Martin E. Segal, one of New York’s top cultural power brokers who held several positions with Lincoln Center, died Sunday at his home in Manhattan. He was 96.
A Russian immigrant and a high school dropout, Segal made his fortune as the founder of an actuarial firm but became a leading light in New York's cultural community. He held numerous board positions, was a dogged fundraiser and served as chairman of Lincoln Center from 1981 to 1986.
In a 1984 interview on WQXR’s “This is My Music,” Segal told host Lloyd Moss that his work on boards was “virtually 90 percent of my time now.”
Segal's entry into New York’s cultural and philanthropic circles took off when he co-founded the Film Society of Lincoln Center in 1968, and remained as its president for ten years. He was the first chairman of New York’s Commission for Cultural Affairs, from 1975-77, and founded the International Festival of the Arts, which ran from 1985-2002.
While Segal had a love of music and the arts, which he attributed to his boyhood ballet lessons, he was not a musician by training ("the best I’ve ever done is play the barcarolle on the harmonica,” he told Moss). He did, however, become trusted for his counseling and fundraising acumen, and worked with organizations as diverse as Public Radio International (as a co-founder) and the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton.
Segal was said to hold court at top midtown restaurants and host dinner parties with his wife, Edith, at their home on the Upper West Side. Well into his 90s he remained outspoken about Lincoln Center, including its campus redevelopment project and the recent departure of New York City Opera (he advocated that it remain part of the arts complex). In 2003, when the New York Philharmonic and Carnegie Hall proposed a merger, Segal complained that it was "a form of cultural cannibalism."
In his appearance on “This is My Music,” Segal outlined his philosophy about arts funding, arguing that money will follow bold plans. “The basic problem in the arts is ideas for now and the future, because good ideas always command money, whether it’s a business idea or an arts idea,” he said. “The solution to money problems generally lies in what are you doing and how are you doing it and what you plan to do in the future. And when the answers to those questions are affirmative, then money can be forthcoming.”
Listen: Composer Ellen Taafe Zwilich speaks with WQXR's Janet Babin about Martin Segal: