National Sawdust in Brooklyn, and the Shed, “the eagerly awaited performance space being built in the Hudson Yards.”

Scorca observes that Lincoln’s frequently changing priorities “is symptomatic of having revolving leadership.”—Steve Dubb