NEW YORK — Lincoln Center’s loss is the New York Times’ gain, as longtime arts reporter-turned-administrator John Rockwell heads back to life as an ink-stained wretch.
Rockwell, 57, will return to the paper’s 43rd Street offices on Feb. 1 to become editor of the Sunday Arts & Leisure section, after a three-year stint as director of the summer season Lincoln Center Festival.
“For the same reason I hired John, I’m happy that he’ll be back on the coverage side of the arts,” said Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts prexy Nathan Leventhal. “He has a prodigious knowledge of all the arts — from rock music to fine art.”
Leventhal said Wednesday he was still “dealing with the shock” of learning that Rockwell was leaving, but that the festival, which had its first season in 1996, will continue and has board approval through 2000. In the wake of the surprise announcement, Leventhal said new candidates for the position had not yet been considered.
Prior to his perch at Lincoln Center, Rockwell spent 22 years at the Times, as both a classical music critic and chief rock critic, as well as the paper’s European cultural critic based in Paris.
“This will be my first editing job, though, since my high school paper,” he noted.
Discussions between Times editors and Rockwell were under way for months, as current Arts & Leisure editor Constance Rosenblum planned to take a leave of absence in order to work on a biography of 1920s/’30s celebrity Peggy Hopkins Joyce for Henry Holt. Rosenblum ran the section for seven years; she plans to return to the paper in another capacity.
Rockwell announced his decision to Lincoln Center execs on Tuesday.
“Lincoln Center offered me a tremendous opportunity to move into arts administration — I would have been a complete wimp not to try it,” said Rockwell. “But I’ve been a journalist all my life, and I began to realize that my gut wasn’t as comfortable being on the administration side.”
“Tweaking — not revolutionizing” the voluminous Sunday arts section is what Rockwell has in mind. One of his first tasks will be figuring out how to clearly differentiate the section from the recently created Monday-to-Friday free-standing section called the Arts.
Rockwell’s boss, cultural editor John Darnton, told Daily Variety the paper will seek to better define the roles of all the sections under his purview. The daily arts coverage and Weekend section, he said, tend to “squeeze Arts & Leisure.”
Darnton and Rockwell both suggested Arts & Leisure could move in a decidedly more magazine-style direction.
Reassessing arts coverage has become a priority for the Times. According to Darnton, “It’s either because of — or perhaps in spite of — the fact that we are living in an era known for NEA cutbacks.
“People are talking about the need for more, better-defined arts coverage.”