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How the Arts Were Turned Into Neighbors



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"'Lincoln Center: Celebrating 50 Years,' at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, reminds us of that cultural force as it was in its prime."


The crowds at the groundbreaking ceremony for Lincoln Center in May 1959.


A costume for George Balanchine's 1951 production of "Swan Lake."


Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti in the Metropolitan Opera's "La Fille du Regiment."


The costumes from three different Met productions of "Die Zauberflöte."


George Balanchine, right, rehearses in the studio with dancer David Richardson and others from New York City Ballet.


Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein before the opening of Philharmonic Hall, now Avery Fisher Hall.


A necklace designed by Franco Zeffirelli for Leontyne Price as Cleopatra in Samuel Barber's "Antony and Cleopatra," directed by Franco Zeffirelli in 1966.


Wynton Marsalis with the students from Jazz at Lincoln Center's "Essentially Ellington" program.


A model of an evil chef created by Maurice Sendak for a 1986 City Opera production of Prokofiev's "Love for Three Oranges."

Cultural forces are rarely shy about promoting themselves, particularly when they are at the peak of their power and confidence. One of the achievements of the new exhibition “Lincoln Center: Celebrating 50 Years,” at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, is to remind us of that cultural force as it was in its prime and give us a sense of the shadow it cast — or rather, of the illumination and exuberance of its best and most vital creations.

The major festivities for Lincoln Center’s anniversary came last spring, but this show, with its historical survey of the institution’s beginnings and its almost rambunctious sampling of performances and images from every one of the center’s dozen constituents, gives a sense of the scale of the enterprise. It covers the center’s conception and evolution, as its construction, fund-raising and planning extend into its second half-century. The exhibition doesn’t explore the more difficult issues raised by arts centers and their place in American culture, but this show’s celebration is both justified and convincing.

The curator, Thomas Mellins, begins by suggesting the sheer nerviness of the initial project, which conceived of uniting New York’s major performing arts institutions under a single umbrella. Opera, orchestral music, ballet and drama were the first performing arts imagined as part of the new organization, but the expectation was for a critical mass of cultural creativity.

So high were the hopes that the center was also expected to combat what was then known as “urban blight”: Robert Moses set the wheels in motion for the institution in 1955 when he was chairman of the Committee on Slum Clearance. From there, hopes only grew. In a film of the 1959 groundbreaking shown here, President Dwight D. Eisenhower declares that the center will become “a mighty influence for peace and understanding throughout the world” — this in an era when “cultural exchange” inspired nearly utopian dreams.

The idea of an arts center, though, was also exceedingly peculiar for its time, bringing together institutions with their own boards, social circles and ambitions, asserting that each would somehow gain from the presence of the others. But what did the New York Philharmonic have to do with the Metropolitan Opera or any resident theater company when they all had to compete for ticket buyers?

The exhibition notes that the new arts center, which needed to “persuade the public of its viability,” hired the ad man David Ogilvy to give it voice. One film, narrated by the mezzo-soprano Risë Stevens, tells the story of Lincoln Center’s creation, giving a somewhat rosy picture of the resettling of the neighborhood residents, not elaborating on the protests and a lawsuit that ended only when the Supreme Court declined to hear it. Those matters are better explained in newspaper reports of the time arrayed in one of the center’s enormous scrapbooks on display.

Another of those scrapbooks illustrates a triumph by the center’s marketing campaign: photos of B. Altman’s department store windows show mannequins in party dresses peering into the center’s construction site or frolicking above an architectural model.

And trumping that, the photographer Arnold Newman assembled the new institution’s leaders and celebrities, including the Philharmonic’s conductor Leonard Bernstein; the actress Julie Harris in costume; the Juilliard School’s president, the composer William Schuman; the Metropolitan Opera impresario Rudolf Bing; the ballerina Alicia Markova dressed in taffeta; the dance visionary Martha Graham; and one of the center’s directors, Reginald Allen. They are apparently on a rooftop on the institution’s site, gathered around the gleaming white abstractions of a model of the center, while in stark contrast behind them can be seen dilapidated buildings and tenements, like those already demolished to make way for the new cultural era.

The center’s design was meant to herald such a new age. Rival architectural stars were hired, each for a particular building, but also to collaborate on the whole, as if something so magisterial in conception could only be created by committee. Another of Newman’s photos in a 1960 Look magazine shows the architects (including Philip Johnson, Eero Saarinen, Max Abramovitz and Pietro Belluschi) standing alongside and within their latest model, with its eccentric mixture of Classical allusion and Modernist temperament. The buildings were to be clad in the type of white travertine marble that was used to build ancient Rome. (It still forms the center’s skin.)

This new institution was clearly meant to be more than a collection of halls. As these documents demonstrate, it was supposed to be a reflection of high culture, high ideals, high society (John D. Rockefeller III was its first president) and high fashion. (Women’s hats, in a page from The New York Times on display, include a “high-rising toque” designed “after the plans for Lincoln Center’s new opera house.”)

So dramatically has culture changed since that heady time that some of this might even seem open to satire. But the generosity and devotion of the creators were extraordinary. And lacking any clear financial or cultural model, they had to build the center from the ground up. Even finding financing became a new kind of challenge. (For decades there was tension over whether the institution would impinge on the philanthropic needs of its constituents.)

It took years for the pieces to come together in the current form. And here the exhibition gradually turns into an extended anthology of artifacts, images and videos. There are posters created for the center and its constituents by Ben Shahn, Marc Chagall, Andy Warhol and Robert Motherwell; a photo of Alexander Calder holding a model of his sculpture “Le Guichet” the day it was installed on the north plaza in 1965; Jazz at Lincoln Center shown celebrating Duke Ellington’s 100th birthday outdoors in 1999; Alfred Hitchcock and Catherine Deneuve photographed at a 1974 tribute to the director by the film society.

Also on display are the script of the film of “West Side Story,” part of the extraordinary collection of the performing arts library; excerpts from “Live From Lincoln Center” broadcasts of New York City Opera and American Ballet Theater; programs and images of master classes and performances at Juilliard; and evocations of artists who need no first name: Pavarotti and Scotto, Bernstein and Levine, Sills and Balanchine.

Dominating the closing gallery (in which it is possible to spend more than an hour watching films about the building of the center or videos of performance excerpts and interviews) is an enormous model of an evil chef created by Maurice Sendak for a 1986 City Opera production of Prokofiev’s “Love for Three Oranges.” Above the cook with his threatening ladle loom other institutional artifacts, most notably grand color images of the closing set for three different Met productions of “Die Zauberflöte.”

Such visions are haunting. But the narrative line, promised in the exhibition’s beginning, may have gotten displaced by the lure of the center’s estimated 130,000 performances. We see the center take shape, but we have to try to figure out what happened as it evolved (and recall too the details of the struggles over acoustics and design in at least two of its major halls).

As American culture changed, the founders’ expectations of the center’s salvationary powers were eventually jettisoned. In fact, the cultures of classical music and dance celebrated by the center may have never been more confident and secure than they were at its founding. Over time the constituents were transmuted by forces of popular culture and changing tastes, shaping the center into a kind of hybrid institution; contemporary cultural doctrine, after all, leans not to ideas of messianism but to notions of inclusion.

It might have been interesting to trace these changes or to show how Lincoln Center’s influence made the arts center the late-20th-century model for performance culture, creating, as Schuman predicted in 1966, “the new establishment.”

Such arts centers also developed a new social logic for the late 20th century, in which the arts didn’t grow out of the city; rather the city, with its ravaged downtown, was meant to grow out of the arts. (And yes, Lincoln Center did transform the Upper West Side of Manhattan.) Many arts centers in the nation’s cities were even overbuilt, as if institutional size would easily translate into affirmations of cultural power. But they also created budgetary pressures to fill more seats and so encouraged more popular offerings.

But these are matters for other kinds of exploration. Lincoln Center remains unique because of its location, the talent it lures and the varied gifts of its leaders. And for all the qualifications that can be made about halls, or constituents or disappointments of early grandiose dreams, the accumulated evidence at this fine exhibition recalls many performances that we warmly remember and invokes many more that were, regretfully, missed.
TAG: Arts How Into Neighbors Turned
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