Last October, on
the day it was announced that he would become the next president of Lincoln
Center, Gordon J. Davis spoke of the job as the culmination of an illustrious
career in government, philanthropy and the law.
“Lincoln Center has been so much a part of my life and body and
soul for so long that this is literally like a dream come true,” he told The Times . “I cannot tell you how deeply
moving this possibility is.”
Mr. Davis, 60, had been the insider’s choice for the job-a former
Lindsay administration whiz kid, real-estate lawyer and Lincoln Center board
member whose skills would nicely complement those of Beverly Sills, the
72-year-old opera diva and fund-raising dynamo who chairs the center’s board.
At least, that was the thinking at the time. What actually
happened was a study in the treacherous-some would say dysfunctional-politics
of the city’s largest and most fractious arts organization. Hamstrung by
rivalries among the center’s warring constituent members; undercut by Ms.
Sills, who seemed unwilling to cede power to her new president; and derided by
staff members, who claimed he was unwilling-or unable-to make swift decisions,
a disillusioned Mr. Davis finally called it quits on Sept. 27. In an exchange
of letters with Ms. Sills that seemed as scripted as a military changing of the
guard, Mr. Davis wrote that “things are not working in the way either of us
hoped or expected.”
He had held his dream job just nine months.
“Looking at something from the outside and working somewhere from
the inside can be two very different things,” Mr. Davis says now. “They don’t
necessarily work fine when applied to a specific place.”
Mr. Davis agreed to speak on the condition that he be
accompanied, via conference call, by Ms. Sills and Janice Price, vice president
for consumer markets and new technology since 1997, who would take on the job
of interim executive director. In the course of a long interview, Mr. Davis
displayed the affable demeanor many said would be his primary asset in the job,
joking about his new “unemployed” status. He and Ms. Sills bantered about the
hassles of the job (namely, the organization’s 12 unruly constituents) and
otherwise made a show of their amicable parting.
“Gordon and I have been friends for many years,” Ms. Sills said
of rumors of strains between the two. “When people can’t find anything, they
make things up, but we’re both a little tired of dealing with that.”
On Oct. 1, Lincoln Center’s board of directors (which includes
Bloomberg L.P.’s Mike Bloomberg, AOL-Time Warner’s Richard Parsons, Texaco’s retired president
James Kinnear, American Express’ Harvey Golub and IBM’s Lou Gerstner) met to
discuss the resignation and to appoint a search committee, headed by Hearst
Corporation chairman Frank A. Bennack Jr., to find a successor. Ms. Sills and
Mr. Davis were similarly all smiles.
“You’ve heard Ms. Sills and Mr. Davis,” Mr. Davis said towards
the end of the interview. “Does it sound like we’re at odds?”
Yet Lincoln Center insiders, including several members of the
organization’s board of directors, said that problems between the two had been
brewing almost from the time Mr. Davis was brought on the job.
Board members suspected Mr. Davis had taken the job thinking it
would entail long-term strategizing and big-picture thinking-and, in
particular, a visionary role to go along with the massive 10-year, $1.5 billion
renovation project the center was planning.
The city’s Parks Commissioner under Mayor Ed Koch before going
back into real-estate law, Mr. Davis seemed to bridge in one person two of the
worlds Lincoln Center would have to master to get the project on track. (Ms.
Sills makes a third world, that of the wealthy arts patrons, her own.)
Within a few days of moving into his new office, however, Mr.
Davis got a taste of what the president really
did: During a December blizzard, he found himself inspecting machinery in the
center’s boiler room, deep below the famous plaza at 66th Street and Broadway.
Ms. Sills didn’t help matters by injecting herself into the
operations of the center on a daily basis, occupying a position one person
involved with the center described as “de facto C.E.O.” Wanted or not, several
people said, her hanging around undermined Mr. Davis’ authority.
“He was the right person,” another board member said. “But the
job was characterized in a manner or in a way that there was a miscommunication
about what the job really was in the mind of the chairman. It’s very rare to
have a full-time chairman and a full-time president or director. When you’re
the person in charge and there’s another person in charge, it’s kind of
“I don’t think the job is well-defined,” said another Lincoln
Center insider. “You have to be responsible for maintenance, restaurants,
security-nobody wants to do that. Nobody wants to be the caretaker.”
Yet numerous other people familiar with Mr. Davis’ tenure said
there was another problem: Mr. Davis
himself. Some told stories of high-handed decision making and abrasive behavior
toward employees. Mr. Davis said that, like anyone following a long-serving
executive (Nathan Leventhal held the job for 17 years before leaving abruptly
in 2000), he had some differences with staff.
“I don’t know who any of those anonymous rebellious people are,”
he said. “I’ve left a couple meetings weepy. I know someone who left weepy, but
it wasn’t something I did, it was something someone else did. If the public
wants blood, in any organization you’re going to find people who’re going to
Indeed, Mr. Davis had his fans. “We’re losing an advocate,” said
Zarin Mehta, the executive director of the New York Philharmonic. At the New
York City Opera, Paul Kellogg said: “I regret that it has come to this point.
I’ve always enjoyed working with him very much.”
There were victories on Mr. Davis’ watch, chief among them
securing a $240 million commitment from the city towards the reconstruction
The problem with Mr. Davis, many insiders said, wasn’t capricious
decision making-it was that he couldn’t make decisions at all.
“He didn’t know how to run a meeting,” said one Lincoln Center
insider. Mr. Davis, the insider added, would often claim responsibility for
successes that were not his own. “It was always ‘me, me, me.'”
“My recent decision certainly
doesn’t show a lack of decisiveness,” replied Mr. Davis.
To the administrators and
artistic types who hold sway over the powerful constituent organizations,
however-a group that ranges from the Metropolitan Opera to the New York Library
for the Performing Arts-Mr. Davis was the wrong man for the job.
“Not every job suits everybody,” said Linda LeRoy Janklow,
chairman of the Lincoln Center Theater and a friend of Mr. Davis’. “The service
business is very different from the administrative business. As I said to
someone yesterday, it’s like being a really good cook who’s trying to run a
“His skill set didn’t really fit the job,” another board member
said. “He’s a very talented person, and will probably go back to law and be
There were others who said, however, that however diffident or
decision-averse Mr. Davis may have been, he never really stood a chance.
Lincoln Center is like a medieval court with its fiefdoms, plots and intrigues.
It was only a matter of time, they said, before he got a dagger in the back.
Asked what the first qualification for Mr. Davis’ office was,
John Mazzola, who was president of Lincoln Center from 1977 to 1984 (and had
worked at the center since 1964), replied: “To be a masochist.”
“The president of Lincoln Center has no authority or power over
its constituents,” he continued. “You’re there to serve their needs, and you
have to do a certain amount of running the buildings, running the plaza ….
You’re handed this on your plate when you go in, so you can either smooth it
all out or argue with everybody.”
The president must mediate points of contention as small as
conflicting production schedules-one board member pointed out that two
different opera houses are staging La
Bohème this season-and as large, in Mr. Davis’ case, as where they’ll be
staging productions in the future.
The reconstruction project created a major flap almost as soon as
Mr. Davis took over. The Metropolitan Opera, which has its own donor base and
wields enormous power within the organization, threatened to pull out of the
project because, Met officials said, Mr. Davis and the Lincoln Center brain
trust were paying them insufficient heed and being too solicitous of the
competing City Opera house. After a two-month standoff, a compromise was
reached in which Mr. Davis and other officials involved in the reconstruction
project handed over some of their authority to the constituent organizations.
The reconstruction project, several board members said, made an
already difficult job nearly impossible.
“It’s much more complicated now, since the place has deteriorated
physically,” said one Lincoln Center insider.
As it was, a slowing economy was making it difficult for Ms.
Sills to go forward with plans to start raising money from her private donors
for the reconstruction. Now, with a war and a major rebuilding effort in lower
Manhattan on the horizon, the renovations will necessarily have to be
“reappraised” and slowed down, Ms. Sills said.
“This unexpected awfulness is going to interrupt a lot of
different projects,” said Schuyler Chapin, New York City’s Commissioner of
Cultural Affairs, an ex officio member of the Lincoln Center board. “They’re
not going to be abandoned, but there will probably be changes.”
Marshall Rose, the real-estate developer who is heading the
redevelopment effort, said Mr. Davis “didn’t have a direct role” in the
project, and thus his departure won’t have much affect on it.
So what to look for in the person who replaces Mr. Davis?
“What does it take to be a skillful heart surgeon?” replied Mr.
Chapin. He said it would take someone who knows how to mediate among the
center’s “lively and individualistic constituents.”
“Hopefully this time around, in light of what happened, there
will be a bit more introspection,” said one board member, “a bit more thought
about what the job entails.”
“[We need] somebody whose main goal is getting joy from getting
things done,” said another. “It’s a very broad job, a very deep job, and a
mixture of glamour and getting hands dirty.”
“God is not available,” Ms. Sills joked.