Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

An Arts Baron With Panache

The new chairman of Kennedy Center is a New York banker and amateur cellist who aims to strike a proper balance between creativity and bottom-line concerns

By Louise SweeneyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 18, 1990


THE fencer's protective mask is on, and not a moment too soon. In just a few months as chairman of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, agile James Wolfensohn has shown Washington the flash and dazzle that made him an Australian Olympic team fencer. Now a US citizen, Wolfensohn has displayed the sort of panache in a challenging new role which makes even his critics sit up and notice.

Skip to next paragraph

At his first press conference, he thrust and parried and moved gracefully through pointed questions about how he would run Kennedy Center on only two days a week - while maintaining his present commitment as chairman of New York's Carnegie Hall and also tending to his own highly successful banking investment business, James D. Wolfenson Incorporated.

In the Washington arts community, some are highly critical not so much of Wolfensohn himself as of the signal his choice sends to the performing arts world. In this city which was a cultural outback before the Kennedy Center was built nearly 19 years ago, there is now a proud rivalry with New York as a performing arts mecca. Some see the choice of a New Yorker who heads Carnegie Hall and can allot only two days a week to this premier Washington arts job as insulting.

It also raises again the brouhaha over a businessman, not someone who has devoted his or her professional life to the performing arts, calling the shots in an essentially creative world. Until his resignation three years ago Roger Stevens - the center's founding chairman, entrepreneur, legendary theatrical producer and fund-raising whiz - had played all the roles. Stevenson has proved a hard act to follow.

At a luncheon with executives and reporters of The Washington Post, Wolfensohn may not have foiled the tip of his candor enough, even for some remarks he thought were off the record. ``Kennedy Center Bankrupt'' blared the resulting headlines in the Post and on the nightly TV news, sending the city into a swivet over the sudden jeopardy facing the marble cultural palace on the Potomac.

The cries of dismay had barely died down before Wolfensohn was booked into the National Press Club. His speech emphasized the vitality of the center, along with the reassurance that the needed $45 million for building repairs and past debt had already been promised by the administration as a condition of his taking the job. The speech and Wolfensohn's diplomatic answers to the questions following it were apparently effective damage control after the Post episode. But a month later, he testified before Congress that an additional $8-10 million was needed for maintenance and administration.

If James Wolfensohn is en garde in his new role, it may be because he isn't sure where the next thrust is coming from. Marta Casals Istomin, the center's artistic director for 10 years, has resigned over substantial ``philosophical differences'' with Wolfensohn ``on the values that a great arts center should emphasize and embody.''

The ex-Australian who has stirred up such controversy doesn't come on like the Crocodile Dundee of the arts world. He warmly greets this reporter, turns off the Bach and Pergolesi tape by an auditioning student pianist - whom he raves about - and orders afternoon tea for two. When it arrives, Wolfenson plunks down in a chair at his oval table, puts up his feet, and talks about his shuttle chairmanship.

His voice is a distinctive baritone, low, confiding, with an Australian angularity, an overlay of English discretion from the years he spent in London banking circles, and a bit of New York rasp. His silver-fox hair is worn slightly long, Lord Byron style. He is an attractive man with black eyebrows over black-brown eyes that focus with a compelling intensity on the person he is talking to. He smiles and laughs often, deflecting that intensity; as his friends point out, he has great charm.

Wolfensohn is the multi-millionaire investment banker who, as chairman of Carnegie Hall, has been instrumental in raising $60 million for its renovation. He was first a consultant to help search for a new chairman of Kennedy Center. But he was eventually elected chairman by the Board of Trustees to rescue Kennedy Center from the financial pit it had fallen into.

Behind him in his office is a scheduling board for the center's five theaters. ``It goes through to '91,'' he says. ``I've just had a management committee here trying to decide whether we should put on a particular play [this month] at the Terrace Theater. It will run, if we do it, five weeks, and our risk is $47,000 a week. And if we keep the theater closed, we will lose $13,000 a week.