As the performing-arts world gazes anxiously at the calendar, hoping that a planned September reopening will survive a new whirl of virus variants and restrictions, Lincoln Center has appointed Shanta Thake to program the institution’s revival. As chief artistic officer, Thake replaces Jane Moss, who resigned during the early months of the pandemic-enforced closure after 27 years at Lincoln Center.
After a decade running Joe’s Pub, the Public Theater’s 180-seat cabaret space, Thake became the Public’s associate artistic director a year ago, helping to steer a shuttered theater through a dark year and into a hazy future. The move to Lincoln Center is more of a pole vault than a jump. There, she will program multiple, sometimes concurrent festivals, ranging across genres from baroque opera to spoken word and film. The campus’ fractious collection of separate fiefdoms includes some organizations, like the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic, deeply rooted in the classical arts. Her own eclecticism will challenge some of those traditions. “The work I tend to love would be in the ‘lowbrow brilliant’ quadrant [of New York’s Approval Matrix],” she once told the Times: “people dressed as chickens, covered in baby oil, dancing to the latest pop song” — that sort of thing.
Her appointment comes after — or during — a crisis that has rattled even the most stable institutions, forcing them to reevaluate every aspect of their business, including ticket prices, taste, technology, location, the makeup of the audience base, and, of course, programming.
“When Jane stepped down, we knew we needed a real tastemaker, someone who could be comfortable in a lot of different disciplines, someone who has great respect for the traditions and the legacy of Lincoln Center but who could also expand our horizons,” says Lincoln Center president Henry Timms. “We also wanted a good ambassador for the performing arts and a good connector who could work with all the constituents. That was a unicorn job description, but in Shanta we found someone who could do it all.”
In her new position, Thake will have worldwide clout and access to a vast menu of real estate: grand concert halls, recital rooms, opera stages, the plaza, the reflecting pool, Damrosch Park, and assorted other outdoor spaces. Moss’s programming infiltrated churches, the Park Avenue Armory, and other outposts; Thake says she plans to embed Lincoln Center even more deeply into the city’s fabric. “For now, the focus is on New York, both for practical reasons and just so this city understands that we are here for them, that this is a public good, and that they feel at home on the campus of Lincoln Center. That’s goal number one.”
A month before her first day in the job, she steers clear of specific programming goals. Next season is limited in scope. After a summer without a Mostly Mozart Festival comes a fall without Moss’s signature White Light Festival. Recitals and small chamber ensembles take the place of touring orchestras.
Lincoln Center is an aircraft carrier, not a speedboat; it makes slow, wide turns. In normal times, programming gets mapped out years ahead, leaving little room for spontaneity. But part of Thake’s mission will be to help the organization emerge from a period in which long-term plans vaporized, making new ones was inconceivable. A behemoth learned to improvise. “I’ve been impressed over the last 18 months at how nimble Lincoln Center has been,” Thake says. “It stepped into the moment, used the resources they had, and reached out to the community in a way that was perhaps unexpected and was certainly valued and needed: distributing food, hosting a blood drive, and promoting voter registration.” It also created Restart Stages, an ongoing festival of outdoor performances scattered across the campus, animating what had been a dead zone. That flexible spirit will continue, Thake says. “We want to be in conversation with artists who are working on the world premieres of and 2023 and 2024. But we also want to support the experimentation that’s happening right now.”