WESTY 2023 Honoree: Leah Johnson Feels Lincoln Center was always her destiny

After landing a dream job as an EVP and chief communications officer at Lincoln Center four years ago, Leah C. Johnson faced the challenge of how to keep a worried public informed about a great cultural institution through the shutdowns and dark days of COVID-19. Now she’s aiming to make it accessible for all, not just the few.

| 05 May 2023 | 01:50

As a little girl living in Brooklyn, Leah C. Johnson would travel to Lincoln Center to take pictures in front of the newly-built fountain; decades later, she sees it every day on her way to her office.

When Ms. Johnson first took her job as Executive Vice President and Chief of Communications at Lincoln Center for Performing Arts in 2019, her main goal was expanded access.

“I had a dinner with Henry Timms, the president, and he was just talking about innovation, extending welcome to different people, and I just thought, ‘Oh gosh,’ I thought I had the right skill set to really help lead that change at Lincoln Center.”

But she had been there for barely six months when the COVID crisis hit and shut down the Center’s stages. Johnson, having cut her teeth in New York City public health, brought both an expertise and a sense of social responsibility to the crisis.

Graduating from Harvard University at the height of the AIDS and crack epidemics, she had jumped into New York Health and Hospitals Corporation. From there, she became Director of Public Affairs at Kings County Hospital.

The work was intense but fulfilling, steeling her resolve and revealing the sense of social responsibility that Johnson has tried to bring to her work ever since. “I realized the government – the public sector – really could do a lot, and in the role I had, I could do a lot to advance a cause,” she said.

Stints in the Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. and David Dinkins administration, where she felt “so proud even to walk up those stairs,” followed.

So when COVID shut down Lincoln Center, Johnson felt up to the task. She thought of the pandemic as more of an opportunity for Lincoln Center than a challenge. “It was a really, really tough time, but what it did was wipe the slate clean – it gave us a sense of ‘If you had your druthers, what would you do.’”

The New York Philharmonic performed virtually, and a weekly The Memorial For Us All was put on. Coordinated with faith-based institutions, this Memorial streamed live music over a scroll of the names of those who had recently died of COVID-19.

The pandemic has since ended, but Johnson and Timm’s ambition of expanding access to the Center has not. A choose-what-you-pay program has been piloted, on a sliding scale from $5 to $35, and the Center has pioneered the use of Haptic vests, innovative technology that vibrates to music and allows the hearing-impaired to enjoy music.

Ms. Johnson sees these efforts as furthering the founding principle of Lincoln Center. “You had John D. Rockefeller saying that art is central to our mental health and well-being, you had him saying that Lincoln Center is a place that should have the best for the most – which really, for us, spoke to audience expansion. He believed that arts should be at the center of everyday life. It shouldn’t just be for a privileged few.”

And the audience has indeed expanded – in Centers’ first annual Summer for the City, hosted last year, some 77% of ticket sales were to first time customers. “It really proved to us that we were reaching a much broader audience,” said Johnson.

Besides audience expansion, Johnson’s other priorities include diversifying the programming and workforce, and Legacies of San Juan Hill, a project exploring the diverse neighborhood that once existed where the Center now stands. This neighborhood, once one of the largest African-American communities in New York, was demolished to make way for the Center, its history largely destroyed.

“If we want to move forward, we have to understand what the history is,” she said.

Among those found to have been from the neighborhood are James P. Johnson, composer of the Charleston, Theolonius Monk, and Leah Johnson’s own grandmother. “I saw her name pop up on the census, and I was like, ‘Wait a minute, you mean she wasn’t born in Harlem?’”

“I feel there’s a kind of destiny there, for me to be connected to Lincoln Center.”