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Michael Kaiser Headshot

Farewell, Kate Levin

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Mayor Bloomberg has just ended his twelve year tenure as mayor; he governed over a remarkably turbulent span in American economic history: from post 9/11 gloom through the 2008 stock market crash. What is astonishing is how well New York arts organizations fared over the course of these past twelve years. It certainly has not been easy but there is arts vitality in every borough and in every sector of the arts from Pregones Theater in the Bronx to Snug Harbor on Staten Island.

Yes, there have been casualties, most notably the New York City Opera, but considering the economic turmoil, New York City has done very well; the vast majority of New York City arts organizations are producing a very rich and diverse quilt of arts offerings.

I give much of the credit for this to the mayor and to his personal philanthropy. (For the record, the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the Kennedy Center, an Institute I started in 2001, has been the beneficiary of Bloomberg Philanthropies funding. Specifically, we were engaged to train the board and staff leaders of 250 arts organizations in New York City.)

But we must also credit Kate Levin, the remarkable Commissioner of Cultural Affairs, who worked tirelessly and diligently on behalf of the entire New York arts ecology for these past twelve years. The New York City Department of Cultural Affairs is the largest arts funder in the nation and its Commissioner plays a central role in the health of the city.

Kate is tough. She is not fooled by empty promises or plans without substance. She does not believe in funding arts organizations that are not prepared to manage themselves well. She is hard on board members who, she believes, are not being responsible stewards of their organizations and harder still on staff leaders who are not prepared, focused and rational.

But she is also a passionate and hard-working advocate for any arts group that is prepared to work hard to create a strong institution. She is as committed to, and spends as much time with, the small dance organization as she is with the giant presenting organization.

Her role in rescuing too many arts organizations to count will probably never be adequately reported. She planned strategies, she engaged outside consultants, she found board members, she cajoled donors; in short, she took steps, to ensure that New York had a vibrant arts sector. And, crucially, she was never risk-averse when it came to supporting those in need.

Anyone who cares about the health of the arts sector in New York City must be grateful to Mayor Bloomberg for selecting such a grand champion and empowering her for all of these years.

I only wish she were moving on to head the National Endowment for the Arts. Imagine if Kate Levin's intelligence, knowledge and commitment to the arts were brought to bear on the nation's arts challenges. I cannot think of anyone who would be a better advocate, leader and champion.