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Lincoln Center turns 50

Lincoln Center has become an elder statesman of New York. At least, that’s the conclusion I reached after coming back from the opening celebration that just concluded yesterday morning at Alice Tully Hall—the kickoff event of “Lincoln Center 50 Years.” The event felt the way I imagine the annual Al Smith Dinner feels. That is, you put a bunch of power players in the same room and give each of them the floor for about five minutes. Big applause after each one finishes.

Here, attention was paid to important people like David Rockefeller—brother of the late John D. Rockefeller III, who spearheaded the campaign to create Lincoln Center—who acknowledged applause from his seat in the audience. Among those in Tully Hall were members of Lincoln Center’s twelve resident organizations and students from the inaugural graduating class of local High School for Arts, Imagination, and Inquiry (founded by the Lincoln Center Institute), who cheered loudly when their school was mentioned. Architect Liz Diller of Diller Scofidio + Renfro (co-architects of Tully Hall with FXFOWLE Architects) was seen flitting about the room, smiling and chatting.

The morning started with Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” performed by the definitely uncommon brass players and percussionists from the New York Philharmonic. Emcee for the event—which was streamed live—was journalist Tom Brokaw, himself an elder statesman. He led off the proceedings with a joke about “In these dispiriting times, we should start every Monday morning with a concert like this in Alice Tully Hall.” Brokaw admitted to having “absolutely no artistic talent,” but quipped that he does participate in New York’s cultural activities: “I go to Knicks games with Itzhak Perlman.” (Perlman and seven musicians from his new student program performed part of the Mendelssohn Octet.) Audra McDonald, in a grey jersey-dress and tall black boots, lent her gorgeous soprano to a medley of Gershwin’s “Of Thee I Sing” and “America the Beautiful.” (The man next to me whispered, “Such a waste that she wants to do television and acting instead of this.”) Senator Chuck Schumer made connections between Copland’s Brooklyn boyhood and his own, complete with cracks about the motto for his basketball team from Madison High: “We may be small, but we’re slow.” Speakers threw around phrases like “letting impossible dreams take shape” and making something out of New York’s “urban wilderness.” Mayor Michael Bloomberg (also an LC funder) made jokes about the wonderful performers and entertainers at Lincoln Center, like Juilliard musicians, singers, New York Philharmonic players—and Chuck Schumer.) Lots of figures and stats were thrown around—like the 5 million annual visitors to Lincoln Center, and the many jobs that are created by the engine of the city’s arts economy. One of the more impressive figures cited during the speeches was the fact that something like 35 percent of first-chair positions in orchestras throughout the country went to Juilliard (a Lincoln Center resident organization). I’ll have to check on that one and get back to you; can that possibly be right?

Eisenhower breaking ground for Lincoln Center in 1959Strangely, nobody really talked about the vast changes to New York City in the years since Lincoln Center was built. Yes, Lincoln Center was a prototype of an arts “campus,” and so naturally its transformative effect on the neighborhood was praised. But the powers that be decreed, apparently, that this ceremony would not be the place to discuss how thinking about performing arts centers has evolved since that day in May 1959 when President Eisenhower broke ground for Lincoln Center. (This was covered in Anthony Tommasini’s May 10 article in the New York Times.) The model for arts centers has greatly changed in the intervening years, and today razing 16 acres of existing real estate—blighted or no—to make an arts center would probably face heavy opposition.  What Lincoln Center has done for the arts is an achievement that is very real, but it also seems strange not to document the vastly different environment and thinking on these things. Especially since the reopened Tully Hall is itself a reflection of that new way of thinking, with its welcoming glass façade at 65th Street and Broadway, its tapered steps, and its open-to-the-public bar and restaurant.

After the 50th-celebration ceremonies were finished yesterday, I caught sight for the first time of the newly spruced-up, functioning fountain at Lincoln Center’s plaza. Now THAT makes it really feel like Lincoln Center again, after all the scaffolding and construction that’s been going on there. The big re-do isn’t close to finished, but it’s getting there. Meanwhile, last night, the Empire State Building was lit in Lincoln Center’s 50th-anniversary colors. Fiftieth-anniversary colors! Purple, orange and white. It was easy to catch a view of the building—New York City finally had some clear weekday weather for the event.

Photo of President Dwight D. Eisenhower at Groundbreaking Ceremony, May 1959 by Bob Serating.

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.

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