Public Relations

Lincoln Center was a massive project that took over ten years to complete, went way over budget, and embodied deep contradictions about the arts—and New York. Just the project in need of a public relations firm! And, so, it hired one.

Lincoln Center retained the public relations firm Earl Newsom and Company starting in the fall of 1960. Before the age of management consultants, it seems that public relations firms not only crafted public perception but also identified problems that an institution faced in organization, strategy, and planning. So the records I just looked at the Wisconsin Historical Society revealed more than I anticipated. (Oh, how I love confidential memos!)

When Lincoln Center hired the firm, it was over a year after groundbreaking on the first building and two long years before that building would open. Already, by this point, media fatigue had set in. The public relations person at Lincoln Center neatly identified the conundrum when he said, in 1959, that Lincoln Center was the “one of the best-known non-existent institutions on Earth.” Fundraising was particularly difficult in the face of outcomes still very much in the making. In particular, Newsom and Co. recognized that the discussion of the center had to pivot from real estate, construction, and money, to the arts–programming, education, and creative possibilities. Lincoln Center was an immense real estate project and an enormous financial undertaking, all to become a landlord overseeing embattled constituents— “none of these roles has any warm popular appeal,” Earl Newsom summed up in his first report to the board. So, he concluded, “it is vitally important that Lincoln Center disclose in every possible way its devotion to the arts.”

Almost every one of those confidential memos is about how to focus attention on the Lincoln Center Fund for Education and Artistic Advancement—especially on how the performing arts will reach young people, and not just those training in the arts (such as at Juilliard). This solved many of the contradictions the center aroused. It couldn’t be an elite endeavor if thousands—hopefully millions—of schoolchildren were the recipient of its programming. It couldn’t be propping up old traditions of European genres if artistic collaborations among constituents were being instigated. It couldn’t be dominated by businessmen and philanthropists if artistic experimentation was being seeded. But it’s clear that those goals, and the fund itself, were not wholly successful. In fact, money from that fund was utilized in later years as a loan to finish off construction. I’m not yet sure if it was paid back.

There is much to consider, absorb, and put into conversation with other documentation: the ongoing tussles with constituents; a debate about the impact of subscription tickets; the attention to television; and, as always, the touting of air-conditioning in the new theaters as transforming theatrical experience and programming by extending the performing season (a less vaunted achievement in our moment of climate crisis).

But it’s particularly fun to come across a note to me about opening night of Philharmonic Hall on September 23, 1962, by one of the partners of the firm: “I suppose that cultural historians of the future will be distressed only by the somewhat theatrical vulgarity of the musical program of Sunday—but, then, I am allergic to [Leonard] Bernstein as a conductor.” I am not distressed, or, perhaps, only wondering if there was enough “theatrical vulgarity” for me!