04/08/2014 02:34 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Most Things Don't Happen, But Sometimes They Do

"Most things don't happen. But sometime they do." -- Attributed to Harvey Lichtenstein by radio producer Steve Rathe.

Harvey Lichtenstein and Pina Bausch, 1985 for the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch production "Arien" during BAM Next Wave Festival. Photo by Johan Elbers

In the 1990s I worked for Harvey Lichtenstein, the innovative arts administrator and longstanding Executive Director of the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was my first job after "making the transition" from performer to arts administrator. Harvey was my first boss, and became my mentor and guru. In the 2000s I was on my own, but continued to watch Harvey closely, and had the pleasure of working with him on a few projects when he was leading the BAM Local Development Corporation and setting the ball in motion for the transformation of Fort Greene into a cultural hub. I was so lucky to have the time with Harvey, to get to watch him make decisions: little ones, big ones and irreversible ones. These years and experiences shaped me; and now, as an arts presenter, my decisions are guided by my time with Harvey. On his 85th birthday (April 9), it seemed appropriate to reflect on my continued respect for and fascination (some would say obsession) with Harvey.

I often try to tease out what it is about Harvey that made it possible for him to change BAM, Brooklyn, and by extension, the world. It is of great interest to me as I strive to reinvent the performance program at the Met Museum, and it is a constant source of inspiration. I feel like if I could unlock the secret to his genius, I could have a shot at presenting significant work. There are many answers, but I have so far narrowed it down to five characteristics, not all of which I possess, unfortunately, but all of which Harvey possesses in abundance:


Courtesy of the BAM Hamm Archives

1. Energy: I believe that it's Harvey's energy that is the root of his drive to innovate, to try new things, to propel forward. I remember the first time I visited him after a health setback he said to me: "LEE-more, do you know what the most important thing is?" (This was my climb-the-Himalayas-to-receive-truth-from-the-spiritual-leader moment.) I held my breath, and he whispered: "ENERGY." And it's his energy that makes him magnetic, potent, unstoppable. His energy is like a flame, the genesis of his creativity, and possibly, it's what people refer to as his "vision." It's what drove him to unleash French Baroque Opera on New York City-after establishing a reputation for "cutting edge" new work. After a decade of Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass, Twyla Tharp, Merce Cunningham: What?! Lully and Charpentier.

2. Curiosity: There are two kinds of people in the world, those who crave what they already know, and those who live for what they don't know yet. Harvey thrives on what he doesn't yet know. A new book; a new playwright; a young choreographer...he never stops discovering. Recently, sitting through several hours of an unfortunate Alexander Borodin situation, I asked why he wanted to go to this, and he said, "I've never heard it before." After producing some of the most significant operas of the 20th century, he seeks an opera he's not seen yet.

3. Fearlessness: This, of course, is something people talk about a lot. But what is it that allows Harvey to be so fearless? Maybe he had nothing to lose; maybe it's a form of callousness. But I believe the opposite of fear is not courage, it's trust. I am therefore convinced that Harvey's fearlessness comes from his willingness to trust: first and foremost the artists, also, his staff, and the audience.

4. Strength: Harvey's strength (physical, intellectual, and emotional) is legendary. But I believe that strength sometimes comes at the expense of flexibility. Where we're strong, we lose flexibility, and I think that might be the case with Harvey. He has enormous strength, but not a lot of "give," which when you're creating something from nothing, strength is probably more important.

Courtesy of the BAM Hamm Archives

5. Love: A cliché, of course, but I have never seen such fierce expression of love as I've seen in Harvey's eyes. The way he looks at the artists he has championed. When he holds a choreographer's hand. When he shares a hug with a composer whose career was intertwined with BAM's. His love is like a bulldozer, or maybe, more poetically, like the Indian deity Ganesha: it's a love that removes obstacles. Makes the impossible possible.

Today, on Harvey's 85th birthday, I am grateful for everything I learned from Harvey, and for everything he made possible. Happy Birthday, dear Harvey!

Please share your birthday greetings and thoughts in the comment section below.