What I’ve Learned: David Levy

The perils of shaking things up, the problem with DC's museums, how the arts can save a school system, and other lessons from David Levy

National editor Ken Adelman (adelmank@aol.com) has been conducting What I've Learned interviews since 1988.

David Levy isn't bitter. "Not yet," he says. "I don't know how I'll feel in six months."

Levy resigned in May after 14 years running DC's Corcoran Gallery of Art. At the same time, the board of trustees suspended plans for a dramatic and expensive new wing designed by architect Frank Gehry, a project dear to Levy's heart.

"I don't regret taking the job," Levy says. "We did many wonderful things. Moreover, I discovered Washington, which was a great revelation. Everyone had considered me the quintessential New Yorker."

Levy was born in Brooklyn in a family where everybody made art. Both his parents were painters, and his godfather was the sculptor David Smith. Levy received a bachelor's degree in philosophy and aesthetics from Columbia University and a master's and doctorate in organizational theory from New York University.

Before coming to the Corcoran in 1991, he spent nearly 30 years at Parsons School of Design, 19 of them as its head.

The Corcoran–Washington's oldest art museum–was in trouble when Levy arrived. Its finances were rocky and attendance low–only 150,000 visitors in 1990. By 2000, the number of visitors had grown to almost a million. Student programming expanded tenfold, with more activities for children, including inner-city kids.

Levy planned the Corcoran's most ambitious expansion since the gallery was built in 1897. The new Gehry wing would double the museum's display area and house a state-of-the-art college.

He raised more than $100 million for the project while increasing the museum's endowment from $6 million to $30 million. But some board members were skeptical of the cost of the Gehry wing. "At the critical time, I had the votes," he says. "I could have forced a showdown, won, and stayed." But he didn't want to stay under such conditions.

Levy is an accomplished reed player. Since his teenage years, he has played jazz professionally, recording and touring with drummer Chico Hamilton and trumpeter Donald Byrd.

He lives with his wife, Carole Feld–a former executive with PBS and current head of a small marketing firm–and their nine-year-old son, Alexander, a student at Georgetown Day School. Levy has two children from a previous marriage, both in their forties–Thomas, a contractor, builds apartments in New York City, and Jessica works in the fashion business there.

In Levy's art-filled townhouse on DC's Massachusetts Avenue, he talked about what he's learned.

What did you learn from leaving the Corcoran?

First, that institutions have no memory. This leads to the second big lesson–that therefore you shouldn't stay too long running one. People speak of seven years as the maximum. I had thought that if you're still doing a good job and excited about the work, you should stay longer. I guess that was wrong.

Though I stayed at Parsons School of Design nearly 30 years, it was merged into a university, the New School University, so I reported to the university president, which gave me some protection.

When I arrived, the Corcoran was in deep trouble. It was reeling from the uproar over a controversial Robert Mapplethorpe photography exhibition. It had a deficit of $1.5 million–19 percent of its total budget of $8 million. The Corcoran had no endowment to speak of and really nowhere to go. It scared the hell out of me.

Over time, it became a terribly exciting place, and a national player. I was feeling very good about events. We had raised more money than any other private institution in the history of the city. Yet a schism developed within the board over proceeding with the renovation and the Gehry building. We'd already raised some $100 million. Since the entire project would cost $170 million, we had 60 percent of what we needed and tremendous support in the city.

Then we had a bad streak–with 9/11 causing a big drop in attendance, as we're right by the White House. We got beyond that by treading water for a while.

We formed task forces on our future, involving 85 people, which recommended we proceed with the new project. It would define our future–we just had to do it. Yet the chairs of our strategic-planning committee and board had already made up their minds not to proceed.

I was tremendously opposed to that. Why go through this elaborate process and then not listen to 85 trustees and overseers who'd studied the issue? Besides, we could have begun by using part of the first $100 million on our existing building. It's 108 years old and in serious need of repair.

Of the $170 million needed, $50 million would go for the renovation. All of the designs for the old building were drawn and ready to go. This renovation, along with our temporary relocation, would have taken five years. We could then regroup and see if we had enough money to proceed with the Gehry building. Instead, a minority on the board voted the whole project down. People are now pulling their money out, even for the renovation.

I felt our city had the vitality to do the Gehry addition. Some new board members were stylistically very different from me–that needs to be said. Besides, they had no memory of how far we'd come. They saw the Corcoran as a great institution but asked, "Why isn't it greater?"

When you have a board that's so divided, you can destroy the institution by pulling a power play. Some board members would have been very mad and would have sniped at the institution. I also realized that forcing the issue and staying would have made me miserable.

I now see I probably should have gone earlier.

You've worked in Washington and New York. How are they different?

Everything's amazingly close here, which makes a big difference to the quality of life. My side of Massachusetts Avenue is urban, but just across the street it turns into a suburb. People there have backyards, gardens, swimming pools.

To live well in New York, you must be rich. But you can live really well here in the middle class and live a city life, not a suburban life. There's so much action here.

But Washington's cultural life can't compare to New York's, can it?

Not really. That's one of the oddities of Washington. Here's a city with one of the highest demographics on educational attainment and family income, so you'd expect more culture.

My best guess as to why that's not the case is that Washington revolves around politics while New York is a city of business. Granted, business can be very exciting for certain executives who make lots of money. Still, it's not as fulfilling as politics, so business types seek other avenues for fulfillment. They begin to define themselves not as executives but as art collectors or theatergoers or patrons. Here, with politics all-consuming and fulfilling, people don't need to define themselves in any other way.

Washington's sole cultural standout is theater–it's second best in the nation. And overall, the cultural scene is improving. The city's coming alive. Last night we ate in a fabulous restaurant on Ninth Street–as elegant a place as you could ever find. A few years ago, you wouldn't even walk down Ninth Street.

There's too little in jazz here but a lot of classical music. And amazing museums. Washington doesn't have great audiences for museums, but it does have amazing museums.

Why doesn't it have great museum audiences?

The concentration of museums and culture in Washington far exceeds the needs and size of the regional population. The city's culture is largely targeted to its millions of annual visitors. However, these are not, by and large, cultural tourists–they're more like pilgrims, visiting the symbolic sites of their national heritage. So the visitors aren't, for the most part, a great audience, and the residents are an insufficient audience.

What's the difference between Washington and New York in terms of fundraising?

It's much tougher here. For starters, there's a lot less money. The upper crust in New York is populated by investment bankers and the like. Washington is beginning to get those types, but there are still few relative to the need.

Plus in Washington, everybody expects the feds to come and cut the grass: "I'm paying my taxes, which are supposed to support cultural activities–why should I write another check?"

It's tough to compete with the feds. This doesn't seem to be the case for theater, but it is for museums. The Smithsonian is out there raising money, as is the National Gallery of Art, which has a line item of about $100 million in federal funds. The Corcoran is competing with these leviathans, which use federal funds to build their own development staff to get even more money.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art–the greatest museum in the world–defines its public as those who live in New York City. For Washington museums, locals aren't their public. It's everybody who doesn't live here. And Congress has become the museums' principal constituency.

How about the difference in press coverage of the arts?

When I lived in New York, I used to complain that the New York Times covered mainly television, rock music, and movies–not the serious arts. When I came here and compared its coverage with the Washington Post's, I cried. The universe covered here is so much smaller.

The Post penetrates about 40 percent of its market, while the Times penetrates just over 13 percent. So a self-defined cultural audience reads the Times. The paper here reaches a much broader audience.

Is arts education better in New York?

It's terrible in both places. If you want people educated in the arts, you must educate them in grade school, and not just on technical skills. Arts education is bad everywhere in America.

Gaining skills in the arts can help kids develop other skills. I attended a symposium where someone from a unique public school in Union, New Jersey, spoke. Most kids in this school's very low-income, at-risk target population would be lost by age eight–just lost.

This school had an arts-based program beginning in first grade. The guy running it reported that over the previous four years, his school had consistently ranked second or third in the state academically.

Emphasis on arts education for disadvantaged kids should be tried here, considering the DC school system is such a disaster.

How's education at the Corcoran?

That's a different story. Art schools are good around the country–they're professional schools and do a good job.

Like music schools, art schools are conservatories. You don't take any student who's not planning to become professional–it's not worth it to the school or the student. That kid will work hard to develop skills that need to be practiced professionally, or else there's no point in it.

How can Washingtonians get the most out of a museum experience?

Learn something about the art. Museum staffs like to argue over labels. Some don't want any, believing they distract people from looking at the art aesthetically. Yet understanding a piece often helps the experience.

Take a famous painting in the Corcoran called "The Old House of Representatives." It's a really nice painting of the dimly lit House of Representatives before the Capitol was built. The members are discussing Indian rights, and you can spot an Indian chief sitting up in the gallery listening.

Okay, there you see a beautiful painting. But it's even more wonderful to realize that the artist is Samuel F.B. Morse, who invented Morse code and the electromagnetic telegraph.

Before the telegraph, if you had a relative on the West Coast, you'd have to wait until a ship went around Cape Horn and delivered your letter, and that ship might sink along the way. Some three months–to hear any news. The telegraph was as revolutionary as the computer. It was invented by our own Leonardo da Vinci–Samuel Morse. He got discouraged as an artist and went off and invented the telegraph.

So when touring the Corcoran, you can not only see that great painting but also learn the great story that accompanies it. Museums should find ways of conveying the context of their art.

My best advice to museumgoers is: Do it a lot and often. It takes a lot of aesthetic experiences to gain an acquired taste. When you first see a piece, you may not quite know what to make of it. Only after a while can you begin to see how beautiful it is.

What did you learn about running a museum?

That the museum world is a subculture with its own rules and mores, and this subculture isn't necessarily a healthy one. Curators often do shows for other curators. Their careers depend more on what their peers think than what the public thinks.

Museums aren't for curators–they're the employees. The public is the customer.

What have you learned about life?

That it's a series of stages, and you respond to things differently as the stages unfold. I'm amazed at things I thought and did when I was 25 or 35.

I have a son and daughter in their forties and a son who's nine. When I first had children, my life was all about my work–and trying to figure out who the hell I was. There's a huge difference in the value I place on my nine-year-old as part of my life. I have much more space to give him. Being a father is a totally different experience. I'm much more centered around him. It's a great gift.

I've learned that life is a constant struggle that gets harder the older I get. There's a serious existential strain in my thinking. It's very disturbing, as it invalidates much of what I do. Although many existentialists manage to work their way around that, I haven't.

If I accept the overarching existential notion of absurdity–that we're going through this world as if everything has great meaning when in fact it has none–then it's tough to reconcile this abstract intellectual position with my strong practical drive to be successful and make good things happen.

I want actions and their consequences to have meaning, yet I have to struggle simultaneously with the existential argument, which is hard.

So what do you make of all that?

I haven't worked it out yet. I bounce between those two polarities. I'm struggling.

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