Henry Timms, who guided Lincoln Center through the turmoil of the pandemic and helped complete the $550 million renovation of David Geffen Hall, will step down as its leader this summer after five years, he announced on Wednesday.
Timms will become chief executive of the Brunswick Group, a global public relations firm. He said he had always intended to stay at Lincoln Center for five to seven years, and that the Brunswick Group, which advises top companies and cultural groups, had approached him about a position there at the end of last year.
“I feel proud of what we’ve done,” he said in an interview in his office above the Lincoln Center campus. “But I also always believe that change is a good thing.”
Steven R. Swartz, the chairman of Lincoln Center’s board, said in an interview that Timms had been a “transformational leader” who had helped drive innovation and played a critical role in accelerating the renovation of Geffen Hall, home to the New York Philharmonic, during the pandemic.
“In our perfect world, we’d have him continue to do the job,” Swartz said. “But we certainly understand that he sees this opportunity as his next step and obviously wish him all the best.”
Timms, 47, arrived at Lincoln Center in 2019 with a mandate to restore stability to the organization, which was grappling with financial woes and years of leadership churn. He was also tasked with resetting Lincoln Center’s fraught relationship with its constituent organizations, including the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Ballet and the Philharmonic. The center acts as landlord to those groups but has little power over them, since each has its own leadership, board and budget. The center also presents its own work, sometimes putting it in competition with its constituents.
In his first year on the job, the pandemic hit, forcing Lincoln Center and its constituents to close for more than 18 months. Timms, working with Lincoln Center’s board and the Philharmonic’s leaders, took advantage of the shutdown to finish the Geffen renovation a year and a half ahead of schedule, since construction crews could work without disrupting concerts.
Timms received about $1.5 million in total compensation in the year ending June 2022. He has drawn some criticism for his efforts to shake up Lincoln Center’s cultural offerings. The organization reduced spending on its own programming and shifted its focus from classical music and international theater to other genres, including pop, hip-hop, social dance and comedy.
The old Mostly Mozart Festival was replaced with a new, eclectic festival, Summer for the City, with more diverse offerings. To project a more welcoming image, the center hung a giant disco ball over its main plaza.
Some critics have suggested that Timms has abandoned Lincoln Center’s values and traditional role as a champion of classic art forms under siege today. Alex Ross wrote in The New Yorker last year that the new vision seemed “fundamentally out of step with Lincoln Center and its public, both extant and potential.”
But Timms defended his approach. He pointed to Lincoln Center’s investment in Geffen Hall as a sign of its commitment to classical music, but added that the organization would need to appeal to a much broader, more diverse crowd to fulfill its mandate. The center now offers choose-what-you-pay tickets for some events.
“We are speaking directly to the culture,” he said, “which requires us to speak to some new people who historically haven’t been the most comfortable at Lincoln Center.”
Timms also worked to diversify Lincoln Center’s board and staff: Women make up about 60 percent of its executive and senior management teams, and people of color nearly 40 percent.
Timms’s departure will add to Lincoln Center’s challenges. Even though the center is in a relatively strong position — the endowment has risen to about $280 million, from $258 million in 2019 — it is still working to recover from the pandemic. Lincoln Center, which spent $23 million on its own programming in 2019, spent $14 million in the year that ended in June 2022, when Geffen Hall was still closed, and $21 million in the year that ended last June.
It is unclear how the departure will affect Timms’s plan to tear down the barriers that wall the Lincoln Center campus off from Amsterdam Avenue, a project still in early stages.
Swartz said the center would move forward with the plan. He hopes the organization can find a new leader before Timms steps down in August.
“We want somebody who can continue the momentum,” he said, “and who can bring leadership with regard to innovation, but also work collaboratively with our constituent organizations who are, after all, the lifeblood of Lincoln Center.”
The British-born Timms, who previously led the 92nd Street Y, has long had interests outside the arts. He helped create #GivingTuesday and co-wrote “New Power,” a book exploring bottom-up leadership.
Timms said it was difficult for him to leave but felt both he and Lincoln Center were ready.
“I did what I came to do,” he said. “I’m handing over the keys with the engine purring.”