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Michael Kaiser

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Happy Birthday, Harvey Lichtenstein!

Posted: 04/ 9/2012 8:12 am

Today is the birthday of one of my personal heroes -- Harvey Lichtenstein. Harvey, of course, was best known as the inspirational leader who turned the Brooklyn Academy of Music into one of the great arts institutions of the nation. Before becoming an arts manager, Harvey was a dancer, and many of his greatest collaborations were with important, groundbreaking choreographers like Merce Cunningham, Eliot Feld, Bill T. Jones and Pina Bausch.

Indeed groundbreaking is the perfect adjective for Harvey in every way. He brought edgy works to this country, like Peter Brook's stage version of The Mahabharata. And, after retiring as director of BAM, he literally continued to break ground by expanding the artistic community that is Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Before joining BAM, he held audience development positions with New York City Ballet and New York City Opera. He obviously learned his job well because rarely has anyone in the arts been so successful at building an audience as was Harvey. And he didn't do it the easy way. He got people to come to Brooklyn, from Manhattan no less, to see unusual repertory. This repertory was considered difficult to sell but Harvey made an event out of big, challenging projects and if you cared about the arts, you just had to be there.

I first met Harvey when we were both on jury duty in the early 1990s. He was an arts administration god and I was a mere mortal, having just started my tenure at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. I cautiously approached him in the waiting room at the court house and he could not have been more kind or supportive. We discussed the challenges of fundraising, the financial problems at Ailey and what we were doing to fix them, and the coming seasons at BAM. How glad I am that we both were called to do our civic duty!

I still receive occasional phone calls from Harvey suggesting a particular project or artist to me. I treasure these calls since he continues to be my arts hero some 20 years after our first encounter. Our projects and venues may differ but the goal is the same, to bring important art to our audiences.

What I most admire about Harvey is that he had a clear vision for BAM. He knew what New York City needed (a home for important new and challenging work) and what it did not need (another Lincoln Center). He pursued his mission with tremendous focus, passion and energy. Not everything worked as he hoped it would but perfection is not an appropriate measure of success. He left the arts ecology of New York forever changed for the better. This is as much as any arts administrator could hope to accomplish.

Happy Birthday Harvey -- thank you for all you have done for the arts, for being such an important leader and for inspiring me every day. I hope everyone in the arts world appreciates your remarkable contributions.