Why Gordon Davis Left the Big Task at Lincoln Center

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

difficult.”

“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

provide that.”

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

project.

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

cooking school.”

“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

successful there.”

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.