Henry Timms wants to tear down walls at Lincoln Center

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Henry Timms wants to tear down walls at Lincoln Center
A summer dance party on the Lincoln Center plaza in New York, July 1, 2023. With David Geffen Hall open, Lincoln Center’s leader is working to diversify programming, staff and audiences and engage the city — but some worry about what’s being lost. (Mohamed Sadek/The New York Times)

by Javier C. Hernández and Robin Pogrebin

NEW YORK, NY.- For evidence that all is not business as usual at Lincoln Center these days, look no further than its stately travertine campus, which, for much of the summer, was dominated by a giant glittering disco ball, pink and purple flowers painted on the sidewalk and a flock of 200 flamingo lawn ornaments.

“There are some who will reasonably eye-roll at this,” said Henry Timms, the center’s president and chief executive, standing on the plaza recently. “I get it. But it sends a message that we are here to have some fun.”

“We can afford,” he said, “to loosen up a little.”

Since taking the helm in 2019, Timms has been on a mission to remake Lincoln Center. Having helped finally push through the long-delayed $550 million renovation of David Geffen Hall, he is working to forge closer ties with the city and to bring more diversity to the center’s staff, board and audiences.

Now he wants to tear down the barriers that literally wall the campus off from Amsterdam Avenue, with its neighboring housing projects, schools and new developments. But as Lincoln Center rethinks its programming — this summer’s festival included hip-hop, K-pop and an LGBTQ mariachi group — it has drawn some criticism for presenting less classical music and international theater.

This summer’s festival — which included more popular programming than in the past and choose-what-you-pay tickets for some events — attracted more than 380,000 people, officials said, many of whom were new to the campus. Among them was Sandy Mendez, a saleswoman who lives in Washington Heights, and saw her first Lincoln Center performance, a comedy show, after coming across an advertisement at a community center. She took photos in front of the disco ball with her husband and two children.

“It feels like a dance club here,” said Mendez, 42, “not a performing arts center.”

It is the kind of observation that both Timms’ admirers and his detractors might make.

Running Lincoln Center is not easy. The center acts as landlord to the independent arts organizations on its campus, including the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Ballet and the New York Philharmonic, but has little power over them, since each has its own leadership, board and budget.

Linc. Inc., as it’s known, also presents its own work, which has sometimes led to tensions with constituents. Reynold Levy, its president for more than a decade, called his memoir “They Told Me Not to Take That Job.” After he left, in 2013, Lincoln Center cycled through four leadership teams in five years before appointing Timms in 2019.

The British-born Timms, 46, who previously led the 92nd Street Y, helped create #GivingTuesday and co-wrote “New Power,” a book exploring bottom-up leadership, including movements like #MeToo and social networks like Facebook. Now he is trying to apply some of those participatory principles at Lincoln Center. He said his efforts were not “some new trendy idea” but a response to the fact that the center has for too long been disconnected from the community.

“We very much came with an agenda, which was we were going to tell a different kind of story about Lincoln Center,” Timms said, “to fundamentally shift the institution in terms of who leads it, who represents it, who’s on our staff, who’s on our stages, who’s in our audiences.”

“We have a long way to go as an organization — nobody at Lincoln Center is taking a bow,” he added in an interview at Tatiana by Kwame Onwuachi, the new restaurant at Geffen Hall that critics have named one of the best in the city. “But relative to where we were, I feel like we’ve made good progress.”

Nevertheless, the reduction in programming, and the shift away from classical music and theater to other genres, has raised questions. Joseph W. Polisi, a former president of the Juilliard School who has written a history of Lincoln Center, said that Timms’ vision was a “sea change” for the center that could come at a cost.

“It leaves a gap in music programming in New York City that is not being filled — it can’t be filled,” he said. “All the artistic leaders I know are fully in support of more program diversity at Lincoln Center. Now the question is, how far does the pendulum swing?”

The critic Alex Ross recently wrote in The New Yorker that the new approach seemed “fundamentally out of step with Lincoln Center and its public, both extant and potential.”

But Timms pushes back on such criticism, partly by pointing out that “we have just spent four years through a pandemic, and half a billion dollars, creating a concert hall to house the New York Philharmonic” and noting that the center had hired Jonathon Heyward, who recently became the first Black music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, to lead a re-imagined version of the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra.

“Lincoln Center was founded as Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts; it was not founded as Lincoln Center for the Classical Arts,” Timms said. “You go back to the beginning and there’s a reason Mahalia Jackson was playing here. And it’s not because we’re only supposed to be about the opera and the ballet.”

Summers at Lincoln Center look different now. The old Lincoln Center Festival was scrapped a few years before Timms arrived, and with it the large-scale, ambitious productions it brought each summer from around the world, including Noh theater and Kabuki theater from Japan, Indonesian dance and Chinese opera. Lincoln Center’s programming is now overseen by Shanta Thake, its chief artistic officer, who was formerly an associate artistic director at the Public Theater. She and Timms have replaced the Mostly Mozart Festival, which had focused on classical music and recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, with the more eclectic Summer for the City festival.

“How do we build on this promise of being a performing arts center for all New Yorkers?” Thake asked. “How do we not rest on our laurels but push for what a performing arts center needs to be right now? Everybody’s willing to have hard conversations.”

The coming fall and winter season will feature an array of classical offerings, including a new production of Henry Purcell’s “The Fairy Queen” and a performance of Philip Glass’ piano études. There will also be more experimental fare in line with the center’s new vision, including a re-imagining of “The Sound of Music” through a “utopian, Afrofuturistic lens,” featuring gospel, funk, soul and Afrobeat music.

Timms has also prioritized diversity backstage: of the 109 current members of the executive and senior management teams, about 60% are women and nearly 40% are people of color. In addition, the center recently started a two-year fellowship program to develop a diverse pipeline of potential board members for the resident organizations; three have been placed as trustees and three more have elections pending.

Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation, who serves on Lincoln Center’s board, praised Timms as a “once-in-a-generation leader” who “genuinely understands that diversity correlates with excellence.”

The ballet dancer Misty Copeland, who joined Lincoln Center’s board under Timms, commended his spearheading of the Amsterdam Avenue project, a long-neglected plan to make right Lincoln Center’s initial razing of the low-income San Juan Hill neighborhood where the performing arts complex was built.

“He does not shy away from a history that may not look clean and sparkly,” Copeland said. “I don’t think I could imagine 10 years ago that this is where Lincoln Center would be.”

Timms, whose mother was an illustrator from the United States and whose father was a British archaeologist, grew up in Exeter, England, where his family often attended regional theaters.

“Our childhood was full of ideas and the arts,” he said. “We had access and experience and ownership. You felt like you were a part of something.”

He graduated from Durham University in England and landed a job overseeing programming at the 92nd Street Y in 2008, where he helped start #GivingTuesday, a day of philanthropy after Black Friday and Cyber Monday that became a global success. In 2014, he was named the Y’s executive director.

Steven R. Swartz, the new chairman of Lincoln Center, said Timms had won over the center’s board with his energy and ideas, quickly recognizing the organization’s main problems, including tensions with the constituents. “He just so quickly diagnosed what needed to be done,” Swartz said.

And after years of false starts and bitter feuds, Timms built a good working relationship with the leaders of the Philharmonic — he and Deborah Borda, who was the orchestra’s president and chief executive, sometimes resolved disputes over coffee or martinis — and finally renovated Geffen Hall. By accelerating construction during the pandemic shutdown, they were able to open the reimagined hall ahead of schedule.

“He was intent on moving past the history of animosity that existed between Lincoln Center and the New York Philharmonic,” said Borda, who stepped down at the end of June. “He put a premium on working together. He was essentially the right man at the right time at the right place.”

Katherine G. Farley, who stepped down as Lincoln Center’s chairwoman in June, said Timms “has led the transformation of a traditional institution” and that he is “quick and eager to experiment.”

”Not everything works out,” she added. “When it doesn’t work, he’s quick to shut it down and try something else.”

Like other arts institutions, Lincoln Center is still trying to recover from the pandemic shutdown, when the performing arts came to a halt for more than 18 months. The organization is spending less on programming than it did when Timms began his tenure: about $14 million in the fiscal year that ended in June 2022, down from $23 million in 2019, a decrease of about 40% that officials attributed in part to the fact that Geffen Hall remained closed for construction through the fiscal year of 2022.

But fundraising remains relatively strong, and the endowment has risen to about $268 million, compared to $258 million in 2019. Moody’s recently affirmed its A3 rating on the center’s $356 million of debt but revised its outlook to stable from negative, noting the completion of Geffen Hall and the center’s efforts to cut expenses and attract new audiences.

And relations have eased with the constituent organizations — who historically competed with Lincoln Center for audiences, donors and attention.

“He’s been very clear that it’s the job of Lincoln Center to honor and pay attention to and try to help all the constituents that make up Lincoln Center,” said Andre Bishop, the artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater. Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, said Timms had signaled to the constituents early in his tenure that the days of infighting were over. “Here was somebody who understood and really seemed to be listening,” he said. And Damian Woetzel, the president of Juilliard, said Timms had proven “tradition is not at war with innovation.”

On a recent day, a team of Lincoln Center staff members inside Geffen Hall was conducting research to prepare for the Amsterdam Avenue project, asking visitors where they spent time on campus and what they would like to do more of: attend cultural events? meet friends? play games? exercise? A poster explained the history of the San Juan Hill neighborhood and said: “Help us make our campus more welcoming!”

In a few hours, Timms would join a salsa band on the outdoor dance floor in a pair of coral-colored Nike Air Max sneakers.

“Changing with the world isn’t just the right thing to do morally,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do strategically. And if leaders in a position like ours don’t lead this change, what on earth are you doing?”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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