For fifteen years, Eva Bornstein has been the Executive Director of Lehman Center for the Performing Arts located on the beautiful Lehman College campus in the Bronx. She has been nationally recognized for her significant achievements with cultural organizations not only as a performing arts presenter and producer, but also as an orchestra director, contemporary dance curator, and founder of festivals. Before taking Lehman Center to new heights of artistic diversity, popularity, and impact on the Bronx community and beyond, Eva served as Executive Director at the Bergen Performing Arts Center in Englewood, NJ, and Vice President of the Kosciuszko Foundation, among other roles of a prestigious career. I had the pleasure of collaborating with her in my past work at Lehman College, and I am delighted that she took the time to talk to me about what life and work in isolation look like for a performing arts administrator.
You are in your 15th season as Executive Director of Lehman Center for the Performing Arts—“the Lincoln Center of the Bronx”—where you have brought an extraordinary diversity of performers and genres, from symphony and ballet to salsa and Chinese acrobatics. How does a performing arts executive director like you deal with such an unprecedented interruption of the season? Is there anything you are doing now to prepare for when the Center reopens?
What is the most difficult for me to grasp is the fact that our City, the catalyst for cultural events for so many years, has come to a complete halt. Lehman Center, which is celebrating its 40th Anniversary Season without its usual performances and audiences, is no exception. I was always looking forward to the weekends to welcome the artists who come to the Bronx for the first time or who originated their careers in the Bronx. I love to greet my audience from the stage and enjoy the performances with them. Lately, I was noticing that our audiences are as diverse as the programming we present. I also saw that we were getting more families with young children to attend.
So how do I deal with this interruption? Some days I must admit are very difficult and some days are easier. But for all of us these are very challenging times. Fortunately, I can work from home and I have an established routine: work starts at 9 a.m. and ends at 6 p.m. This routine allows me to avoid focusing on the negative, and to push myself hard to secure our future. Arts administrators’ biggest worry is how to pay the bills. Lehman Center’s revenue of 2.7 million dollars comes mainly from tickets sales, rentals, government grants, and private donations. So, most of us are focusing on how to obtain funding. We sit at the computers (listening to WQXR radio), and most of the time fill out boring forms (grant applications) that always concentrate on numbers and not so much on artistic programming or the need of these activities for our community. We talk to each other via Skype as to how we can function without the socializing which is part of our mission—that of bringing people together. We’re talking about possible outdoor concerts, drive-in concerts, and using new technology. We want this nightmare to end because without a live audience and live performances, we are not so human. It’s like living on Mars for me.
How would you describe your years at Lehman Center, and what is special about Bronx audiences?
My years at Lehman went by very fast. Fifteen years feel like they started yesterday. This fall we celebrated the opening of our brand-new lobby, and almost 16-million-dollar improvements to the Center, which is now truly beautiful. I have made many friends, and feel that we have accomplished a lot. We present over 130 events per year (including rentals) in a 2,276-seat auditorium which is almost full for every performance. I enjoy how my audience is very involved in what is happening on stage. During our Latino Series most of them dance in their seats and always give a standing ovation. Our artists love it and enjoy coming back. I will never forget a performance of Dance Theater of Harlem, which was designed for a school audience. Instead of clapping, our kids in the Bronx were whistling with joy to show their appreciation for the dancers, just like at rock concerts. The dancers found this very amusing, but understood their honesty and appreciated their genuine enthusiasm.
I imagine that promoting the performing arts to attract audiences is quite the balancing act. On one hand it’s important to be commercially viable in order to survive financially, yet on the other hand you also want to offer audiences new experiences of performers and music that may not be popular among those audiences. In your extensive experience how have you made these programming decisions?
Programming decisions for the season are like cooking dinner. You need to have the right balance. What is the appetizer, the main entry, and the dessert? So, I try to mix different fields in the arts: ballet, modern dance, celebrity concerts, old artists, new artists, and all must meet artistic quality standards and be appealing to the audience. Since we are very much dependent on ticket sales, we do not have the luxury of trying new experiments. Although, I try to sneak in one or two just to challenge myself and the audience. I do not know how we do it, frankly, but with the support we receive from the community we manage each season.
How do you envision the next season playing out when the restrictions are lifted?
Last season, the Board of Directors and Lehman College engaged a professional consultant to come up with a five-year strategic plan. He made several recommendations regarding artistic programming, which were to continue what we are doing but to expand the programming to include activities such as Latinx Festival and to use our community resources such as our own Lehman College to include lectures, films, and collaborations with other community groups. I am currently putting together a season that can accommodate his recommendations. We will also try to bring more artists whose careers originated in the Bronx. We will also reach out to our students to find out what they would like to see at Lehman Center. Our students need to be more involved with live performances not only to improve their social skills but also to experience what previous generations have: beauty of movement by the great dancers, perfection of musicians performing live and with passion, cultures from around the globe by various national tours. We also need to present the performances of artists that were not able to perform, and this includes numerous rentals such as Bronx community festivals, performances by Lehman College, and more, as well as graduations and seminars. We all dream about the next season. After this tragedy, we will try to put on the best season ever to compensate our audiences and ourselves for this horrible isolation.
As an artistic administrator, what would you say to those of us who are missing the thrill of live performance right now?
I think we all learned what a great honor is to see the artists in front of our eyes. Our digital technology is amazing, but it cannot replace a human being with all his/her imperfections and grandeur. We miss the interaction with one another. We love to socialize with our friends and exchange opinions during intermissions, and we love to run into our old friends and make new ones. I was told many years ago that opera will be dead. These experts were wrong, opera is much loved today. I am very much praying that all performing arts not only will survive but they will thrive, and that our audiences will come back to support them. We will be back and we will give you all we have.
If you weren’t Executive Director of a performing arts center, what else would you love to be?
An actress – this was my first career which started in Poland. Sometimes I feel that I draw on my acting skills to achieve what we need to succeed in this very difficult but very rewarding business of the performing arts.
Top photo: Eva Bornstein, Executive Director, Lehman Center for the Performing Arts, Inc., courtesy of Ms. Bornstein.
For more information, go to the website for the Lehman Center for the Performing Arts.