Going bold: How the pandemic is changing New York’s Lincoln Center

Broadway’s theaters are beginning to reopen, and one mile north, the 11 arts organizations under the Lincoln Center umbrella — the nation’s largest performing arts complex — have announced their fall schedules too.

Reopenings of the Metropolitan Opera, Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Chamber Music Society, and others, however, may be a moving target, depending on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s the cautious assessment of Leah Johnson, who holds the multifaceted title of executive vice president and chief communications, marketing, and advocacy officer at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the landlord of the 16-acre complex.

Monitor columnist Jacqueline Adams sat down with Ms. Johnson to discuss the highs and lows Lincoln Center has experienced during the pandemic. Millions of dollars in revenue have been lost and half of the 300 staffers were furloughed. But, in their lightly edited chat, Ms. Johnson described several silver linings that emerged.

Q: How is Lincoln Center doing?

What wiping out everything does is you start with this clean slate almost. It’s an interesting moment when you can no longer do what you set out to do, which is to put people on stage and to present and to fill seats. You can’t do that. So that becomes a bit of the mother of invention, and, really, you can be bold. You can respond to things more immediately.

With the surge of Asian American and Pacific Islander hate crimes in our city, we commissioned [multidisciplinary artist] Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya. She did a series called “We Belong Here,” [which] is throughout different parts of Lincoln Center.

[Congressman] John Lewis and [minister and civil rights leader] C.T. Vivian passed away on the same weekend. We came to work that Monday and said, OK, what can we do to honor these greats? So we commissioned Carl Hancock Rux, who is a poet activist, and he created a visual [video] poem called “The Baptism.”

Usually, our work requires a year or two in advance planning. But now we’re building the plane as we’re flying. So it’s really shown us that we can be nimble.

Courtesy of Lincoln Center — Leah C. Johnson is EVP and chief communications, marketing and advocacy officer at Linoln Center for the Performing Arts

Q. Talk to me about the Restart Stages performances. How have the events been received, and is this a way to sort of lure people back to the Lincoln Center campus?

We sat around one day, and we thought, we have 16 acres of outdoor space, right? This is in the height of the pandemic. And we thought, what can we do? How can we utilize the 16 acres, and how can we also kick-start the city’s revival? How can we get people comfortable with coming back to live performances? So, we created these 10 outdoor venues that have been very, very well received.

We launched it with World Health Day, April 7. The mayor came and spoke, and we had some members of the New York Philharmonic playing to honor healthcare workers.

We have co-curated with organizations throughout the five boroughs. Whether it’s the Korean Cultural Center, the Caribbean Cultural Center, the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance … all of these organizations, we knew, needed a place and wanted a place to perform. We’ve had dance workshops with the New York City Ballet and film screenings. The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center has been doing evening concerts.

We decided that we would connect with the New York Food Bank, and we’ve done food distributions. We have done blood drives. When there was a need for more polling places, we became a polling site.

We also put “grass” on the Plaza around the fountain. “The Green,” [an installation by designer Mimi Lien], is a soy-based product that can be recycled once we take it up. It is going to be used for playgrounds around the state. From a sustainability perspective, we thought this was just a wonderful, wonderful thing.

Sachyn Mital — Set designer Mimi Lien created “The Green,” a temporary installation of soy-based “grass” at Lincoln Center to welcome visitors to the campus.

Q: What are some of the silver linings Lincoln Center has experienced?

Everyone has had to deal with the coronavirus as well as the racial reckoning that has been going on, not only in our city but in our country and, quite bluntly, in the world. This is the silver lining: While in the middle of the devastation, in the middle of all of the shrinking that we had to do, we have also been able to come together as a campus.

With our colleagues at the New York Philharmonic, we saw an opportunity, once we were out of the halls, to really accelerate the renovation of David Geffen Hall, so that we could open up in 2022, instead of 2024, which could really be a big boon for New York City.

And all the things that we’ve been able to do regarding workforce development, regarding minority and women business enterprise contracts and also workforce inclusion has been just a wonderful, wonderful contribution.

We’re committed to a 30% minimum of minority and women business enterprise contractors to participate in the project. We are now at about 41%, so we have exceeded our goal. We also committed to a 40% workforce inclusion, meaning aggregate hours. We are now at about 54%. We had a graduation ceremony for the 30 graduates who had been paid throughout training and who will now all work on the site, at David Geffen Hall, and become members of the union.

Q: What is your sense of New York City almost post-pandemic?

My sense, Jackie, is that everyone, including Lincoln Center, had to be so creative, had to be so bold, had to really think about ways to create things that would excite people, that would heal people, and that would bring people together and connect people.

So what this pandemic, in the oddest of ways, has done — among the tragedy and among all of the effects that have happened with the racial reckoning — is that it has forced institutions like ours and others to really, really dig deep and think about what we [will be] when we come back. We will come back bolder. We will come back differently and more equitably.

At the end of the day, we are thinking of it as inclusive excellence. [Ford Foundation President] Darren Walker is on our board, and we’re always quoting him. He says, “You know, the arts create empathy, and without empathy, you cannot have justice.”

This story first appeared in The Christian Science Monitor.

Jacqueline Adams is an Emmy Award winning journalist. She is the co-author of “A Blessing: Women of Color Teaming Up to Lead, Empower and Thrive.”