Inspiring Minds

From leadership posts at the American Museum of Natural History, New York City Center, the Seattle Opera, and the Houston Ballet, Columbia Law School graduates are working to make cities more vibrant by bringing the arts to tens of thousands each year

By Lila Byock

Fall 2010

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Ellen Futter ’74 has a vivid memory of attending her older brother’s birthday party as a young girl at the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium. “Going with the big kids to this extraordinary place where they turned out the lights and the stars came up,” she recalls, “it was magical.”

For the past 17 years, Futter has been the steward of that magic; she is the president of the museum, with an office at the end of a corridor lined with stuffed marmosets and chimps. Along with Arlene Shuler ’78, Speight Jenkins Jr. ’61, and Cecil C. Conner Jr. ’67, Futter is at the vanguard of Columbia Law School graduates who have eschewed more traditional legal careers in favor of leadership positions in what you might call “the inspiration industry.”

If running one of America’s preeminent cultural and scientific institutions seems like a surprising role for someone who came to the job with no particular background in the cultural or scientific milieu, Futter is not easily fazed. “There’s a principle in torts that you take your plaintiff as you find him or her,” Futter says. “Likewise, you take your skill set as you have it. And my skill set starts with the law.”

Since she arrived in 1993, she has used those skills to further the American Museum of Natural History’s global mission and to help the institution raise more than a billion dollars. These funds have enabled the museum to launch the Rose Center for Earth & Space, and the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, heralding the museum’s commitment to the present and future, as well as the past.

Under Futter’s leadership, the museum has not been shy about tackling controversial issues like evolution and climate change through its exhibits. Futter is keenly aware that she is leading the very institution where Franz Boas and Margaret Mead “led the way in the birth of modern anthropology.”

With that legacy in mind, she spearheaded the founding of the museum’s new graduate school, making the American Museum of Natural History the first in the country accredited to grant Ph.D.s. The graduate students and post-doctoral fellows at the museum’s Richard Gilder Graduate School study comparative biology and have access to the largest natural history library in the Western hemisphere, not to mention the 32 million specimens and artifacts—ranging from meteorites to a dodo—that Futter calls “the record of life on Earth.”

Looking back on her own days as a student, Futter says her Law School education helped cultivate a temperament and frame of mind that have served her well throughout her diverse career. “As a lawyer, you’re forever going into a new field,” she notes. “You have to be willing to do that, and to make mistakes. As in science, failure can often lead to eureka.”

Futter’s own life, though, can seem remarkably short on failure. She has been a corporate lawyer at Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and chairman of the New York Federal Reserve Bank. At the age of 31, she was appointed president of Barnard College, making her the youngest-ever college president and earning her a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records. (“I didn’t eat a hundred centipedes, or something,” she hastens to clarify.) In her present position, “eureka” depends on the museum’s ability to translate big ideas about the world into exhibitions that are not only comprehensible, but, well, magical. “We occupy an absolutely unique place in the cultural firmament,” Futter says. “Everybody tells me, ‘This museum is my favorite place!’ You walk in and you just begin to smile. How many places can do that?”

For connoisseurs of dance and musical drama, another such place might be New York City Center, which plays host to such legendary companies as Alvin Ailey and American Ballet Theatre. For much of the past decade, City Center has been helmed by Arlene Shuler. Like Futter, Shuler had a seminal childhood experience at the institution she now runs: When she was 13, she danced the role of Clara in a New York City Ballet production of The Nutcracker at City Center. Though she
eventually spent four years as a ballerina with the Joffrey Ballet, Shuler says she knew she wasn’t going to become a world-class dancer. “Somehow I realized that there was another life out there,” she says, “but I didn’t know what it was when I
stopped dancing.”

After college at Columbia, Shuler enrolled at the Law School, intending to pursue a career in public service. The summer after her first year, she won a life-changing internship at the National Endowment for the Arts. “I went down there, and I thought, ‘I could be an arts administrator,’” she recalls. “I didn’t even know that career existed.”

Back at school, she enrolled in a number of classes taught by John Kernochan ’48, who went on to establish the Law School’s Kernochan Center for Law, Media and the Arts. “He knew so much about the arts,” Shuler says. “He was very inspirational, and supportive of those of us who weren’t necessarily interested in a corporate law career.” Years later, Shuler’s former mentor invited her back to the Law School to talk with students about finding professional fulfillment in the arts world, a feat she has clearly accomplished.

Sitting in her sunny office, beneath a framed playbill from her Nutcracker performance, Shuler reflects on the way her training in both dance and the law informs her daily life. From ballet she learned discipline, and from the law she learned how to “look deep,” rather than broad. “I try to do that in my work here,” she says. “This job is a wonderful way to put together my passions—which are the arts and dance—and my education.”

Throughout her professional life, Shuler has remained committed to the notion of serving the public. At City Center, the innovation with which she is most closely associated is Fall for Dance, an annual 10-day festival conceived to introduce new audiences to the art form. Tickets to each performance cost an affordable $10, compared to the $80 that a non-festival performance might command. Shuler has a refined, unflappable demeanor, but when she talks about Fall for Dance, her voice rises with excitement. “Last year we sold 19,000 tickets in one day—for dance! The lines went all the way around the block, all day. The festival is very important to us, and I think it’s very important to New York.”

In the midst of a straitened economic climate, Shuler refuses to think small. She plans to greatly expand the amount of original programming the organization produces, and, within the next few years, she intends to complete a $75 million capital campaign that will fund a major renovation of the 1923 Shriners auditorium that City Center calls home. “A civilized society has to be rich in the arts,” Shuler says. “Of course, no one wants anyone to be hungry, but our souls shouldn’t be hungry either.”

When Speight Jenkins Jr.—now in his third decade as general director of the Seattle Opera—enrolled at the Law School, he found Columbia’s proximity to the Metropolitan Opera to be a significant bonus. It was, after all, just a few minutes away on the West Side local.

Jenkins has been consumed by opera ever since he first heard the word, at the age of 6. He read all about Wagner’s four-opera Ring cycle and convinced his parents to take him to see Aida and Faust when tours came through his native Dallas. He was not a singer, and he didn’t want to compose, but somehow he knew he had found his calling. His parents were thrilled at first, but when the obsession did not wane, his father started asking, “What are you going to do, sit in an opera seat for the rest of your life?”

From a certain perspective, that’s exactly what he has done. After law school, Jenkins entered the Judge Advocate General’s Corps and was stationed at the American military base in Tehran, Iran. At the time, he says, “the Tehran arts scene was zippo.” In the hopes of changing that, or at least entertaining himself, he began hosting a daily, two-hour classical music program on the military radio station. The show was extremely popular, and ultimately led to Jenkins’ post-JAG career as an opera critic and the longtime host of television’s Live from the Met. (It also may have led to the shah’s decision to launch a state opera not long after Jenkins left Iran.) In 1982, he traveled to the Seattle Opera to present a lecture on Wagner, his favorite composer, and the board members were so impressed that they asked him to run the company.

“Most people out here thought they were insane,” Jenkins says of his hiring. Never mind that he had not produced an opera before, he did not even have any management experience. It was his Columbia Law School degree, he says, that clinched the deal with the trustees. Nonetheless, at the time, “People said, ‘He’s just a critic!’ Of course, that put the critics on my side.”

Indeed, Jenkins has become something of a media darling. The Seattle Times has called him one of the people most influential in shaping the city’s character, Opera News said he has one of the “most powerful names” in the field, and last year, Seattle’s mayor dubbed April 25 “Speight Jenkins Day.”

Jenkins, for his part, is not coasting on the accolades. He has a hand in every detail of every production. He oversees rehearsals, fundraising, and marketing. He writes for the opera’s magazine. In a pinch, he has even been known to drive injured singers to the emergency room.

“I’m never not thinking about it,” Jenkins says. “It’s the opera—it’s all-consuming.”

Like Jenkins, Cecil Conner found the lure of the Met irresistible as a law student. His dream was to one day become the Met’s director. However, after years of attending every production, he eventually decided he had seen every opera there was to see. Almost randomly, he chose to move on to dance—discovering an even more profound passion and launching him on a happy course toward his present position as managing director of the Houston Ballet.

Echoing Shuler (who happens to be an old friend from their days at the legal aid group Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts), Conner expresses a faith in art’s ability to nourish the soul. He likes to recount a story about an operating room nurse–cum-ballet-buff who told him: “I couldn’t do the job I do without the release of going to the arts in Houston.”

But Conner also emphasizes the important—and oft-overlooked—role that institutions like his can play in buoying local economies. The sociologist Richard Florida has written that a thriving cultural community “helps to attract and stimulate those who create in business and technology.” Conner couldn’t agree more. “The fact that the arts here are really vibrant is a big draw to employers,” he says. “When we’re touring and being seen, it’s boosting the image of Houston around the country and the world.” And of course, he says, “we’re putting people to work.”

At the moment, much of that work pertains to the Houston Ballet’s imminent relocation to a glassy new building in the city’s downtown theater district, a move that will place the company even more squarely at the heart of Houston’s cultural life. Conner, a bow-tied Southerner with a soothing, Mr. Rogers voice, talks proudly of his relationship with his counterparts at other local cultural institutions. “We meet regularly,” he says. “We’re all competing with each other for the same dollar, but we work to be a unified force.”

That competition for dollars represents the area where Conner’s legal training has given him perhaps the greatest advantage. Having spent a number of years at Goldman Sachs, and as a managing partner of the firm Mandelbaum, Schweiger & Conner, he has been financially savvy enough to oversee 12 seasons of balanced budgets, and to grow the Houston Ballet’s endowment into one of the largest among American ballet companies. He notes that his background also puts him on something of an equal footing with potential donors. “I have some credibility with them,” he says. “They know where I came from. That’s actually very beneficial.” But he also works closely with five unions, and when a new dancer, choreographer, or designer is hired, Conner very often gives the paperwork a legal read. Old habits die hard: “I negotiated contracts for years,” he says.

Nowadays, when he encounters former colleagues who are still working at law firms, they often refer to him as “lucky.” He does not argue the point.

“I care so much about the product that I’m responsible for,” he says. “And every now and then, I run into lawyers who say, ‘I wish I could’ve done that, too.’”

Lila Byock is a member of the editorial staff at The New Yorker.

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Arlene Shuler stands in the shimmering lobby of the New York City Center building on West 56th Street. Shuler is president and CEO of the 67-year-old arts organization.

Photographed by Fabrice Trombert