The Creative Life of San Juan Hill

I’m on an upcoming panel about the creative activity of the neighborhood that was demolished in the building of Lincoln Center. Come! Thursday, November 9, 7pm, Sidewalk Studio of David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center; it’s free–reservations and info here.

The Ground Beneath West Side Story

I was asked to write an essay for the Legacies of San Juan Hill website that Lincoln Center has created to interrogate and explore the history of its site. My contribution comes just as the New York Philharmonic plays the score of the latest (Spielberg) movie version of West Side Story. I ask: “Inspiration is a ground from which to imagine. What happens when inspiration abets ignoring? Erasure? Appropriation? Among the legacies of San Juan Hill, West Side Story leaves us grappling still with these questions.” Still.

San Juan Hill: A New York Story

The jazz trumpeter and composer Etienne Charles has written a composition on the neighborhood that preceded Lincoln Center. And I provided some historical notes. He commissioned this mural by the Ex-Vandals at 2605 Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, and his composition premieres at part of the re-opening of Geffen Hall on October 8, 2022. Check out a video of the complete mural here. What a brilliant mural and effort!

Culture City: The Rise of the Arts in New York

The consolidation of a municipal cultural policy in New York since the 1950s has shifted the debate about the role of the arts in the city from architecture and buildings to the outdoor environment; from established institutions to activities on the streets and subways; and from a time-bound rehearsed performance to the spectacles of the everyday. If Lincoln Center came to embody the importance of the arts in New York in this era, so too did Jane Jacobs’ “sidewalk ballet” and the common belief that the city’s most compelling attribute was its “theater of the streets.” This book explores how the arts became embedded in structure, policy, economy, streets, habits, schools, subways—and what it means to be a New Yorker.

In progress; photo “Hamlet,” 1964, Central Park (NYPL)

Borough Arts Councils

Where the arts occurred in New York City changed in the 1960s-70s. Grand cultural complexes such as Lincoln Center consolidated the performing arts of opera, symphony, theater, and ballet. Television brought the arts to family living rooms, much as radio had done starting in the 1920s. The opening of Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center was broadcast in September 1962 with performances of Copland, Beethoven, and Mahler. And the arts moved outdoors, with Shakespeare in the Park and events on the plaza of Lincoln Center.

The arts also moved into neighborhoods.

Read more…

Festival Trucks, etc.

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).

Read more…

More Robbins

The Robbins’ events continue: a discussion at the Gotham Center with Carol Oja on Bernstein and Robbins; a showing of snippets of Robbins’ dances on the theme of collaboration (with composer, dancer, camera, community); and a talk with Adrian Danchig-Waring and Justin Peck on Robbins’ New York Portraits. Come!

Happy 100, Lenny!

Leonard Bernstein was born 100 years ago on August 25. A German documentary titled “West Side Story—Bernstein’s Broadway Hit,” in which I appear, will have its premiere on the Arte channel in Germany on August 19 at 17:30. I am also a part of a story on Bernstein on August 25 on the BBC program “Music Matters”; online streaming here. Both programs discuss the relation of Bernstein and West Side Story to New York City–one of my favorite topics.

On Aesthetic Education

In my attempt to understand the rise of New York as a “culture city,” I am focusing on the rise of Lincoln Center. There’s lots to investigate beyond the demolition and construction of buildings, as crucial as those are to the story. I’ve long known, for instance, that the Lincoln Center Institute–the educational arm of the complex, now a part of the wider umbrella known as Lincoln Center Education–demanded more of my attention. Even more enticing: starting in 1975, for nearly thirty years, the institute had a philosopher-in-residence, Maxine Greene. Read more…

Back to Dance

Perhaps you can never really leave it. But dance has become more central in my life again this year. Primarily it’s because of my collaboration with Netta Yerushalmy in her Paramodernities project, and also my time at the Center for Ballet and the Arts, and just more conversations with dancers. What strikes me most about this return is how much has changed in the years I’ve been studying dance. Read more…

Paramodernities #5

I’m returning to a previous life as a performer…. I’m delighted to be a part of Netta Yerushalmy’s Paramodernities #5, a performance piece on Bob Fosse. Dance, text, spectacle, sex — what more do you need? We’re previewing the piece at New York Live Arts on May 11-12, tickets are $10; more info here. The world premiere of Paramodernities will be at Jacob’s Pillow this summer from August 8-12; more info here.

Will I dance?

New York on Canvas, Page, and Stage

I get to talk in public about one of my favorite subjects, the rise of New York as a capital of culture. Join me and Fran Leadon, Christoph Lindner, and Robert Slayton in a conversation moderated by Morris Dickstein. CUNY Graduate Center, April 30, 2018, 6:30pm; more info here.

Musicals and New York

I wrote a meditation on this theme for the new annual journal, Musical Theater Today, which came out last year. Working on the Robbins exhibition non-stop makes me think about all this all over again.

Edgar Allan Poe saw crowds. The French poet Baudelaire saw the flâneur, a wandering observer. The dancer, choreographer, and director Jerome Robbins saw alienation. As a young, ambitious man in New York, Robbins wrote drafts and drafts of possible scenarios for the stage. All of them are about struggle. Young artists, full of dreams and anxiety, squeezed in two rooms in a brownstone in the west ’50s. A man asking for money on the subway to feed his family. Another homeless man pinched awake by a hard squeeze on his finger by a merciless cop. A woman hurrying past men huddled on the side of the building, their gazes searing her legs, thighs, and buttocks. Read more…

Voice of My City: Jerome Robbins and New York

In the ballets Fancy Free, Age of Anxiety, and Glass Pieces, and especially the musical and film West Side Story, the choreographer and director Jerome Robbins created indelible images of New York. This exhibition marks the 100th anniversary of his birthday and charts his insatiable quest to understand, depict, and belong in the city—his home and his muse.

On view at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center from September 26, 2018 to March 30, 2019; a digital version of the exhibition is available here. Photo NY Export: Opus Jazz (NYCB).

Paramodernities #5 (Fosse)

Dancer/choreographer Netta Yerushalmy’s Paramodernities is an experimental project that bridges dance, critical theory, performance, aesthetics, and history. Julia Foulkes joins Yerushalmy’s project as the writer/speaker on the installment on Bob Fosse’s Sweet Charity. Fosse created an iconic style–of turned-in feet, cocked hat, and jazz hands–and that style circulated through Broadway and Hollywood and lives on in music videos. The style also illuminated the edges of modernism, poised between high art and abstraction and commercial popular culture.

World premiere of Paramodernities at Jacob’s Pillow, August 2018.

Don’t Stop and Criticize–Go

Dances at a Gathering (1969) is one of Jerome Robbins’ most acclaimed ballets. Danced to Chopin, it is a meditation on relationships and what is revealed when people move together, alongside one another, in companionship. Robbins is rarely sweet—and that’s a word that may be too close to saccharine for it to have a less tainted meaning—but there is an innocence in this ballet that feels unweighted by drama. And drama is something that Robbins is well-known for, both in creating tension and meaning in dance, and in the process of choreography. Read more…

West Side Story at 60

The Library of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center is hosting a celebration of West Side Story, sixty years after its debut. See documents from the show’s creations, sing along to your favorite songs, and listen to some folks talk about the show (including me). Tuesday, September 19, 7pm.

Creating City People

New York City just released its first cultural plan. My response (published in Public Seminar).

Last week the city released its much-awaited cultural plan. The Department of Cultural Affairs undertook an unprecedented year-long process of surveying New Yorkers about arts and culture in New York, about what worked and what did not in the city’s creative life. Not surprisingly, equity and inclusion were repeated refrains: the arts and culture sector does not fully reflect the city’s diversity, and geography and cost restrict full access to the arts. Read more…

Martin Segal: Dollars and Joy

I’m back in the archives going through the papers of Martin Segal. Few in the arts might know Segal now but his legacies are everywhere: in the Martin E. Segal Theatre at CUNY, the Lincoln Center awards in his name that support rising artists, and the Film Society of Lincoln Center itself which he co-founded. But those legacies are only the most obvious. He was central to the arts in New York for over fifty years—and not just as a financial supporter. Segal served on the board of major institutions (MOMA, City Center); chaired Lincoln Center Inc. for five years; conceived and started the International Festival of the Arts; and consolidated the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs. He was a part of almost every endeavor that I have been studying over the last couple of years. Read more…


May I suggest that no book party is complete without dance—at least not one that looks at West Side Story! Here are Michael McILwee and Felicity Stiverson performing part of “Dance at the Gym.” Books, dance, the murals of José Clemente Orozco (with family in the background): my worlds collide.

Masterpieces of Everyday New York

In 2013, the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center initiated an exhibition on “objects as story,” prompted by curricular changes at Parsons that shaped its telling of the history of art and design around objects. New York served as the common theme for the exhibition, and faculty around the university identified and reflected upon an object that made up their New York. Mine: a sailor suit.

A Center for Dance

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). Read more…

Ballet Class

Today the fellows of the Center for Ballet and the Arts took a ballet class given by Melissa Barak, another fellow. CBA boasts a beautiful studio on the ground floor of Cooper Square, but the shades are always drawn. (I wish they would be open occasionally—ballet on the street—but I was grateful they were not today.) Jennifer Homans, CBA’s founder and director, believes that to understand ballet we have to start with class. Read more…

New York Arts Center: 1953

Mecca Temple, 135 55th St., 1929 (later City Center). New York Historical Society.

The Rockefeller brothers, long committed to philanthropy, began batting around ideas for a cultural center in New York in 1953. The grandiosity of the idea may have been possible only in the minds of people like the Rockefellers, or Robert Moses. When they joined forces, it was inevitable. Read more…

Objects and Space

My class on “Arts and Social Engagement” ends with a look at institutions and policy. Bricks-and-mortar and intellectual property laws seem destined to stultify conversation on the arts. But both institutions and policy structure channels of access (or not), value (or not), and innovation (or not). Read more…

Aaron Shkuda and I co-edited a special section in the Journal of Urban History on arts and urbanization in postwar U.S. cities. Articles by Joanna Dee Das, Susannah Engstrom, Matt Reynolds, Jeffrey Trask, Aaron, and me. (Introduction by me as well.) It’s available here!

Critiquing Critics

In class recently we discussed the role of critics. Much like a curator (our previous week’s topic), critics mediate an artwork for an audience. If a curator has multiple concerns, taking care of artwork, artist, institution, and audience, a critic is more solely concerned with the artwork, how it works, whether it works, for whom. Read more…

Painter History

Nell Painter, “Locke Harvard with Gradient 72,” Art History Volume XXVII, Ancestral Arts (2013)

Writing History: the seminar’s name describes its purpose. Luckily, it’s landed at the New School, so that it is easy for me to participate in a conversation that usually occurs only in my head. How can we be more creative in our writing about the past? How can thinking about being a writer make me a better historian? First up this semester: Nell Painter, historian and writer extraordinaire. Now she’s a visual artist. That is a trajectory I love, even if I cannot emulate. Read more…

Curating the Archives

The summer 2014 exhibition is now online! The virtual version includes reflections about the unusual demands of the exhibition from the curators, exhibition designer, and university archivist. Here is my conversation with Wendy Scheir, Director of the New School Archives and Special Collections, about curating the archives. Read more…

Hamilton, the Musical

Lin-Manual Miranda has combined some of my favorite things — musicals, hip-hop, and history. It’s a compelling spectacle: a familiar story of the founding of a new nation told through a less familiar figure (Hamilton), a multi-racial cast (African Americans and Latinos in the prominent roles of Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, the Marquis de Lafayette), and a contemporary musical genre. Beyond those innovative elements, though, why is it so compelling? Read more…

The City Lost & Found

This exhibit on “Capturing New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, from 1960-80,” is on view at the Princeton Art Museum until early June. The curators have assembled an impressive array of photographs, artworks, film, and historical artifacts to reveal how images became an indelible part of urban life during this period. Read more…

West Side Story: A Life

A writing experiment: to describe the book as a biography.

Biography (A Life). Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow. James Joyce: A Life by Edna O’Brien. West Side Story: A Life by Julia L. Foulkes? That is the central idea. Read more…

Creative Justice

For two intensive weeks that covered 40 hours of class time, students in Piper Anderson’s “Creative Justice” class read materials on the criminal justice system and the transformative justice movement, conducted interviews with people about their views on policing, and worked together to lay out how a community arts project might intervene in the issues. They came up with fundamental questions to ask themselves and others: Read more…

What Did We Do?

The final class of “Arts and Social Engagement” included group presentations of a diorama of an exhibit about advertisements, a multi-case investigation of the intertwining of art and politics, and a proposal for changes to the new University Center to highlight more art and expression from students (which we started off in class, above). The occasion of the ending of the class invites the question: what did we do?
Read more…

The Art of Structure

John McPhee has been writing about writing in The New Yorker in the past few years and one notable essay was about the centrality of structure to non-fiction writing. Sarah Koenig, the writer and producer behind the podcast hit Serial, says that the appeal of the series rests on knowing how to structure a story. And Frederick Wiseman counseled those of us at a recent seminar about his work to look closely at the structure in his films as a clue to how he made decisions to use which image or footage where.

What’s so magical about structure?
Read more…

Bodies in Motion

As shocking as the balloon nudes of Matisse and fractured bodies of Duchamp were, at least they stayed on the canvas. There bodies remained odd, perhaps unsettling but still. Bodies dancing on stages and in dancehalls outside of the Armory Show, however, were vibrantly – even dangerously — on edge. At the time of the exhibit, a dance craze was sweeping the nation, lifting young men and women off their feet, toward each other, and in pursuit of pleasure and escape. Read more…

“The Rite Of Spring”

Spring 1913: artwork that caused outrage, derision, acclaim, and confusion. Movement never seen before: feet pounding, torsos thrashing, limbs akimbo. Sounds never heard before: violins used like drums in relentless pulsation, full orchestra instrumentation loud and moaning, little melody or harmony to blunt the onslaught of percussion.

Now considered a masterpiece. Read more…

Sailors, Fancy Free

Exhibition Object and Text, Masterpieces of Everyday New York: Objects as Story (Kellen Gallery, Shelia Johnson Design Center, The New School, 2013)

In the ballet Fancy Free three sailors burst onto the stage, liberated from duty for a short leave. Leaning against a lamppost outside a bar, they wait for the city to happen. A woman passes, and action begins. Three ply their charms on her, one tires of the game, and another woman saunters by. Competition grows between the three men for two women, resulting in dueling solos. The fight amongst the sailors takes over, the women realize they have been forgotten and stride off, and the men find themselves where they began, waiting for something to happen. A third woman saunters by. Read more…

Theaster Gates’ Dorchester Projects

Theaster Gates received the first Vera List Center Prize for Art and Social Justice in 2013; this essay, with others, on Gates’ works in Carin Kuoni, ed. Entry Points: The Vera List Center Field Guide on Art and Social Justice, No. 1 (Duke University Press, 2015)

Theaster Gates himself and the spaces he has created are inspiring. Interrogating absence – identifying what’s missing – and harboring what’s thrown out, fills the places and allows us to see “what could happen.” There is more deliberation in the filling than this explanation of the process suggests, however. He generally has filled spaces not with whatever is thrown out but with resources of value to African Americans, whether past issues of Ebony and Jet or the records of Dr. Wax. He wants to see what happens in a largely overlooked neighborhood that is populated by 99.2% African Americans, 72% who are under 18. This is crucial to the art and the impact, and yet how race and youth structure his practice is rarely articulated. Read more…

Lincoln Center, The Rockefellers, and New York City

Rockefeller Archives Center, Research Report (Fall 2005)

Rockefeller explained his interest in Lincoln Center both by the particularities of the historical moment and the legacy of the arts beyond those particularities. He reasoned that postwar society in the U.S. was in an era of prosperity, with more leisure time available to more people than at any other time in history. The arts served to fill leisure time fruitfully, and spiritually. For while economic needs were being met and scientific advances in medicine had increased longevity, people’s spirits were diminished, and the arts could satisfy yearnings for fulfillment on a deeper, more meaningful level. Rockefeller also noted that famous cities in history – Rome, Athens, Paris, Kyoto – were known for their arts, not their political, economic, or business successes. Rockefeller was also concerned with the international dimensions of the United States’ power and recognized that most countries did not think highly of America’s culture. In his view, Lincoln Center would feature the best of the performing arts from the U.S. and provide a place to present the best of the performing arts from countries around the world to U.S. audiences. For Rockefeller, then, the performing arts in the 1950s fused the specific needs of the historical moment with a long-lasting, worldwide legacy. Read more…

“My Feet are Again on This Earth”

in African American Art and the Julius Rosenwald Fund, ed. Daniel Schulman (Spertus Museum and Northwester University Press, 2009)

“My feet are again on this earth,” the dancer Pearl Primus exclaimed upon receiving word in May 1948 of the Rosenwald fellowship granted to her, “and my preparations and plans are being made with great care.”i Dancers regularly leap off the ground and Primus was well known for her gravity-defying jumps–but the wonder in Primus’s exclamation expressed another kind of buoyancy: encouragement and financial support to a genre of the arts that was most often fueled by sheer determination. Read more…

Offense + Dissent: Image, Conflict, Belonging

Exhibition at Kellen Gallery, The New School (2014); Curators: Julia Foulkes, Mark Larrimore, and Radhika Subramaniam

Twenty-five years ago, a furor erupted at The New School when Sekou Sundiata, poet, performer, and professor, at Eugene Lang College, stung by an image exhibited in the Parsons Galleries, scrawled his dissent across it. His “X” inspired others and soon there were over 40 signatures covering the image. Read more…

The (Rural and Urban) Lives of Bees

I had the privilege to go to Mildred’s Lane on a work retreat recently. Founded by the artists J. Morgan Puett and Mark Dion, Mildred’s Lane is a farm by the Delaware River at the border of Pennsylvania and New York. (The nearest town is Narrowsburg, NY.) The farm hosts multiple buildings, most of them small installations with room enough for a bed and an imagination. I was lucky enough to nab the Grafter’s cabin put together by Morgan and dedicated to the beekeeping traditions in her family. Large netted hoods hung above my bed; the walls were plastered with waxed pages of Maurice’s Maeterlinck’s The Life of the Bee (1901); and the doors opened on to a vista of garden, field, trees – and nearby compost heap, which might attract “a parade of critters,” according to Morgan. Read more…

Dancing in the Streets: The Arts in Postwar U.S. Cities

This collection of essays on the arts in postwar U.S. cities offers a historical perspective on the contemporary embrace of the arts as a tool for urban place-making, neighborhood revitalization, economic boosting, and market branding. Urban historians can add a longer perspective to this trend to explain not only the roots of its current popularity but also more detailed measures of the arts’ impact. These essays look at arts institutions, artists as residents, and artworks themselves from the 1950s-70s to uncover the entangled intersection of arts and urbanization – before the arts became a touted salvation for stagnant economies and run-down neighborhoods. (Introduction [pdf])

Journal of Urban History, November 2015, edited with Aaron Shkuda. Photo: circa 1950s, The Vintage Project

Arts and Social Engagement

A poem can change the world. Or just one person’s life. What explains the connection between an artwork and an individual, a wider public, a world? This course serves as an introduction to a pathway of courses that investigate this question by examining the variety of ways in which the arts make and meet people.

Read the syllabus here.

Art + City

Cities are hubs of artistic activity. People are drawn to cities because of their artistic offerings and they are the place where the majority of artists live and work. But how and why did this intertwining of art and cities come about? And what effects has it had on cities and on the arts? This course investigates the art of urban life (such as the development of bohemia); genres of art that arose in and of the city (photography, the Broadway musical, hip hop); spaces of the city that become identified as an arts enclave (SoHo, “museum mile”); and the municipal policy and politics that both support and confound the arts in cities (public art). We read first-hand and historical accounts of artists in the city and analyze artworks for their portrayals of the ties between urban life and artistic vision.

Read the syllabus here.

Where Urbanization and the Arts Meet

The rise of Lincoln Center and the transformation of the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) reveal how tied stages are to streets. These articles examine how events inside these grand performing arts institutions — their performances, audiences, programming — related to the changing demographics and neighborhoods of New York; how ideas about urbanism and actions on city streets become transfigured in the arts; and how cosmopolitanism became inscribed in city life by these institutions. (Streets and Stages: Urban Renewal and the Arts After World War II [pdf]; The Other West Side Story [pdf]).

Photo: BAM, 1978 (NYPL)

The Arts in Place

Specialists of specific genres of art dominate scholarship on the arts — art historians examine visual art; musicologists analyze music – while social historians most often have investigated popular culture, the artistic realm of a broader populace. This volume brings together social history and the arts to offer methodological insights, particularly on visual and spatial aspects of the past. (“The Arts in Place: An Introduction” [pdf])

Photo by Susanne Faulkner Stevens: Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival, August 1975 (Lincoln Center Archives)

Miss Hill

Appearance as a guest speaker in Miss Hill: Making Dance Matter

A formidable administrator and advocate, Martha Hill fought to establish modern dance as an art form that deserved a place alongside ballet, opera, and the symphony, not only in the annals of American art but at Lincoln Center.

Anything Goes

Kurt Andersen at Studio 360 examines – and re-imagines the title song of – one of America’s Icons, with commentary by Julia Foulkes. Listen to the story here.