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For the capital's showboat - a tough new captain. As Ralph Davidson, the no-nonsense former chairman of Time Inc., takes the helm at Washington's Kennedy Center, will he chart a change in course for national culture?

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Ney says that, in working with him as head of the advertising firm that handled the Time Inc. account, ``I found he was a hard-driving guy who got results, was generally popular with the people he worked with, knew what he was doing.'' He goes on to characterize Davidson as ``fiercely competitive,'' adding: ``He goes at life the way he skis - downhill, full blast. He's in the office 12 hours a day. He may not always be right; he may turn people off; he may be tough and blunt, but that's the Ralph Davidson I know. He's a tough guy, some people would say too tough.''

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When he was Kennedy Center president, Davidson bumped the Twyla Tharp Dance Company and the Washington Ballet out of the center's Eisenhower Theater to make way for a more lucrative Lily Tomlin show. ``Lily Tomlin puts a lot of people in the seats,'' Davidson explained with a bluntness that alienated some dance lovers.

Davidson raised backing for this summer's San Francisco Arts Festival at the center and applauds more regional festivals here: ``I know from talking to people that there are some folks that are put off,'' he says. ``They think it's a little too formidable to come to the Kennedy Center. You know, `If you don't enjoy watching the New York City Ballet, there's nothing for you at Kennedy Center.' Nonsense, there's a lot of things for a lot of people here. ... I feel that we need to get that point of view across.''

There is little doubt that Davidson is a cultural pragmatist, a bottom-line guy, as interested in revenues and corporate funding as in programming. When he took the Kennedy Center job, he was chairman of the executive committee of the Business Committee for the Arts, had been a director of the New York City Ballet for seven years, and had raised funds for the Metropolitan Museum of Art as well as the Museum of Modern Art.

Davidson, as chairman of Kennedy Center, may put his stamp on national culture for years to come. In the arts world, the job is comparable to that of a Supreme Court justice, whose opinions and tastes can help shape the performing the arts through several administrations, as Stevens has from Kennedy through Reagan.

When it was first announced that Davidson would succeed Stevens, board member Daniel Boorstin, who cast the sole dissenting vote, went public on why he objected to Davidson. Mr. Boorstin, former librarian of Congress, said, ``The point I was trying to make is that the cultural institutions stand for things that are substantive, not mechanical and administrative. I would be happier to see the Kennedy Center in the hands of someone distinguished in the performing arts rather than someone with administrative and business talents.'' (Davidson brings up that line in pique; he knows it by heart.) Boorstin maintained that putting a money-raiser at the top is upside down. Several attempts to reach Boorstin for a current comment were unsuccessful.

Believes in corporate giving to the arts

Corporate support for the arts is a boon, Davidson says. ``It makes for a better and stronger community, which has got to be good for your business. So I'm a staunch supporter of business's giving to the arts. I'm also very strong in my belief that a corporation should have no influence on what the show is going to look like, or contain, or feel like, or whatever.''

Davidson reluctantly admits ``there's some truth'' to arts advocates' criticisms that corporate giving sometimes results in the safest, least experimental subjects being backed to enhance the corporate image. But he points out that corporations also have a responsibility to their shareholders ``to make con-tributions to the arts that are going to be in things that are very popular.''

Davidson intends to double the amount of corporate funding for Kennedy Center, from $2.5 million to $5 million. ``That's not out of line to ask for from the corporations of America. ... They do benefit from it. ... They have a tremendous involvement here with what goes on legislatively, who the administration is.''

Aims to triple endowment

Davidson also wants the National Endowment for the Arts to pony up considerably more than the $1 million in matching funds it currently gives to the Kennedy's endowment fund. ``I don't think that is in proportion to what the Kennedy Center provides in the way of the performing arts,'' he says. One of his big priorities is to expand the endowment fund from $25 million now to between $75 million and $100 million.