Lincoln Center, seeking wider range, names new artistic leader

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Lincoln Center, seeking wider range, names new artistic leader
Shanta Thake, Lincoln Center’s new chief artistic officer, outside Lincoln Center in New York, July 30, 2021. Thake faces challenges that include helping the center embrace new genres and attract virus-wary audiences. Caroline Tompkins/The New York Times.

by Javier C. Hernández

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Feeling the pressure to attract new audiences and rethink its offerings even before being upended by the coronavirus pandemic, Lincoln Center announced Tuesday that it had chosen a theater executive with a reputation for working across disciplines as its next artistic leader.

Shanta Thake, most recently an associate artistic director at the Public Theater, will assume the role of chief artistic officer at the center, the nation’s largest performing arts complex, as it works to broaden its appeal beyond classical music and ballet into genres such as hip-hop, poetry and songwriting.

Thake — who at the Public spent a decade managing Joe’s Pub, a cabaret-style venue, and more recently began overseeing Under the Radar, Public Works and other programs there — said she was eager to bring more popular and world music to Lincoln Center.

“The goal is expansive reach,” Thake said. “What’s missing? What have we left out? What stories aren’t we telling that feel like they’re demanding to be told in this moment?”

Lincoln Center is the landlord of the Metropolitan Opera, New York Philharmonic, New York City Ballet and other independent institutions, which are responsible for their own programming. But it is also a presenting organization in its own right, putting on hundreds of events each year and running the Mostly Mozart and White Light festivals, which have been primarily devoted to the classical arts. The center and its constituent organizations have competed, sometimes tensely, for rehearsal and performance space, ticket sales and donations.

Thake, 41, who will oversee the work Lincoln Center presents, said that its robust classical offerings would be maintained.

“We’re not looking to erase history here,” she said.

But center officials say they are still working out the future of Mostly Mozart, which was put on hold amid the pandemic, other than a few small events this week. In 2017, as it grappled with budgetary constraints, the center dissolved the Lincoln Center Festival to focus on reinventing Mostly Mozart, its summertime sibling.

Thake, who starts next month, replaces Jane Moss, who played a key role in programming for nearly three decades and stepped down as artistic director last year — and who also came from a theater background. (The chief artistic officer title is a new one.) Thake joins the center at one of the most challenging moments since it opened in 1962. Its woes predate the coronavirus: It struggled for years from leadership churn and money problems.

Then the pandemic wiped away tens of millions in revenue and forced the cancellation of hundreds of events. About half of Lincoln Center’s staff of 400 was furloughed or laid off, and its top leaders took pay cuts.

While many workers have been rehired and indoor performances are set to resume in the fall, the center will likely be grappling with the financial fallout for years. It remains to be seen whether audiences will return at pre-pandemic levels, especially given the recent spread of the delta variant of the virus.

Henry Timms, Lincoln Center’s president and CEO, said the organization had turned to Thake for her experience programming creatively across genres.

“We wanted someone who could kind of help us think about some new territory,” he said.

Timms said the virus would continue to pose a challenge for the center’s artistic ambitions but added that he believed that audiences were eager to return.

“There will be a great deal of demand for what we do, and there will be a great deal of reimagination,” he said.

As infections have eased in recent months and vaccines have become widely available, Lincoln Center has started to come back to life, building several outdoor stages and transforming its plaza into a summer gathering place by covering it in a synthetic lawn. When indoor performances resume, the center plans to require vaccines for audience members, production staff and artists. Children younger than 12 will not be permitted to attend performances since they are currently not eligible for vaccines.

Thake said she saw her mission as, in part, to “lift up the city that is still reeling from the ongoing trauma” of the pandemic. She said Lincoln Center could play a role in helping smaller arts organizations, for example by sharing best practices for reopening venues.

“Hopefully we can make it to the other side all together,” she said.

Thake, whose mother is Indian and whose father is white, said she was committed to presenting artists who represent a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds. Cultural institutions have in general been slow to respond to demands for a reckoning over racial justice in the United States. But Lincoln Center is one of the few arts organizations to show substantial progress in bringing more diversity to its upper ranks. People of color now make up about half of its leadership team.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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