Yesterday I gave a talk at the Center for Ballet and the Arts about other centers–City Center and Lincoln Center. The tangled relationship between these two institutions reveals the ideals, politics, and challenges of the arts in New York, especially for dance. In short, ballet won at Lincoln Center. Both the New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre have their home there. Other forms of dance (modern, Ailey) and smaller ballet companies (Joffrey) have found their home at City Center (as well as at the Joyce, Dance Theater Workshop, Danspace Project, etc).
Ballet won because it better fit the grand ideals of Lincoln Center. In this Cold War monument to classical performing arts, ballet was the most effective weapon. America could beat the Europeans at their own art forms, particularly the balletic and operatic traditions of Russia and Germany. Even better that the Americanization of ballet was led by George Balanchine, a Russian immigrant. And Lincoln Center claimed to be a bastion of democracy in bringing “great art to all,” as the current president of Lincoln Center puts it.
But did it?
City Center has a greater claim to the mantle of bringing the arts to more people. It held its ticket prices low and offered a variety of productions, from operetta and musical theater to dance, symphony, drama, and opera. Through the years, productions were criticized for their lack of quality or for artistic choices that could lead to profit over costs. Its focus was local while Lincoln Center’s was arguably global, both in terms of audience and impact.
While this is the general outline of what happened, politics mattered as well. The Rockefeller brothers were key players, especially John and Nelson. They provided leadership, political force, and money—lots of it. (The Rockefeller family and foundations provided 45% of the total cost of Lincoln Center.) Lincoln Center suited their vision of New York: global, monumental, traditional, of “good stock,” rhetorically open to all. Ultimately, however, this is a conservative vision, and one that has not turned out to be that inclusive. But, as Jennifer Homans asked me: what to make of the radical art on the inside of the center, on its stages?
Other questions asked: What about the architecture? The plaza? The educational efforts, from Juilliard to Lincoln Center Institute as well as those of each constituent? The fiscal crisis and labor problems of the 1970s? Relation to other efforts of cultural diplomacy of the era? To the World Trade Center (yet another Rockefeller-backed endeavor)?
The range of the questions points to my problem: how do I tell this story? Is it best as an in-depth look at the development of Lincoln Center, its many parts and tangled internal and city politics? Or should I put Lincoln Center into conversation with other performing arts institutions (Kennedy Center, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Sydney Opera House) to uncover larger urban and global flows of tourism, urbanization as gentrification, cultural nationalism? Or is best understood as a part of the story of the rise of New York as a capital of culture in the 20th century?
The visual artist in the group leaned toward the latter context and found the visual sources that accompanied my talk particularly compelling. Perhaps I should re-think form in addition to the contextual framework. Lincoln Center: a graphic novel?!