Thake, whose appointment was announced Tuesday, said that the arts center’s expanding commitment during the pandemic to tailoring programs to underserved communities made the move all the more tantalizing.
“It just felt like this amazing energy connected to the moment,” she said in a phone interview. “For an organization the size of Lincoln Center to be so nimble in a time of such great chaos and confusion felt incredibly inspiring. I thought, ‘I want to be part of whatever is happening over there.’ ”
Lincoln Center is in essence not one organization, but 11 constituent companies occupying a 16-acre campus on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, including the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Ballet, Lincoln Center Theater, Jazz at Lincoln Center and the Juilliard School. The umbrella over them all is Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, which maintains the complex and creates its own arts programming — such as the highly popular “Mostly Mozart” classical music series. It has also been a partner with PBS in the long-running “Live From Lincoln Center.”
Jane Moss was Lincoln Center’s artistic director for 26 years before leaving last year, during which the arts center burnished its reputation for attracting cutting-edge talent from around the world. In the retitled position of chief artistic officer, Thake will have a mandate to further diversify the offerings. She also will play a key role in the relaunching of David Geffen Hall, home to the New York Philharmonic, which is in the midst of a $550 million renovation.
An accelerated schedule now has the 2,700-seat concert hall — formerly Avery Fisher Hall — reopening in fall 2022.
“We really in earnest last year started thinking about who is the right leader to take us to the next level,” said Henry Timms, Lincoln Center’s president. “We were very focused on reaching new audiences, someone who could be a great ambassador for Lincoln Center, a great ambassador for the arts. We wanted someone who was a tastemaker, and a good connector and collaborator with our constituents. From the beginning of the search, Shanta’s name was on so many people’s lips.”
Thake has spent most of her professional career at the Public, which has proved in recent years to be an extraordinary launchpad for next-generation arts leaders: Both Maria Goyanes and Stephanie Ybarra were lured from the Public to become the artistic directors of Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington and Center Stage in Baltimore, respectively. At the Public, Thake, who holds degrees in theater and management from Indiana University, started in a clerical job under the then artistic leader, George C. Wolfe. Eventually, she moved up to associate artistic director for artistic programs under the Public’s current head, Oskar Eustis.
Her signature accomplishment has been as director for a decade of Joe’s Pub, the eclectic cabaret space that has become one of the company’s most popular attractions. “I started in George Wolfe’s office as his second assistant making $130 a week,” Thake recalled. “It was such a dream to move to New York and start work with my hero.”
Thake may need some of that heroic impetus in her new post, which she assumes in September. Lincoln Center has a complicated governing structure, which at times has sparked friction among the independent constituent companies, many of which are struggling to hold on to audiences and secure new funding sources. The center is sometimes viewed by the resident companies as creating programs that compete for space and resources in a busy schedule for the venues.
As the pandemic has progressed and its theaters and halls remained shuttered, Lincoln Center has increasingly focused on outdoor projects that draw on diverse artists. Its Restart Stages festival, for instance, has throughout the summer produced a variety of genres on 10 open-air stages: works such as Debra Ann Byrd’s “Becoming Othello: A Black Girl’s Journey” and performances by calypso legend Mighty Sparrow. (The campus’s big resident companies plan to restart in the fall.)
Thake’s mandate is in part building on the ethos of expanding the center’s reach beyond its traditionally White and older spectator base — a challenge that confronts virtually all of the country’s mainstream arts organizations.
To Thake, the challenge lies in “the power of art to change the narrative, in the need to be constantly evolving, shifting with our community, not two steps behind them,” she said.
“That is also to say that Lincoln Center has an incredible history of doing this. Certainly with some missteps, but the founding principles have been about centering the city so that every New Yorker sees themselves at Lincoln Center.”
Thake noted that she will be a catalyst for bringing in talent from around the world. But some of what has impressed her most about the arts center over the past year and a half has been its community involvement. The campus, she noted, has hosted blood drives, voter registration and other civic initiatives.
“When Jane [Moss] first stepped down, I really had not thought of myself particularly as someone who would be a right fit,” Thake said. “But then I started seeing all the beautiful things that were happening. The more conversations I had with the Lincoln Center team, the more I felt, ‘This is the place.’ ”