Turmoil at Lincoln Center: Infighting, Money Troubles, Scrapped Projects

At a time of struggle for performing arts organizations, Lincoln Center’s efforts have been complicated by abrupt changes in leadership.

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.

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

The center’s troubles erupted into public view in April when its most recent president, Debora L. Spar, left after only a year on the job. Though her departure was described at the time as a mutual parting of ways, recent interviews made clear that she was pushed out after a rocky tenure.

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.

Ms. Spar, who arrived at Lincoln Center after a successful nine-year run as the president of Barnard College, encountered resistance as she tried to take the reins. Senior staff members balked when she brought in a new chief aide, Bret Silver, to oversee them, and the board later urged her to fire him, several officials said. At the same time the board grew concerned that Ms. Spar was not acting aggressively to tackle a deficit then on track to reach $11.9 million — and commissioned an internal review in which a number of senior executives criticized her performance.

Ms. Spar’s predecessor as president, Jed Bernstein, had also been forced out. He left in 2016, after only 27 months, when his relationship with a female staff member came to light.

Both presidents had been unconventional choices — Mr. Bernstein was a former Broadway producer who had never run a major nonprofit; Ms. Spar came from academia, not the arts.

Ms. Spar declined to comment on her departure. Katherine G. Farley, the chairwoman of Lincoln Center’s board, who played a key role in picking both leaders, called it “a terrible mistake” to link the two departures or to view them as evidence of the center’s disarray.

“This is a premier organization, and one where excellence from top to bottom is just what we do here,” she said. “Sometimes you have to make a change.”

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. To the independent resident companies, Lincoln Center operates a bit like a co-op board: maintaining common areas, running the parking garage and ironing out common issues.

But Lincoln Center has expanded into other roles over time — namely presenting performances and series, such as Mostly Mozart and Great Performers. That has sometimes led to conflicts with the constituent organizations it was created to support who can find themselves competing for ticket sales and contributions.

Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Met Opera, said he hoped the organization would return to its roots. “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,” he said in an email.

The last period of major infighting at the center took place during the $1.2 billion renovation of the center’s campus. But it seemed to end peacefully when the project was successfully completed in 2012 under Reynold Levy, the center’s 12-year president who left in 2014.

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 Mr. 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, said in an email that Lincoln Center’s “board seems fully in control” and that the institution is simply making budget cuts and trying new programs “in response to a rapidly changing world.”

Similarly, Ms. Farley said the stops and starts are not signs of a center adrift, but evidence of a vibrant organization able to make adjustments. “We are always looking to do new things, to experiment — to change to meet changing audience,” she said.

But the leadership churn has slowed down important plans, including the renovation of the Philharmonic’s home, now called David Geffen Hall, which has been on and off for 20 years.

Ms. Farley jump-started the project by landing a $100 million gift from David Geffen, the entertainment mogul, and agreed to rename the building for him. From the beginning there were concerns that the naming rights had been sold for too little, given the initial $500 million price tag.

Ms. Farley defended the decision to give Mr. Geffen the naming rights. “It’s a very generous, history-making gift,” she said. “Would I love it if you told me you were going to write me a check for $200 million? Absolutely.”

Ms. Farley — who spent 32 years at Tishman Speyer, the real estate firm whose chairman, Jerry I. Speyer, is her husband — worked to keep the project on track when, after Mr. Bernstein’s departure, the Philharmonic’s president, Matthew VanBesien, also left to lead the University Musical Society in Michigan. But it soon became clear that plans being drawn up by the design team were likely to cost significantly more than expected — between $600 million and $900 million, according to previously unreported Lincoln Center documents reviewed by The New York Times.

The construction schedule also threatened to keep the orchestra out of the auditorium for more than two seasons, making it difficult to hold on to audiences (a factor that contributed to the demise of the New York City Opera).

So Deborah Borda, the Philharmonic’s new president, and Ms. Spar agreed last year to come up with a scaled-down plan that can be done in phases.

Just where Lincoln Center stands in raising money toward the hall’s renovation remains unclear. Ms. Farley said in previous interviews that the center has received $300 million in pledges. But as of June 30, 2017, its most recent financial statement, Lincoln Center reported that it had only $38 million in firm pledges and less than half that in hand — about $14 million.

For example, some $85 million of Mr. Geffen’s gift is not recognized in the smaller number because it depends on Lincoln Center hitting key benchmarks. But officials defended the $300 million figure as reflective of signed and verbal pledges.

In 2016, Moody’s Investors Service revised the outlook for Lincoln Center’s relatively strong A2 credit rating to negative, noting “uncertainty around timing of gift receipts” for Geffen Hall “during a period of leadership transition.” (While acknowledging the center’s strong philanthropic support, Moody’s cited its debt service costs on more than $250 million in capital debt.)

The financial pressures on the center aggravated Ms. Spar’s relationship with Ms. Farley, and with long-serving senior executives. Several Lincoln Center officials and people close to Ms. Spar spoke about her difficult tenure on condition of anonymity so they could freely discuss internal conversations and decisions.

Some of the executives bristled when Ms. Spar brought in Mr. Silver, who had worked with her at Barnard. Tamar Podell, the center’s 17-year chief fund-raiser, planned to quit over plans to have her report to Mr. Silver beginning this summer, officials said, and entered talks about a job at the Kennedy Center. Ms. Podell, who has since agreed to stay on, did not respond to requests for comment.

Fund-raising emerged as a critical point of contention. After years of balanced budgets, Lincoln Center ran a modest $858,000 deficit in 2016, which the organization attributed to a payout to the departing Mr. Bernstein. The budget projections only darkened the following year and Lincoln Center had to resort to balancing that year’s $140 million budget by transferring $3.6 million from a funding reserve into operations.

This year, the first full year under Ms. Spar, the projected deficit grew again — largely, officials said, because of a fund-raising shortfall. Ms. Spar moved to cut costs, and ended the Lincoln Center Festival, which had brought international performers to New York for more than 20 years.

Earlier this year the board began an internal review of Ms. Spar and was taken aback by the results: Senior staff members complained that Ms. Spar had failed to build relationships with them and that she had delegated too much responsibility to Mr. Silver. And some said she was not raising money aggressively enough or willing to engage with staff about Lincoln Center’s finances, and lamented that she did not attend more performances.

In part, the breach stemmed from Ms. Spar’s different way of doing business, several officials said. Before asking for major donations, she wanted to create a strategic plan for Lincoln Center and develop personal relationships with donors. That approach had worked at Barnard, where she oversaw a $400 million capital campaign, but it did not mesh with Lincoln Center’s sense of fund-raising urgency.

Several supporters of Ms. Spar said she had been highly engaged, should have been given more time and that she encountered resistance from the veteran senior staff and board and micromanaging from Ms. Farley.

Ms. Farley said she thought her oversight as chairwoman had been “very balanced,” but added, “If you’re in a situation where you see the growing deficit, that’s something that you have a fiduciary responsibility to address.”

The end came, according to Lincoln Center officials, after Ms. Farley told Ms. Spar to dismiss Mr. Silver. When Ms. Spar refused, she was given the choice to resign or be fired. Mr. Silver declined to comment.

After Ms. Spar stepped down, Lincoln Center named Russell Granet, who had run its education division, as its acting president. The deficit has since been eliminated, Lincoln Center said, through fund-raising and spending cuts.

Marc A. Scorca, the president and chief executive officer of Opera America, which promotes opera nationwide, noted that Lincoln Center’s flux occurs as it faces competition from new venues with new visions, including the Park Avenue Armory, National Sawdust in Brooklyn, and the Shed, the eagerly awaited performance space being built in the Hudson Yards.

“The degree to which there appear to be changing priorities is symptomatic of having revolving leadership.” Mr. Scorca said. “Starting this, stopping this, changing this.”

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