Search Is On for New Kennedy Center Chief

Ralph Davidson bows out under pressure after less than two years on job

ACT 2 is about to begin in the Kennedy Center Caper, a thriller about who staged the cultural coup d'etat that drove chairman Ralph Davidson from office last week. Act 1 was swift and surprising: a Page 1 story in last Thursday's Washington Post announcing that Davidson was about to be formally voted out by a majority of the trustees. Around noon that day, a 21/2-hour board meeting ended with Davidson out, amid a series of statements faxed to the press.

Leonard Silverstein, vice-chairman of the trustees, said in his statement that Davidson had given notice he wouldn't renew his contract in February 1991, that trustee Melvin Laird had been appointed chairman of a transition committee, and trustee James Evans chairman of a search committee to find Mr. Davidson's replacement.

Davidson's faxed statement cited a required year's notice for non-rewnewal of contract, a ``realization of different priorities and different expectations'' by both parties, and a promise to work with the trustees toward ``an orderly transition.'' The search committee is to report by April, with an expected transition by mid-year.

The journalist who hinted at Davidson's unhorsing in the Post story, syndicated gossip columnist ``Suzy,'' wrote after the coup, ``Ted [Sen. Edward] Kennedy led the Palace Guard's revolt.'' Sen. Kennedy was unavailable for comment but had issued a joint statement with Sen. James McClure (R) of Idaho saying they ``respect'' Davidson's decision, calling him a ``constructive presence'' at the center.

Reached by phone, transition committee chairman Laird told the Monitor that ``Kennedy Center will not be a rudderless ship ..., and Ralph Davidson will not be a lame-duck CEO.'' Laird said of Davidson, ``I had no problem with him. Our programs are all set. ... We've got the booking pretty well done for the next nine months.'' Asked if this sudden transition makes Kennedy Center vulnerable in a year of politicization of arts issues, Laird said, ``No, we're not vulnerable. We have the complete support'' of powerful congressional arts supporters.

The news of Davidson's departure after less than two years hit like a tidal wave at Kennedy Center, which has had only one other chairman since it opened in 197l, founder/chairman Roger Stevens.

Concerns that the big marble showboat on the Potomac might be rudderless until next summer were downplayed by others.

There was concern, however, over the way the news was leaked in advance, ensuring the resignation. Producer Robert Whitehead, partner with Roger Stevens in several Kennedy Center shows, says, ``What appeared in the press prior to the board meeting was disgraceful, the announcement of a secret vote. Somebody let it out. It seemed in the worst possible taste. It made me sympathetic to Ralph Davidson. In my dealings with him, I have found him professional and highly reasonable.''

There had been rumblings about Davidson as chairman and CEO from the beginning of his tenure a year-and-a-half ago - doubts over his lack of professional arts experience, his sometimes abrasive manner, and his all-business background as former chairman of Time, Inc. His initial expectation that he would handle the production end, as Stevens had, faded as dark theaters drained ticket sales away, particularly in 1988, when the complex's Eisenhower Theater was dark for a month.

Later, the hiring of arts professional Drew Murphy for booking shows resolved that problem and led to a fresh new season. But in the end, some sources close to the change surmise that Davidson was forced out because he did not deliver on expected fund-raising promises and because of personality clashes. Sources point out that there are three Kennedy family members on the multi-layered board: the Senator, Jean Kennedy Smith, and John F. Kennedy's widow, Jacqueline Onassis.

Act 3 in this drama begins when the search committee tries to choose the next chairman, for, as Robert Whitehead points out, ``It's a difficult situation: They need somebody who understands theater and the performing arts, and the creative world - somebody who has enough professionalism and is at the same time a business manager and has a relationship to fund-raising.''

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