You may have passed it unknowingly on your way to a performance. There’s an entrance on Broadway, between 62nd and 63rd Streets, another wedged between PJ Clarke’s and Rosa Mexicano on Columbus Avenue.
Or perhaps you’ve stopped in during the day for a sandwich and free Wi-Fi, a tour of Lincoln Center, or discount tickets to a performance.
But if you are a fan of salsa or string quartets, the parent of a preschooler or teenager, or simply a culturally curious New Yorker, you may already know the most compelling reason to find Lincoln Center’s David Rubenstein Atrium: free world-class performances, conversations, and family programs.
Opened in 2009 as part of the redevelopment of the Lincoln Center campus, the Atrium was conceived as a central hub for all of Lincoln Center’s resident organizations. It is a public space governed by the City of New York that, according to its Declaration of Operations, must be open to the public seven days a week and must produce one free performance per week.
“Reynold Levy, Lincoln Center’s president at the time, saw the Atrium as this opportunity to make it a ‘commons’ for Lincoln Center,” says Atrium director Jordana Phokompe. “So when I’m thinking about the cultural programming, I am thinking how we can support Lincoln Center and its residents. But I’m also thinking how can I represent all of New York? How can we welcome all of New York—and visitors to New York—to Lincoln Center?”
What started out as the Free Thursdays series has evolved into Atrium 360°, named to reflect the wide net cast by Phokompe and her open-minded curatorial team. Some events, like the upcoming Complimentary Classical concerts (PUBLIQuartet, January 12; New Orford String Quartet, February 9; Catalyst Quartet, February 23; Jasper String Quartet, March 30) are linked to a core Lincoln Center program (Great Performers in this case), while others are organized in collaboration with Lincoln Center residents like the New York Philharmonic (Insights at the Atrium) or Jazz at Lincoln Center. Other performances encompass an eclectic array of music, including world traditions like Garifuna (Aurelio on January 19) or forró from Northeastern Brazil (Forró in the Dark on January 26), as well as interesting American artists from the pop and indie spheres.
Within the larger Lincoln Center structure, the Atrium is developing into an important incubator of talent—a place where emerging artists can push their careers to the next level and also where established artists can try something new. It’s the latter that is the focus of the Atrium’s commissioning program. “The beauty of the Atrium, being a smaller space and a free performance series, is that it allows us to take more risks and it also allows artists to take risks,” says Phokompe.
Atrium audiences were the first to hear the 1850s segment from cabaret artist Taylor Mac’s critically acclaimed show A 24-Decade History of Popular Music. On January 5, avant-garde big band Burnt Sugar Arkestra—an Atrium favorite for its tributes to Rick James, Prince, and more—returned with a retrospective of their past 18 years of performing together.
These longstanding relationships with artists as well as partnerships with New York’s various communities are central to the Atrium’s programming. “It’s not about us saying, ‘We think these people are important, you should come’,” says Phokompe, “It’s also hearing from our community who is important to them.”
The ¡VAYA! 63 series was born out of a collaboration with NYU professor Carlos Chirinos, who directs the NYU Music and Social Change Lab. “This country’s population is 17 percent Latino and in New York City the proportion is even higher,” says the Venezuelan-born Chirinos. “But when I moved to New York from the U.K. three years ago, I realized that the local Latin musicians were all playing in places far from midtown Manhattan. My goal with the ¡VAYA! 63 series was to bring Latin music back to Broadway below 125th Street.”
Now in its second year, the monthly, Friday-night dance parties—which feature live sets by torchbearers of New York’s Latin dance music scene—are consistently packed. “The Atrium is really on the map now for Latin music,” says Chirinos, who says there is still space to grow. “One thing we noticed after the first season was the lack of female representation in terms of the artists. So this year we’ve focused on diversifying our program.”
Also in its second year, LC Kids transforms the Atrium into a vibrant family room on the first and third Saturdays of each month with free concerts and storytime for two- to five-year-olds. “It’s vital that all families have access to world-class programming at Lincoln Center, and we are especially interested in helping parents provide their children with a first-time arts-going experience here,” says Jonathan Shmidt-Chapman, producer of family programming at Lincoln Center Education. “The Atrium is the perfect space to introduce young audiences to the arts. It’s casual and welcoming, with plenty of room to move.” This month’s kids’ events include performances by JoJo and the Pinecones (January 7) and the Okee Dokee Brothers (February 4), as well as a Basquiat-inspired Storytime (January 21).
While all Atrium programs target the intersection among community, culture, and access, the Atrium’s focus on talks and conversations is perhaps where the mission of civic engagement is most transparent. Beginning February 8, Lincoln Center and VICE Media’s Watch & Learn series returns. The events—which feature a screening of a VICE Media report followed by a talk-back with the episode’s reporters and producers—have been enormously successful, bringing a diverse, young audience to Lincoln Center.
“Lincoln Center and VICE stand for a lot of the same things,” says VICE Media’s Deputy Communications Director Annie Augustine. “It’s such a thoughtful, engaged audience and the Atrium does a wonderful job creating a space where people don’t just come and consume, but actively participate. We’re never lacking thoughtful questions and always go over time.”
This engagement is notable at other Atrium events as well. Talking about a Q&A after The Telling Project, a theatrical work created and performed by veterans and refugees last November, Phokompe remembers one of the audience comments. “A gentleman said, ‘I want to thank you because hearing your stories made me aware of some of my own biases. It’s made me question some of my own thoughts’,” she recalls. “What else can we ask? If we can get people to start hearing one another, then we are succeeding. The arts have that power.”