Martin Segal: Dollars and Joy

I’m back in the archives going through the papers of Martin Segal. Few in the arts might know Segal now but his legacies are everywhere: in the Martin E. Segal Theatre at CUNY, the Lincoln Center awards in his name that support rising artists, and the Film Society of Lincoln Center itself which he co-founded. But those legacies are only the most obvious. He was central to the arts in New York for over fifty years—and not just as a financial supporter. Segal served on the board of major institutions (MOMA, City Center); chaired Lincoln Center Inc. for five years; conceived and started the International Festival of the Arts; and consolidated the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs. He was a part of almost every endeavor that I have been studying over the last couple of years.

For all his accomplishments, Segal is most often credited with initiating the “dollar approach to culture” in the midst of New York City’s fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s. As the creator of a business providing actuarial services for employee benefit plans, he knew how to argue by numbers. He listed numbers for the arts (in 1976): expenditures of culture-related industry in the city were 3 billion dollars per year; the estimate of the value of non-profit institutions was 5 billion; the industry employed 50,000 people; the city contributed 25 million dollars after 1974; and—the key number—for about one-fifth of 1% of city monies, the cultural industry generated four times that in tourist dollars and taxes. His conclusion: culture pays.

This is now a well-worn argument, and I have often railed against its dominance as it diminishes less measurable values of the arts. I also think our understanding of Segal is too narrowly bound to it. His own story, in fact, reveals the impact of those other values. Segal emigrated from Russia at the age of two, settled in Brooklyn, and was kicked out of high school for failing every subject except English and art. Those passions continued even as he began his rise in business by selling insurance; he devoured books and kept painting. Worlds were opened. And a Russian Jewish émigré ascended into the echelons of New York business and arts.

The picture of Segal that emerges in the archives is of a deeply talented businessperson, highly attuned to detail, eager to take control and responsibility, and able to tie small-level decisions to mighty aims. Almost no slight or mistake goes unnoticed and commented upon. His letters to the editors of various newspapers are extensive, as is his concerted effort in the final years of his life to assert his view of the history of Lincoln Center as its official version. (The battles over the Vivian Beaumont Theater and Lincoln Center Repertory Theater Company fill boxes.) I hope to do justice to Segal’s success beyond the dollar approach to culture, as influential as that was (and still is). Let’s also see his life as one driven by the arts: in passion, in accomplishments, and in meaning.