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Hot tip: America’s two biggest arts jobs are up for grabs (updated)

Reynold Levy let it be known last month that he is stepping down as president of Lincoln Center at the end of the year. Levy is 67 and has raised $1.3 billion over the past decade, testament in US terms to a successful presidency. The head hunters are ringing around even as I write these words.

But what else do we hear? A well-placed source in Washington DC tells us that Michael Kaiser is preparing to quit as president of the Kennedy Center. Kaiser, 59 this month, has been at Kennedy almost exactly as long as Levy has been at Lincoln. He previously rescued London’s Covent Garden from prolonged crisis.


Kaiser started out at Kennedy with a creative manifesto, drawn from his Covent Garden experience. He effected change at the National Symphony Orchestra, replacing Leonard Slatkin with Christoph Eschenbach, and at the national opera, removing the absentee Placido Domingo and inserting Francesca Zambello. He also greatly increased education and outreach budgets.

But his attention has been deflected in the past couple of years by world tours, talking about the arts in crisis and taking an arts ambassadorship from the State Department. He lost his rag recently with a Hispanic community leader. The word is that his focus has begun to flag. Our source insists that he has notified the board to prepare for a successor. A second source suggests he may be eyeing up the Lincoln Center vacancy.

Let’s be clear: these are unofficial, albeit well-sourced reports. I have not tried to reach Michael for confirmation since I know he cannot say anything before the board authorises ┬áhim to do so. In any event, a change might do him good. He’s a New Yorker, who always wanted to return.

So don’t be surprised to find room at the top at both major arts centers before the year is out. And that would mark a generational shift in US arts affairs.


UPDATE: Colleagues at Bloomberg recall that Kaiser told them in May 2010 that he would quit Kennedy in 2014 to head an institute dedicated to training next-gen US arts administrators. Is that still the plan?


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  1. Somehow I don’y associate these positions with an “up for grabs” approach. More like 1% exclusive club backroom conniving with bags of cash passed around.

    • Well, I worked at Lincoln Center when Nat Leventhal was President, and quickly learned that it is not a very easy job. I’d think an estimate that only 1% of the existing pool of leaders either in the arts or with strong enough backgrounds in the arts would have the right chops wouldn’t be far off the mark.

      Also, if I’m not mistaken the top Lincoln Center union stagehand was at that time earning a comparable salary. I’m not going to make a judgement about that, rather simply ask Doug whether he thinks the same “exclusive club backroom conniving with bags of cash passed around” principle should be applied to the union, given around the same amount of cash was involved?

  2. Both the National Symphony and the Opera were bankrupt before they merged with the Kennedy Center. This gave them access to the Federal Treasury. Even with the Federal. support, they are second rate. Kaiser’s performance as an arts manager is overrated.

  3. Harry Kessler says:

    Kaiser is a fraud – a glamorous one, true, but a fraud nonetheless. His choices – Eschenbach and Zambello – are by and large also frauds. Eschenbach nearly destroyed the Ravinia Festival before he was finally ousted, and his tenure in Philadelphia was a march toward devastation. Zambello was once a stage director of great gifts (right about the time of the Seattle WAR AND PEACE); since then, she has fallen victim to the Sellars disease: “I have an idea. By definition then, it must be a good one.” Kaiser’s great gift lies in his expert use of jargon: buzzword after buzzword falls from his lips, fluently packaged “consulting” wisdom that he can dispense in drive-by fashion, leaving the real problems behind as he returns to his highly-paid perch in Washington.

    The Lincoln Center folks have the best successor to Reynold Levy right there in the office: Nigel Redden, head of the Lincoln Center Festival (and Spoleto Festival USA). If they’re smart, they won’t let him get away.

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