Debora L. Spar joins Lincoln Center this month after nearly a decade as president of Barnard College. This professor, prolific author, feminist scholar, and self-professed "bad" amateur dancer recently discussed her vision for Lincoln Center as she takes on the new role.
Madeline Rogers: First, can you talk about your personal relationship to the arts in general, and to Lincoln Center in particular?
Debora L. Spar: My parents were always audience members. I grew up in Westchester. My parents took me to Lincoln Center two or three times a year, so for me New York City was Lincoln Center and Lincoln Center was New York City. I'm pretty sure the first performance I saw was at Lincoln Center. We went to The Nutcracker every year and to the Leonard Bernstein Young People's Concerts at the Philharmonic. I started dancing when I was about six, and I've been dancing ever since—badly! But I danced all the time when I was a kid and did a lot of amateur theater. I went to a high school that had a phenomenally good performing arts program for a public school. One of my classmates is the associate principal bass for an opera company. Another was the music man in The Music Man. Another one is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. So of my tiny little class, there was a lot of excellence in the arts. I played the clarinet in the Westchester County Symphony, I did theater, and I danced. So I did as much as you could possibly do while basically having no talent! I did theater all the way through high school and by college I wasn't good enough to get into auditions any more, but it's always been part of my life.
MR: So is this job at Lincoln Center a dream come true?
DLS: It feels like it. As I was auditioning for the job, my husband and I visited the campus. It must have been in October because we walked into some kind of Halloween celebration [LC Trick-or-Treat]. And it was just beautiful: these adorable kids and their parents all dressed up and having little performances and trick-or-treating on the plaza. And I thought, "This is the organization I want to be part of, one that is opening itself to the community in a way that feels celebratory and joyous and open." What Lincoln Center is doing—presenting performing arts at the very highest level, but in ways that involve the larger community—there's nothing better than that.
MR: Do you see any similarities between being a college president and leading a major arts organization like Lincoln Center?
DLS: Both Barnard and Lincoln Center are part of what makes the city as vibrant as it is. Both the arts and education are public goods; they are things that in this country are not provided by the state, but that most people think are good to have and that need money to operate. Both are devoted to excellence. Both are committed to access, and to carrying on a historical legacy. Both are looking to the next generation. It is an honor to help them figure out how to evolve and extend their legacy into the 21st century.
MR: One of the large projects that you'll be taking on will be raising money for the renovation of David Geffen Hall. How will you approach it?
DLS: The hardest things to fundraise for are things people don't see. Raising money for buildings, on the other hand, is exciting and compelling if it's a good project. Lincoln Center is the leading performing arts organization in the world. The New York Philharmonic is one of the best orchestras in the world; it has to play in a building that’s worthy of its excellence. It's a lot of money, but it's a really worthy project.
This has to be one of the greatest halls in the world: not just for 2020, but for 2070 and 2080. The way people listen to music now is different than it used to be, and the way they listen to music will be even more different in 20 to 30 years. It's a challenge to construct a building that will be flexible over time, but that is our goal.
MR: Speaking of the future, what are you excited about in terms of helping Lincoln Center reach new audiences?
DLS: Being a college president, I have observed the younger generation up close, what I call the "Glee generation." When my generation grew up, we listened to music by passively receiving. Now, everyone is their own DJ, everyone mixes their own music. You can make music on your computer and on your phone. Ride the subway: Every single person is listening to music and they're listening to a much wider array of music—folk music, rock music, African music—so their musical tastes by definition are broader. The challenge is how do you bring kids into existing art forms in ways that make sense for their lives? I think you gravitate to the forms of art you were exposed to as a child and a teenager, so if kids are not attracted to classical arts now it's probably because they didn’t grow up with them. So a big part of outreach at a place like Lincoln Center has to be education.
Making sure young people can afford the experience is crucial, but that’s not an unfixable problem. Some of it is changing times of performances, changing formats. This is a group that’s not used to planning months in advance. What can you do with last-minute tickets, last-minute pricing, shorter formats, formats that involve tasting artisanal beers at the same time?
MR: You've written a lot about technology. How do you see it in the context of a performing arts organization?
DLS: Technology is changing everything in our lives; it always has. Technology is shaping how we get married, whom we marry, how we have children. The arts are just a piece of it—a fascinating piece of it. I don't know the answers yet, but I'm looking forward to jumping into it.
MR: Despite all the technology that delivers music to us on the go and at home, do you believe in the live arts experience?
DLS: My sense is that as we spend more time interacting with screens, the premium on the actual experience goes up, not down. People want to be social. They want to have an experience they can't have sitting at their computers because they’re sitting at their computers all day long.
MR: Any final thoughts?
DLS: As I mentioned, Lincoln Center is one of the most important arts organizations in the world, as well as one of the most important organizations in New York City, full stop. So it has to be the best of the best. And that is thrilling. To be in a place that is aiming for excellence while the rest of the world is watching is kind of extraordinary. We have to get it right!
Madeline Rogers is a creative consultant to nonprofits and former Director of Publications at the New York Philharmonic.