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One On 1: Lincoln Center President Reynold Levy

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NY1’s Budd Mishkin continues his series, “One On 1,” with a profile of Lincoln Center President Reynold Levy, a man who oversees one of the city's most prominent cultural institutions.

At Lincoln Center, even the president is a performer.

“I was actually the master of ceremonies on a television program when I was 11-years-old, a tap dancing program that ran for I guess a half-hour a week, and I did it for 20 weeks,” says Reynold Levy. “Alas, there is no videotape, so there is absolutely no evidence. You're going to have to trust me.”

Levy doesn't have to perform at Lincoln Center - there are plenty of professionals for that. But since he took over in 2002, Levy has had to work to see that the 11 organizations that make up Lincoln Center are in step, acting as one whole rather than sometimes competing individual pieces.

And these are some of the most famous and powerful cultural institutions not just in the city, but in the world, like the Metropolitan Opera, the Juilliard School and the New York Philharmonic.

“I think the challenge was how could we create a structure to redevelop Lincoln Center that the constituents would all see that they all benefited from,” says Levy. “In other words, rather than quarreling about different issues that arose, it was very clear that the framework for constructive conversation hadn't been created."

The conversation now is all about what lies ahead at Lincoln Center; a huge renovation project. It's scheduled to start next year, and it would alter Lincoln Center's main campus and drastically change the street that runs through Lincoln Center, 65th Street.

“Imagine a Lincoln Center where artists and audiences could mingle before and after a performance,” says Levy. “Imagine a Lincoln Center where pedestrians could come off Broadway and actually see into rehearsal halls."

Sixty-fifth street currently has a look that is at best uninviting, and at worst foreboding.

“These buildings psychologically say, ÎDon't come in unless you have an ID card,’" says Levy. “We don't know this is Alice Tully Hall, and we can hardly see that's the Juilliard School."

Levy calls it a Boulevard of the Arts. The price tag right now for 65th Street alone is $$450 million.

"I understand better than ever before what Îworking the room’ means,” he says.

Levy has plenty of experience in working the room: Seven years as executive director of the 92nd Street Y; then 12 years as president of the AT&T Foundation. So he's both raised funds for artistic organizations, and given out funds to artistic organizations.

“Having worked at AT&T, I have a perspective on how to understand the business and how to understand what their interests are and how those interests might converge at Lincoln Center,” he says. “All of life in one form or another is persuasion, and if you believe in something deeply yourself and can imagine what could be possible, and you have a vision of what could be possible, and you can with enthusiasm and conviction look someone square in the eye and persuade them that they could be helpful to reaching that vision, that's the magic."

Reynold Levy ends many a day attending performances and meeting with donors and patrons of Lincoln Center. Leaving his home in the Bronx at the beginning of the day is not quite as glamorous.

“Because it was my father's wish, I drive his car,” he says. “I drive his Mercury, which is now 13 or 14-years-old."

For Levy, much of what he's accomplished goes back to growing up in Brighton Beach in a Brooklyn home with a world view.

“My father was an Italian interpreter and became the chief interpreter for Italian prisoners housed in the United States during World War II and became really proficient in Italian,” he says. “He was quite a linguist. He spoke Turkish, he spoke Hebrew, Spanish, and he spoke French."

Levy was student president at Lincoln High School, then attended Hobart College in upstate New York. He got married and raised two kids.

Levy earned a law degree at Columbia and a Ph.D in government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia. He put that expertise to use working in city government for two years at a rather inauspicious time in New York City history - the mid-70s.

“I was staff director for something called the Task Force on the New York City Fiscal Crisis, and so my friend said with a title like that I was the only one with a permanent job,” he says.

Levy was responsible for coming up with alternative budgets that would have less of an adverse effect on poor and working class people. He was a problem solver.

Twenty years later, Levy started attacking problems on a much grander scale. He was president of the International Rescue Committee, helping refugees in places like Rwanda, Burundi, the Congo and the Balkans, trying to combat starvation, disease and genocide.

“It looks intimidating and it looks overwhelming, and then you touch a life and save a life,” he says.

Levy says he'd spend six months out of the year in some of the world's most dangerous places, experiences that will likely never leave him.

“I don't look at a glass of water the same way as I did before I did humanitarian work,” he says. “Clean water is so precious in third world and conflict affected areas, and so much taken for granted in the states."

Levy describes his time doing refugee work as a "very intense" six years. By 2002, he'd had enough.

“There’s a very strong psychological weight that you carry when you run a refugee assistance and emergency organization,” he says. “Every day you feel responsible not only for the lives of the refugees you're serving, but also for the lives of your staff who are operating under dangerous circumstances."

Levy was ready to take a tenured position teaching at the Harvard Business School when Lincoln Center called. In the aftermath of 9/11, he answered.

“Good people who love this city needed to renew its commitment, their commitment to the city, and I thought Lincoln Center would be a great place to renew that commitment,” he says. “And I haven't regretted it for one moment.”

It seems like the contrast could not be greater; working in the fields of refugee camps vs. the halls of New York culture.

“If you would speak to refugees in their condition, they would understand fully how you should enjoy and revel in the achievements of your country. And if they're successful in their country, that's precisely what they will do,” he says.

But why is it that Reynold Levy can connect work in Rwanda to work at Lincoln Center? Maybe it all goes back to that apartment in Brighton Beach.

“My dad would think absolutely nothing of throwing some sand on the floor - we lived across the street from the beach - and doing soft shoe and tap dancing, and feel very free to dance and very free to express yourself,” he says. “So we were encouraged to do that, and to value all forms of expression early on."

If you grow up in a Brooklyn apartment where your dad is bringing in sand to tap dance, where you're taught that all things are possible, then feeding refugees and getting the factions at Lincoln Center to work together are just the latest problems to be solved.

- Budd Mishkin

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