Debora Spar has spent her career in academia: President of Barnard College of Columbia University in New York City for the past nine years, a former professor and senior associate dean at Harvard Business School, author of six books. So when Lincoln Center announced Spar as its next president taking over “mid-March 2017,” two historic firsts came to light. “The fact that I’m the first female leader is kind of a nice footnote,” Spar says, seated behind her desk at Barnard just a few weeks after the November announcement. “I’m the first academic leader, I suspect, so I almost think that that’s an equally big first.”
Her confidence and charisma could convince anyone—but that’s the type of leader Spar is. Her vision of leadership formed at a young age, a consequence of careful observation. “[The team leader] walked into a room and described his idea in such an enthusiastic and compelling way that, by the end of the meeting, everyone in the room not only thought it was a great idea, but they thought it was their idea and for me that’s leadership,” she says. “It’s collaborative, it’s consensual, but it’s not just having good ideas, it’s getting everyone around you to participate in those ideas and own those ideas.”
Spar is a spunky, passionate, driven leader and a longtime lover of the arts—the type of president who showed up in the audience of her students’ tiny black box productions. “I’ve always been a huge fan, patron, wannabe of the arts. I would have been a dancer or an actor if I had had even an ounce of talent, which I don’t have,” she says with a laugh. “So I danced all my life, terribly.”
While student performances were the majority of her arts attendance this past decade, Spar grew up enamored with the iconic 66th Street locale. “I grew up in Westchester going to Lincoln Center as often as I could,” she says. “So, for me, New York City was Lincoln Center and Lincoln Center was New York City. It really feels like coming home in some ways.”
Still, it’s a home expecting renovations. As she anticipates the re-imagination (as she calls it) of David Geffen Hall, she brims with enthusiasm. “How do you build the best concert hall on the planet?” Spar contemplates the challenge. “What does that look like? What are the seating configurations? Are there projections on the outside so that anyone who’s driving by can see what’s happening in the concert hall?” With innovations in technology, Spar considers this a turning point—one she’s leaning into.
And no, she’s not discouraged by the current climate. “I don’t think this moment is particularly any more perilous than eight years ago or 15 years ago,” she says, albeit pre-White House-proposed budget cuts to the NEA. “These issues are ever-present. I think we are at an inflection point in historical terms, but people have always found themselves draw to the arts in moments of tumult.”
Spar’s combined expertise in business, academia, and non-profits bodes well for Lincoln Center’s future. During her Barnard tenure, student applications rose by more than 50 perfect and, as announced in her farewell note to students and alumnae, the institution’s endowment topped $300 million for the first time in its history. Add that to her understanding of business development, her 2003 book Ruling the Waves and recent writing about the role of technology in society, and a chapter in her 2001 book dedicated to the evolution of digital music, and Spar has all the trappings to make Lincoln Center an in-demand, financially healthy arts institution on the cutting edge.
As she wrote in her note to her Barnard community: “As I venture now down Broadway, I will take and cherish all that Barnard has meant to me. A voice for women. A commitment to truth. And a determination, always, to be bold.”