Lincoln Center: Celebrating 50 Years

Classic Arts Features   Lincoln Center: Celebrating 50 Years
On May 14, 1959, when ground was broken by President Eisenhower to create Lincoln Center, a lot more was overturned than some soil on the west side of Manhattan. From that moment forward, the way live performing arts were brought to the public was forever changed.


Here would be a confluence of opera, dance, theater, jazz, and classical music, with the finest performers in these disciplines sharing a 16.3-acre campus and inspiring one another.

Thanks to an influential film society and works by major artists such as Alexander Calder, Mark Chagall, Jasper Johns, and Henry Moore, a strong visual arts component deepened the creative environment of the Center. With The Juilliard School, Lincoln Center Institute, the School of American Ballet, the Metropolitan Opera Guild and Young People's concerts at the New York Philharmonic, Lincoln Center became an unrivaled mecca of arts education. And the outstanding Library for the Performing Arts, a branch of the New York Public Library, is an unmatched research facility for arts professionals and the public alike.

Lincoln Center: Celebrating 50 Years: the first major exhibition to explore the origins, development, and impact of this performing arts complex: opens at the Donald and Mary Oenslager Gallery of the Library on October 15, 2009 and runs through January 16, 2010. It promises to trigger cherished memories of the Center's 12 resident organizations as well as suggesting what the future might hold as Lincoln Center evolves physically and welcomes new generations of artists and audiences.

Thomas Mellins was approached by Lincoln Center in 2007 to curate this show. "As I recall," he said in a recent conversation, "their desire was to have an exhibition about Lincoln Center from groundbreaking to the current day. My feeling was that it was best done thematically." Rather than opt for a predictable approach such as separately describing the constituents or doing a display of artifacts in chronological order, Mellins chose a group of themes that would "explain the unfolding and evolution of Lincoln Center's complex history, the cross-fertilization that has occurred between the Center and the city, and the role it has had in elevating New York's cultural status on the international scene." The categories he selected are history, architecture, technology, media and commerce, education, personalities, and performances.

Mellins, co-author of New York 1960 (Monacelli, 1995), believes that Lincoln Center rose at a crucial point in urban history. At the time, Americans increasingly sought culture and entertainment from television, leading to what he calls "the privatization of culture." In other words, people were turning their backs on the experience of live performances in favor of what could be found in the privacy of their homes. Families were moving out to suburbs. "With Lincoln Center, its founders were asserting that culture, and not just affordable housing, was central to the renewal of inner cities. Here, for the first time, federal, state and local money, leadership and will was focused on the city as a cultural presence."

Lincoln Center was a vast urban renewal project that knocked down tenements (some of which were the settings of the film version of West Side Story) and became a gleaming travertine acropolis housing companies such as the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, the New York City Ballet and the New York City Opera, and evolved into a welcoming place where great old works would be presented side-by-side with newly commissioned ones. Lincoln Center became not simply a vessel of time-tested masterpieces but an engine to foster new creations.

Anyone who has attended performances at Lincoln Center for one or more decades can attest to the physical and social transformations of the neighborhood surrounding the complex. Where once its buildings were among the tallest, it now is an airy oasis in a thicket of skyscrapers. For Mellins, the meaning of Lincoln Center's architecture, which includes the work of titans such as Philip Johnson, Wallace K. Harrison and Eero Saarinen was not just about design but being a "suitable expression of a new kind of cultural institution." Architectural designs (including some not used) will be part of the exhibition. So too will be documentation of "the way media and commerce were used to present Lincoln Center as a cultural campus and to persuade the public that it was a worthwhile endeavor."

Visitors to Lincoln Center are aware of the profound physical changes the complex is undergoing. For Mellins, "the redesign of Juilliard and Alice Tully Hall is a good metaphor for Lincoln Center at 50. It speaks to the idea of preservation and innovation, both of which the Center seeks to do culturally."

Mellins believes that changes in technology affected how performances at Lincoln Center are experienced. It is well known that radio, television and HD transmission have brought live performances directly from stages to homes and cinemas throughout the world. Lighting and stage equipment has been computerized, so the way productions are built has become more technological and less handmade. The first great technical innovation was probably air conditioning which made for year-round programming and, in turn, led to the Mostly Mozart and Lincoln Center Festivals.

The heart of the exhibition will be devoted to the performers and performances that are this arts complex's reason for being. "The array of people associated with Lincoln Center is staggering," said Mellins, "and I want this show to include not only the famous names such as Bernstein, Sills, Pavarotti, Balanchine and Marsalis but other performers and designers whose legacy is just as important but less recognized." There will be photos of Kevin Kline, Patti Lupone and Kevin Spacey as Juilliard students and youthful images of superstars such as James Levine and Itzhak Perlman. But the visitor should also pay attention to the young people who attend the exhibition and are part of the Lincoln Center milieu, because some of them will be the stars of tomorrow and protagonists of a future exhibition: Lincoln Center: Celebrating 75 Years.


Hours: Mon & Thu: 12 to 8 p.m.; Tue, Wed, & Fri: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sat; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; closed Sundays and holidays. Admission is free.

An exhibition opening lecture by Thomas Mellins: Lincoln Center: Culture, New York _Style, will take place in Bruno Walter Auditorium on October 15 at 6 p.m.

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