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.
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.
``Now we will have going on simultaneously - already booked in the Eisenhower Theater - another highly creative play called `She Always Said, Pablo,' which involves Stravinsky and multi-media and all sort of things'' - Gertrude Stein's words, Pablo Picasso's images, music by Virgil Thompson.
``It is very exciting but has a net cost per week of over $100,000. We are already going to have a four- or- five-week season of a highly interesting, provocative play this summer, where we're risking over $400,000. We're asked, then, to add another play, where we would risk another $200,000. ... If you did both, you would lose $300,000 or $400,000.
``Now, I just spent an hour with the management committee here [who emerged looking dazed], facing them with that decision - not because I was not prepared to make it myself, but because that is the issue which we have to face.'' The result: The Terrace Theater is dark this month.
``We have a responsibility to have things interesting to the community. But we also have a responsibility to be solvent. Now we are losing currently $12 million a year on programming. That is a lot of money. The question is: How do you use that $12 million? Do you use it on things that are heavily avant garde, exciting, interesting, which are bound to lose? Do you use it on potboilers which might make [money]?
``And the answer is that you create a balance in the institution which serves the community and which leads the tastes and creates the taste. And what I am now looking at is really just that issue.... That's why I've been talking so much about festivals or themes here, so that one thing can build on another.''
That pragmatic illustration of the bottom-line costs of cultural decisions opens up some of the issues that have made Wolfensohn a controversial choice. So controversial that banking magnate Joe Allbritton, a Kennedy Center trustee, resigned in protest when the choice became evident.
A spokesman for Mr. Allbritton said that he had not given an interview in nine years and would not comment on Wolfensohn. Allbritton has been replaced on the board by former Kennedy Center chairman Ralph Davidson, who resigned after rumors that his contract would not be renewed.
While some Wolfenson critics are reluctant to criticize the new chairman on the record, Mrs. Istomin said publicly in her resignation letter that she wasn't interested in ``short-term glitter'' or ``trendy whims'' in special events and festivals. She asserted that her programming, instead, focused on ``lasting values and substance.''
The Istomin resignation may have caused some tremors among the staff at Kennedy Center. But Judith Aaron, who has worked closely with Wolfensohn as executive director of Carnegie Hall, offers some clues to his style as chairman: ``He asks more of himself than he asks of others. He's very demanding of people who work with him. He gives a great deal and expects a great deal. ... He's creative in problem-solving. My experience, with someone whose mind works this way is that, either you don't function with it or you become increasingly creative yourself, dealing with it. I feel this to be a challenge to work with, a challenge I enjoy.''
Schuyler Chapin, dean emeritus of the Columbia University School of the Arts and former director of the Metropolitan Opera, says of Wolfensohn: ``I think it's a brilliant appointment. He's an excellent choice at this particular time in his life, when he's had to learn on the job about putting together a large and complicated performing-arts facility like Carnegie Hall that required a $60 million capital campaign.''
Mr. Chapin characterizes Wolfensohn as a man with endless energy and a talent for listening and picking people's brains. He adds, ``Of course, he's quite a stubborn man, you can't build a private banking business success without certain amount of self-confidence.''
There are those who wonder if Wolfensohn will stick with the job if the going gets tough, but those are people, Chapin says, ``who didn't know he was the leading banker who organized the private- financing bailout for Chrysler when everone was ready to throw in the sponge.''
Wolfensohn plans to use the fund-raising techniques that worked at Carnegie Hall for Kennedy Center. ``First you have to have a worthwhile dream,'' he says. ``You have to have an appeal which, on its face, grabs the person whom you're going to ask for money. It should, of course, grab you first - which is why I'm here.'' Wolfensohn who like his predecessors serves without a salary, says, ``No one forced me to come here.''
The second element, he says, is ``to demonstrate that you can achieve that dream within the framework of fiscal responsibility. ... People today don't give you money to throw away.''
Wolfensohn, who sees the center as ``a national showcase,'' acknowledges that he's been talking a lot about festivals and themes ``so that one thing can build on another.''
The biggest festival he's hatching is the Festival of the Americas. Set for 1992, it combines a 500th-anniversary celebration of Columbus's discovery of this continent with a tribute to the cultural heritage of the hemisphere. Wolfensohn says he's already got a list of 70 performing-arts groups from Latin America. ``If it works here,'' he says, ``I want to ... tour it.''
As his first official act, the new chairman saddled up and went to Texas to announce publicly the Texas Performing Arts Festival for the summer of 1991. That festival, already in the planning stages when he took over, will be followed by lots more. ``I want to start by doing a couple of state festivals a year,'' he says as part of the concept of a national showcase. ``What I want to do is to try and use the Kennedy Center as a sort of endorsement of state activities and a stimulus ... to be recognized in the nation's capital.
He quickly adds, ``You can only do it if you have standards of quality that are appropriate to the Kennedy Center. ... What we don't want to do is bring in material, put it on in the Opera House, get a 20 percent capacity, and have a flop.''
During his first few months on the job, Wolfensohn is giving much more than his stipulated two days a week to the chairmanship. ``At the moment I don't think the management or the staff around here could stand having me around more than I'm around already. ... I am pushing things at a pace that is frenetic. ... I am pushing this place absolutely beyond its limit at this time.''
His good friend Dr. Leon Root, an orthopedic surgeon at New York's Hospital for Special Surgery, says that Jim Wolfensohn ``knows everything that's going on in that organization - who sweeps the floor, who pays the bills - knows how things are done, knows the details. ... Jim is a people person, a wonderful communicator.'' Dr. Root adds that Wolfensohn is also a generous man who shares his Alaskan fishing trips with old friends of modest means.
Lloyd Cutler, a Washington insider, lawyer, and former counsel to President Carter, says Wolfensohn ``was a poor kid [who] developed an ambition to get ahead ... make money. ... But he is very much a Renaissance man, got involved with Carnegie Hall, moved as easily through the London business and cultural world,'' where he was executive deputy chairman and CEO of Schroders Limited, London, and ``the New York business and social worlds,'' where he was executive partner of Salomon Brothers.
He is also chairman of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, N.J.; a trustee of the Brookings Institution; managing director of the Metropolitan Opera Association; treasurer of the American Friends of Bilderburg, Inc.; and formerly a member of the board of the Rockefeller Foundation, among other roles. Mr. Cutler points out that Wolfensohn moved away from a giant organization like Salomon Brothers to start his own firm. ``Imagine how seductive and able you have to be to persuade Paul Volker [former Federal Reserve Chairman] to come and be your chairman.'' Cutler predicts, ``Kennedy Center won't be the last you'll hear of James Wolfensohn. I think he'll end up in somebody's cabinet one of these days.''
``My promise to the board was that I would give it whatever time was necessary to succeed,'' says the new chairman of Kennedy Center. ``If I felt I couldn't, I'd tell them - because I don't want to fail. And I don't want to damage the institution. ...
``Now whether I'll be successful or not I don't know. I hope to be, because I care about what I'm doing. I know that I'm not going to leave the institution worse than when I came. ... And I've told the board repeatedly I do not need to be chairman if I can't do the job. I'm delighted to have a shot at it, which is what I'm doing. And at the moment I'm very optimistic.''