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ENCOUNTERS by George Sturm
Schuyler G.Chapin

Schuyler G. Chapin

I am one of the very lucky people," says Schuyler Chapin, a twinkle of good humor and true gratitude coming immediately to the fore. "I have spent close to 40 years now being paid for my hobby. I've always been able to make my avocation my vocation." His vocation over the last ten of those 40 years has been as the first dean of Columbia University's School of the Arts, a position he has just relinquished after establishing one of the country's most imaginative partnerships of academia and the arts.

Although Chapin had been an arts administrator for many years, one of those nuts-and-bolts professionals without whom public presentations media could not exist, most of the public was not aware of him until his quantum leap into the limelight during the summer of 1972. Sir Rudolf Bing was about to retire as general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, to be replaced by Goeran Gentele, the Swedish manager whom the Met's board had appointed at the end of 1970, his tenure to commence at the end of Bing's term. The intervening period was to put a new management team in place, headed by Gentele in close collaboration with Chapin, invited to join the new chief executive as his right-hand man with the title of assistant manager. (The two had been introduced in the mid-60's by Isaac Stern and at once became fast friends.) On July 18, 1972, eighteen days after beginning his new post, Gentele was killed in a tragic automobile accident. Chapin suddenly found himself named acting manager, charged with carrying out Gentele's blueprint for the 1972-73 season.

The trials and tribulations of the years during which Chapin was associated with the Met — his sudden and bizarre launching as a public person, his appointment as acting manager and then general manager, his ensnarement into a political vise and the unending struggles of power and personality, and his ultimate dismissal — were much in the musical and general press, and also occupied a central role in his first book, an autobiographical volume entitled Musical Chairs, A Life in the Arts (Putnam, 1977). The book, surely written at least in part as occupational therapy, provides a fascinating insight into this tall, lithely handsome, and articulate man whose single greatest wish has always been to be of use to creative people.

Schuyler G. Chapin was born in New York on February 13, 1923. His family dates back to the Nieuw Amsterdam settlers, and among his ancestors was Philip Schuyler, a Revolutionary War general. One aunt founded the multilingual international literary review Botteghe Oscure and another aunt, Katherine Garrison Chapin, was a respected poet. His father, a lawyer and investment counselor, was a great opera buff who listened devotedly to the Saturday afternoon broadcasts from the Met and Schuyler well remembers seeing his first opera in 1936 accompanied by that great opera patroness, Mrs. August Belmont. His aunt Katherine moved to Washington when she married Francis Biddle (who was to become U.S. Attorney General under Franklin D. Roosevelt), and it was at their house that the young Chapin first mixed and mingled with the likes of St. John Perse, Edmund Wilson, Conrad Aiken, T.S. Eliot, Felix Frankfurter, Archibald MacLeish, Aaron Copland, Walter Lippmann, and a host of painters, statesmen, dancers and musicians.

While his intellectual and social orbit was exemplary, his professional credentials left something to be desired. "I never went to college and, in truth, I never graduated from high school either, although I was given a high school diploma — Class of 1940 — in 1983." After completing six years at the Millbrook School, he tried his hand at music by enrolling at the Longy School in Cambridge. It was not long before his young self-image was given a good shake. His teacher, looking at his exercises, said in unmistakably plain words, "My dear, you have no talent." Her name was Nadia Boulanger, and she also recommended that he "think about another part of music. There is a whole other world in this art, and it is the world for you." Did he now — almost 50 years later — think that Boulanger had done him a favor, that such rugged candor is, in fact, the responsibility of all good teachers towards their students? "Absolutely. I have tried — I'm no teacher, as you know — but as an administrator I've tried to tell people when they're not going to make it. One must give them the option. Tell them they're gifted but not talented, that they have flair but no real fire; that, if they really want to do this, they must think about inviting hardship and the shocks that flesh is heir to. I counsel them to keep their love of the arts as a hobby, as part of their life. One does them no service by hiding the truth from them."

Truth, as Schuyler Chapin's lifelong stock in trade, has been a rare combination of candor and diplomacy. Taking Nadia Boulanger's counsel to heart, he first went to work as a pageboy for the old NBC Artists Bureau where he had an opportunity of observing performers. "I began to see how emotionally insecure most of them were. My empathy for them increased and also the feeling that I was part of their world." When the Artists Bureau closed down, he was transferred to another NBC subsidiary and given the title "night news editor." It turned out that he had gone from pageboy to copy boy. His apprenticeship soon took another turn, and he served (1943-46) in the U.S. Army Air Force flying the China-Burma-India run. After 95 round-trip missions over the Himalayas at the controls of a twin-engine C-47 ferrying troops and materiel, he was awarded the Air Medal for his wartime efforts and discharged with the rank of first lieutenant.

Returning to NBC, Chapin sold television time before joining the staff of the Jinx (Falkenberg) and Tex (McCrary) radio and TV show. In 1947, he married Betty Steinway, daughter of the famous piano family. Through his new in-laws, he was introduced to Arthur Judson, one of the most powerful personalities in serious music and then manager of the New York Philharmonic Symphony Society as well as head of his own concert division of Columbia Artists Management, Inc. (CAMI had, in fact, been created by Judson and William Paley in the 30's.) One of the first assignments arising from the association with Judson was to become Jascha Heifetz's tour manager and publicity agent. Other artists for whom he was to perform similar services in the years that followed were Van Cliburn and Herbert von Karajan.

In 1959, the Chapins were taking a sabbatical on the Isle of Eigg off the western coast of Scotland, having started their family — they have four sons — when a transatlantic telephone call came from the president of Columbia Records, Goddard Lieberson, inviting Chapin to become executive coordinator for the Masterworks Department. His duties were to select recording repertoire for artists and to preside over the newly developing l.p. and stereo programs. During his five-year tenure there, he also managed the Stravinsky recording project, the recordings of George Szell and The Cleveland Orchestra, Glenn Gould, Isaac Stern, and Rudolf Serkin. He looks back with particular pride on his association with Vladimir Horowitz whose recordings he also supervised, as well as the pianist's legendary comeback performance at Carnegie Hall after a twelve-year self-imposed exile from the concert stage.

He found his experience at Columbia both exhilarating and exasperating. Being so integrally involved with the logistics of bringing great artists into the lives of more people than had ever before had an opportunity to appreciate them was deeply gratifying to him. And yet, it was clearly his first encounter with the corporate mentality. "The corporate snare is subtle," he was later to observe. "Before you know it you are committed to stock options, officer positions, competition between you and fellow workers for promotions, and, worst of all, the refocusing of your priorities toward personal advancement rather than achievement. I began to find myself bored and restless." His escape came with the 1964 opening of a new position, director of programming at Lincoln Center. William Schuman, then Lincoln Center's president, meticulously described the job to Chapin, enlisting his assistance to find someone to fill it. "Yes," Chapin said, "I think I know someone who might be interested. Me." "That's what I was hoping you'd say," Schuman responded. It was the beginning of a happy association which permitted Chapin to meet and work with a formidable cluster of individual artists as well as domestic and foreign performing organizations.

That phase of Chapin's activities ended in 1968 after Schuman left Lincoln Center and the position itself was eliminated. Having worked so closely with Leonard Bernstein both at Columbia and at Lincoln Center, it seemed only natural for Chapin to accept the Maestro's invitation to become executive director of Amberson Enterprises, the office that looks after all the varied dimensions of Bernstein's creative energies, from conducting to composing to lecturing to television to being one of the most sought-after public personalities in a world which, through science and technology, has become small. It was from Amberson that Chapin wound up, in 1972, at the Met.

Few arts administrators operate from so wide a base of experience as Chapin, and listening to his off-the-cuff remarks about the arts in our day is instructive because he is able to approach the subject with both a historian's perspective and a pragmatist's know-how. He gives to his presentation a self-assurance and articulate persuasiveness that leave no doubt of his qualifications to entertain strong convictions about the place of the arts in society.

"We're talking about art generally, which is — to use Bill Schuman's phrase — aristocratic practice in a democratic society, but it's an aristocracy that's open to everybody, anyone who's interested. History shows us that all patrons were aggrandizing themselves in one way or another, from the ancient Greeks through the Esterházys and beyond. All have been concerned with personal power and visibility. After those people passed, the state — at least in Europe took over those responsibilities; and in this country — since we were anti-state — we patched together stuff that represents an American way of handling these matters. In the 19th century, the power figures became omnipotently powerful — the J.P. Morgans, the Fricks and Carnegies who began to turn their attention to feeding the soul — but the base was small. That base has been considerably broadened. I believe that we have levelled off the ratio of financing the arts at about 80% private to 20% public support." By the private sector, he means all forms of privately raised funding, be it individual or corporate; and by "public" is meant all types of government subsidy. "We must be very careful," he says, "that the proliferation of artistic organizations does not end up draining the finite resources we have in the arts."

Chapin on the sociological implications of education and the arts: "We are in grave danger, in all of our major institutions, of slipping into a glossy mediocrity that becomes translated by television standards into being excellent. We see all around us camouflages of purpose and we are making bland and tasteless pasta out of what should be a glorious experience. It's equally true of the visual and the performing arts. It has been due, in part, to our striving in this country for the spreading out of `the good life' for large numbers of people. But what is the down price of upgrading the standard of living in America'? When you pull the bottom up, you also pull the top down. We rejoice that the living conditions are better; that, with fringe exceptions, social equity has grown so immensely. But it has also resulted in an acceptance of masquerade in education. Are we sending people into the world who are cosmetically educated and vitally idiotic? The answer is yes: we are massing the world with illiterates. Part of the problem of our educational system is that the arts do get a back seat. How do you get people to participate in the arts? In the first place. you start in kindergarten by making the arts an integral part of the curriculum. And you go straight through college, by which time the great majority of people will have picked up some feeling for that which Sister Mary Madeleva called 'the signature of man,' art." [Sister Mary Madeleva was the founder of St. Mary's Academy, now part of the University of Notre Dame, and this saying is inscribed on the cornerstone of one of the buildings there.]

Chapin on the artistic temperament: "I believe that talented and creative people pay a price for their talent. When the gods give out talent, they often exact a terrible price for it: personal disorder, unhappiness, all manner of unpleasant characteristics. This is further exacerbated when performing artists in particular become so identified with their work in the minds of the public that it is blithely assumed they're the same swell people that they are on the stage. And the fact is, they're not. When people discover that their idols are also human beings, with bunions and unpaid bills and dandruff and marital problems, they are bitterly disappointed and often take it out on the artists."

The amusing irony of his 1976 appointment as dean of Columbia's School of the Arts did not escape Chapin and he still talks of it with self-deprecating wit. "When I was invited to the School, it really didn't exist, it was just a... thing. [William James] McGill was then President of the University and, when I confessed that I had never gone to college, he looked at me and said, 'Oh well, it's the arts.' The first thing I did was ask Chou Wen Chung to become vice dean for academic affairs. We knew that the first move I would make on my own to build a school would be slapped down by people who would rise in righteous academic anger and, in the immortal words of James Thurber, say: 'Whom does he think he is anyways?'"

But there was nothing glib or facile in Chapin's vision of a School of the Arts. "I just applied the same techniques that I've used all my life: to get Person A and Person B together to accomplish Mission C. If I leave a legacy here, it involves Columbia's commitment to the arts. Philosophically, this school — a school for the creative artist, for the writer, poet, playwright, screen writer, composer, film director, stage director, painter, sculptor, print-maker, and arts administrator — is a school for creative people, not an academy and not a conservatory. And the university finds this very attractive. It fits Columbia's academic and research mission in this city which is still the creative capital of America."

Chapin speaks with joyous anticipation of a more relaxed, less structured future; of the book he is writing, a set of essays about people with whom he has been associated, especially at the Met, inspired, he says, by Alistair Cooke's Six Men; of his continued involvement with the Tony nominating committee, the Lincoln Center Theatre board, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Foundation, the American Symphony Orchestra League. But as he speaks, one gets the distinct impression that his energies and expertise will soon be harnessed and that he will find himself once again fully committed to yet another aspect of the arts, the signature of man.

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