A year ago, I visited the archives at Yale to look at the papers of John Lindsay, the mayor of New York City from 1966-73. I’ve recently gone back to the documents, conjuring a city fifty years ago that faced growing racial tensions and fiscal constraints (minus a pandemic).
Lindsay is well-known for his liberal politics, from whichever ticket he was on—Republican, Democrat, Liberal Party. (New York City political affiliations are opportunistic.) His outlook and his policies were basically consistent: government works to aid those in need. While he favored decentralization of the schools to allow for more community control, he worked throughout his career to increase government support of the arts. As a congressman, he pitched bills for a federal advisory council on the arts from 1959 and through to the establishment of the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities in 1965. He took that support to the streets and parks of New York City when he became mayor.
One of Lindsay’s first steps as mayor was to promote the use of New York as a shooting location for film and television. He created a “one-stop” office to simplify a process that used to take as many as fifty permits from various agencies. Films shot on location rose from eleven in 1965 to forty-two in 1967. Celluloid images and imaginings of New York proliferated.
New York became a more common filmic background as the arts took center stage in the city. Lindsay fortified the four-year-old Office of Cultural Affairs by giving it more money—$1.2 million in appropriations his first year as mayor—but also by adding it to an enlarged and renamed Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Affairs Department. Part of this was a recognition of a growing interest in the arts, or at least a growing attention to people’s interest in the arts. A 1965 Rockefeller Report documented the explosion in performing arts around the country, most of it “amateur.” That same year, though, “70,000 New Yorkers trooped out to hear the New York Philharmonic play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony,” Lindsay declared in a press release (b.103, f.194). “The crowd exceeded any the Philharmonic had ever played before. It more than doubled the attendance at the game between the Minnesota Twins and the Yankees the same night. It topped the gathering of 55,000 teenagers which rocked to the Beatles five days later at Shea Stadium,” the release crowed.
Lindsay believed in elevating the arts, making them as necessary as parks, and in widening access. Just as he pushed the formation of pocket parks in all the boroughs so too did he bolster the formation of arts councils in Brooklyn and Queens. And his department took the arts to the streets in the creation of a Festival Truck that brought the basic needs of a street festival to blocks around the city in the summer of 1969. (Picture above from brochure about this in b.253 f.239.)
Lindsay’s impact on the streets and parks reveal the contradictions of the arts during this era, particularly his dealings with Joseph Papp. Lindsay inherited strong city support for Papp’s Shakespeare in the Park, which had settled into an outdoor arena built especially for it in Central Park, the Delacorte Theatre, which opened in 1962. Early on in Lindsay’s tenure, Papp negotiated a deal to buy the Astor Library on Lafayette Street to house his operations, rehearsal rooms, and two stages—all possible because of a newly passed municipal Landmarks Preservation bill that made historic preservation a way to avoid demolition of older structures. Rising costs of restoration and management forced Papp to implore the city to purchase the building just a few years later, in 1969, so that the Public Theater could live without rent or mortgage, alongside other major cultural institutions of the city such as the Brooklyn Museum of Art and public libraries. Despite Papp’s financial recklessness, the city acquiesced because they deemed Shakespeare in the Park as emblematic of the best of the city’s support of the arts (Kriegel files, b.6 f.106).
This view of Papp rested on elite assumptions about the arts. Shakespeare is the pinnacle of any unquestioned view of the arts; many still consider his works the best of literature, despite their centerpiece in arguments about the superiority of white, western civilization. Taking Shakespeare to “the masses” then—the crowds in Central Park or through mobile units to the boroughs—even better: the best art to elevate those most in need of such edification. But when Papp brought the mobile unit to Morningside Park in 1964, they threw rocks at the actors. He remade Hamlet with Black actors; the onlookers just waited until after the performance to heave chairs. “A black Hamlet does more for Shakespeare than the ghetto, adding a resonance to the soliloquies but little relevance to the poor,” the critic John Lahr noted in 1968.
Broadening access to the performing arts was a key, laudable goal in the 1960s. But it was understood in narrow terms. It first meant bringing more people into Lincoln Center to attend a performance of the Metropolitan Opera. Then there was a recognition that these arts could travel to people in their neighborhoods—mobile units of Shakespeare in the Park to the Bronx; the Philharmonic to a park in Queens. What appears to change in the 1970s and ‘80s is the recognition that communities themselves have expressive arts that should be valued and supported. The battle since: getting those arts into the center, Manhattan, Lincoln Center, elite cultural institutions. The battle continues.