In the last 10 months, the main branch of the New York Public Library, that venerable, elegant beaux-arts landmark that has stood on Fifth Avenue since 1902, has become something of a hot spot. Walk by the institution's 42nd Street entrance before any of its "Live from the NYPL" events and you're likely to see a queue of people winding down the street, hoping to land a seat in one of the two auditoriums within.
More than 700 of them stood in line in hopes of seeing Bill Clinton discuss race relations with John Hope Franklin. And while New York's favorite ex-president can fill the venue of his choice in Manhattan, the NYPL also managed to draw more than 500 for a debate about Google Print and another 200 for a discussion of Lincoln's depression. But the crowning glory, thus far, has been the 1,000-person turnout for an operatic adaptation of the classic little grammar book The Elements of Style. In fact, nearly all of the library's "Live from the NYPL" events sold out last fall. The place is so hot that some of the library's older patrons have written letters of complaint, protesting that they can no longer rely on getting in. The guy to blame is the library's new Director of Public Programs, Paul Holdengräber who started working his magic in March of last year.
NYPL President Paul LeClerc says he hired Holdengräber in 2004 after the library undertook a nationwide search to find someone "who could bring an extra measure of sparkle" to the Bryant Park building. Holdengräber was then in his seventh year at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), where he was the founder and director of the Institute for Art and Culture. In Los Angeles, Holdengräber was renowned for booking famous public intellectuals and for cleverly matching guests and topics: filmmaker Tom Robbins with Studs Terkel, for example, and Jamaica Kincaid on Thomas Jefferson. For one event, he even provided elephants. Of course, people noticed.
"The programming was just astonishing," says Holdengräber's old officemate Bob Sain, who directs the LACMA Lab. "Frankly, [since he left for New York] there's been a vacuum here."
On paper, Holdengräber's most obvious strength is his dexterous intelligence. Fluent in four languages, he studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, earned a law degree from Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium, and holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Princeton. (His specialty: Walter Benjamin and the idea of collecting.) But anyone's who's spent time around UCLA or Pomona knows that Los Angeles has plenty of impressively educated people; what makes Holdengräber so hard to replace is his mix of intellectual rigor with charisma, fun and humor.
"With Paul there was this sense of delight, of wonderment, of possibilities, a sense of the sheer pleasure of doing things," Sain says. He created a social space that engaged individuals with serious ideas, and had them eager to come back for more. "Paul could make any evening fantastic," concurs author David Margolick. "He's just somebody who brings people together and makes things happen."
Holdengräber in person is something of an event himself. When we meet in his office in late December, his conversation is so charming, so peppered with references to European thinkers, and so salted with exclamations in French, Spanish and Italian, that for hours he has me completely fooled: his energy is limitless, I think, this man must never sleep. Then, midway through the interview, the light flickers, fades.
"I'm just exhausted," he confesses. "I work constantly, too much, and unfortunately this little machine [he palms his Blackberry] has created the sense that I'm never off."
The 24-plus events of the fall season are behind him; the winter season is waiting to be planned. For a moment, sitting behind his desk, Holdengräber looks almost wan. Then he starts talking about an evening he has lined up for January 26 (Tina Brown will interview French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy), and the voltage grows strong again.
Holdengräber seems to thrive on meetings, plans and conversation. The more he talks about his work, the more energy he seems to have for it, until one, too, gets swept up with excitement about his events. But transforming the NYPL from a venue for standard, behind-the-podium lectures into an effervescent intellectual salon has taken hard work, and Holdengräber has encountered some resistance. At the library we don't…is a common opening to objections.
"I always ask them who The Library is," Holdengräber says, "because I'd like to have lunch with him."
"He's a genuinely creative person," author Adam Gopnick observes. "He doesn't want to do the conventional thing in the conventional way." And that naturally creates some friction.
Instead of lectures and readings, Holdengräber prefers to stage lively conversations between two or more people, and to flavor the evening with "a little bit of show." Before Margolick's conversation with ESPN anchor Jeremy Schaap about the Joe Louis-Max Schmeling fight, for example, they dimmed the lights and played a radio narration of the match. And for the launch of Philip Gourevitch's revamped Paris Review, they hired the 25-piece Hungry March Band. Before many of the events, the NYPL now serves the entire audience free champagne to encourage socializing.
Holdengräber's made some structural changes as well. He's banished the old event brochure, which required events to be planned at least four months in advance, in favor of postcards and email announcements that allow him to put together an event in as few as 18 days. (The number of email subscribers has grown from roughly 400 to 8,000 since he began.) He renamed the program series to make it more enticing (it used to be called PEP, for Public Education Programs), modernized its profile with edgy visuals, and set up a system for attendees to buy tickets online. He also moved the time of the events from 6:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. to make it easier for working people to attend.
Luckily, Holdengräber's innovations have the support of David Ferriero, the chief executive of the Research Libraries, and of LeClerc. Both approve of the way "Live from the NYPL" draws new audiences to the institution, one of LeClerc's main goals. "This great, great library can be a little off-putting," LeClerc says, "because it was built at a time when solidity and grandness were the messages being sent. What I wanted to do [when I hired Holdengräber] was to open the windows and let everybody in."
Book publicists who want to plan events with Holdengräber will have to do better than sending him a copy of their latest press release, however. "I want to be approached differently than 'so-and-so is coming out with such-and-such book and they want to come to the library,' " he says. "I would like to know why. What are they thinking about when they decide to publish this person? Why is this important to bring to the library? What's in it for the public?"
What Holdengräber wants, in his events and in his professional relationships, is good old-fashioned conversation. He wants the people on stage to genuinely exchange ideas, the people in the audience to talk with their neighbors about the book, and everybody to chat about "Live at the NYPL." "To make the most extraordinary party you can imagine for a book—that is the goal," he says. If it costs him a little sleep, well, that's the price of working in New York.