Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts
Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts
At the inception of its initial fundraising campaign, President Dwight D. Eisenhower hailed the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts as the "great cultural adventure" that would transform twelve deteriorated acres on the west side of New York City's Manhattan into a magnificent complex of auditoriums. Instead, following its groundbreaking in 1959 Lincoln Center served as an unofficial referendum on how the new rich, as well as the masses, perceived the performing arts at the height of America's Imperial Age.
In the mid-1960s the media announced that a "cultural explosion" was at hand. Fortune's futurist, Alvin Toffler, argued that "millions of Americans have been attracted to the arts, changing the composition of the audience profoundly." Judging by consumer activity, he was right. At the end of the 1950s Americans spent $425 million annually on phonograph records pressed by 1500 companies that sold in 8000 record stores to 26 million customers. Just three decades earlier only three companies had shared a $7.5 million dollar market.
The other side of the coin was that in the mid-1950s, at the peak of our Imperial Age, auditoriums in New York City were demolished in favor of parking lots (Carnegie Hall was to be replaced by a skyscraper), and no opera company, symphony orchestra, or repertory theater company anywhere in the country had a 52-week season. Ballet companies came in and out of existence with bewildering rapidity and based their finances on the whims of wealthy patrons, one of whom, Rebekah Harkness, danced along with the troupe. Loud protests to the overall depressing situation of the performing arts came mainly from performers. The public seemed indifferent.
The bright, shining example of what might be was the New York City Center of Music, Drama, and Art. In 1943, after the Shriners failed to pay city taxes for a Mecca Temple in mid-town Manhattan, Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia encouraged the building's use for artistic purposes. In an amazingly short time, it housed a symphony orchestra led first by Leopold Stokowski and then by Leonard Bernstein, a ballet company directed by Lincoln Kirstein and choreographer George Balanchine, a drama company directed by José Ferrer, and an opera company whose performers would include Beverly Sills.
The New York Times advised that "with 43 percent of patrons recording annual incomes under $5000 and another 43 percent with incomes under $10,000, the Center is an undertaking for the 'Common Man."' Better yet, 40 percent had college degrees and more than a third were either working toward a graduate degree or already had one. Many could not afford tickets for Carnegie Hall or the Metropolitan Opera. But regardless of age or circumstance, attendees all projected enthusiasm and willingness to support experiments in the arts.
The Center replaced an idea La Guardia had had in the 1930s for a "Municipal Arts Center" near Manhattan's Rockefeller Center. The enormous structure contemplated was to house the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Opera, and the New York Philharmonic. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and his sons grasped the value of such an assemblage of world-famous arts organizations near their majestic real estate development; Nelson Rockefeller, recently graduated from Dartmouth, volunteered as a fund raiser. But the Great Depression was a bad time to test public opinion, and the plan was dropped.
Accounts of how Lincoln Center came to be and its significance in America's cultural history usually begin with John D. RockefellerIII's chance discussion at a September 1954 Council for Foreign Relations meeting in the Poconos. Two other board members brought him news that Carnegie Hall would soon be demolished and further told him that the Metropolitan Opera House should be demolished. Rockefeller formed an "Exploratory Committee" and traveled to Europe for a reconnaissance of concert halls and opera houses.
Fully persuaded that America must have equal or superior auditoriums to those in Europe, Rockefeller announced that he would head a permanent group seeking to construct a New York City arts center. He was not known to have an interest in the performing arts, so his willingness to lead what would be the largest single private-sector fundraising campaign to date in American history (initially with a $55 million goal, finally with $184 million needed for completion), on their behalf, was surprising. It was suspected that reasons other than popular yearning for the performing arts had influenced him.
And in fact they had. Rockefeller, who had presidential ambitions, wanted to ingratiate himself with the intelligentsia—voters like those who attended City Center performances. Furthermore, William Zeckendorf, a real estate developer, wanted to build a competing version of Rockefeller Center in Manhattan's Lincoln Square area. And not least, Robert Moses, New York's most astute political insider and then a Rockefeller ally, had access to federal and city funds for what promised to be the largest "coordinated Title I [urban redevelopment] project in the country," also earmarked for the Lincoln Square area. Ostensibly to replace the slums, Moses offered the public (and Rockefeller) a package that would include the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, Fordham University's Law School, the Juilliard School of Music, and public housing.
Unfortunately, the campaign for Lincoln Center proved a great many pundits wrong. Rockefeller family members despairingly put $60 million into the facility because no other way could be found to end the fundraising effort. The repeated refusals by both New York's old and new commercial aristocracies to contribute to the campaign demonstrated that they would attend performances but not if they had to do more than buy tickets. Unless benefactions were tax-deductible and/or immense sums in public funds were invested in facilities, the very rich preferred hearing performances in existing structures or in Europe.
The most staggering findings of all related to the reactions of the masses to a "cultural explosion." John D. Rockefeller III, a dignified and reserved man, had middle-brow artistic tastes, at best. The vast expenditures of time and money that he directed did not produce anything near in imagination or in appeal to what had been created at the City Center for a fraction of the cost. The masses did not flock to Lincoln Center.
What Lincoln Center demonstrated for the American common-weal was that a giant bell curve operated in the performing arts, just as it did in every other field of human activity. A minority of the population—not a mass audience—demanded quality in the performing arts. Another minority was totally disinterested in them. And the overwhelming majority between the two might be interested if celebrities performed or playing a musical instrument was a hobby. Otherwise, the "cultural explosion" did not exist.
Goldin, Milton. "'Why the Square?' John D. Rockefeller 3rd and the Creation of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts." Journal of Popular Culture. Winter 1987, 17-30.
Longley, Marjorie, Louis Silverstein and Samuel A. Tower. America's Taste 1851-1959. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1960.
Marks, Peter."It's a Success, But Is That Enough?" New York Times. October 27, 1996, Section 2:1.
Muschamp, Herbert. "Critic's Notebook: Lincoln Center's Enduring Vision." New York Times. July 19, 1996, C:1.