The fountain was putting on a show — dancing, playing, shooting high, falling back to nothing at all, making walls of water, so much fun. Here’s a video (from my iPhone), complete with dancing little girl. (It’ll take a while to load. And clicking the arrow on the right won’t show it.)
All this was completely unheralded. Nothing advertising the fountain dance, unless you count a guard coming around to warn people (like me) sitting at the edge that we might get wet.
A triumph. Such an adornment for Lincoln Center, and, I could wish, everything that goes on there.
But what was happening at the three surrounding big performance halls, the Met Opera, Avery Fisher (where the NY Philharmonic plays), and the David H. Koch Theater?
Major fail. The Met Opera should have been triumphant, since they’re showing four big banners, advertising the four operas of the Ring, their splash productions of the spring. But the banners are drab — beyond drab. Almost shockingly drab. And the already drab colors fade even more in the bright sun!
I think they’re ugly banners, too. And mismatched. And hard to understand. I’ve been looking at them for a couple of weeks, and it took some detailed up-close looking before I realized that the Siegfried banner shows Siegfried surging up toward Brünnhilde’s rock, and that the Walküre banner shows a woman. The Rheingold banner shows rippling water, and (like the others) the opera’s name. Except that when the wind puffs it, you can’t see either water or the name.
This completely baffles me. To fail with the Ring production, as I think the Met did, is honorable, if unfortunate and sad. Productions are difficult. But to fail with banners? What could be easier than to make sure your banners burst with life and interest, that they’re clearly visible, and that they look like they belong together? Graphic design, after all, is something our culture does consummately well. How could the Met have failed so badly here?
Avery Fisher Hall? A mostly blank facade, with one drab banner (less drab than what the Met gives us, but still drab) advertising the Philharmonic. At the very top, so you have to crane your neck to see it, is Alan Gilbert’s name (he of course being the music director). At the bottom, much more plainly visible, is something the Philharmonic might care about, but the public doesn’t, and that certainly isn’t anything that makes you want to go to concerts: the name of the orchestra’s big corporate sponsor, Credit Suisse.
The Koch theater? Oh, my. No banners. No sign of life even remotely visible, until you approach the entrance. Then you see posters for the New York City Ballet, which turns out to be starting its spring season…um, nest week! They couldn’t make more noise about it?
And the posters. The two I saw first, the ones right at the entrance to the theater (which surely is where anyone who wanted to know what was going on would first think to look), show each ballet the company will dance, in 65 smallish tiles, with the dates of the performances for each one shown underneath. Only — this is the literal truth — by scanning almost all the tiles did I discover that the season was about to start.
True, when I walked a bit to the left, I found other posters for the company, that more clearly told me when the season started. But would everybody see those? I only saw them because I wanted to be fair, wanted to be sure the posters with the 65 tiles weren’t the only ones on view. If I hadn’t made a point of looking further, I would very likely just have walked away, baffled yet again by how yet another Lincoln Center mainstay doesn’t seem to know how to promote itself.
Maybe you could say that the Philharmonic and the ballet have their own marketing tools, which address their likely audiences, and that these tools generate the ticket sales they’re getting. But that would miss two crucial points. One is that neither company, from what I hear, has exactly been growing its ticket sales. More like they’ve been shrinking, over many years. So they need to address new audiences. Why not try to do it right where you’re performing?
And the other point is that you’d surely want New York’s most visible arts performance place to be, well, visible. You’d want some sense of action, of festivity, of buzz, of excitement. Something nobody walking through or past the plaza could miss, something to make us feel we’d want to be there for a performance.
Which isn’t happening. While the fountain, all alone, does exactly what’s needed, gives us joy, delight, interest, something to tell our friends about.
I’m a little wary of saying what I’d do if I were in charge, because in some crucial sense, nobody’s in charge of Lincoln Center. The Lincoln Center organization, which I’d assume made the fountain happen, represents only itself, and the performances it itself produces. The constituents — like the Met, the Philharmonic, and the City Ballet — go their own way.
But still, if you’re going to have such fun with the fountain, why wouldn’t the constituents want to join in? By, for instance, having something similar — something visual, arresting, fun, unmissable — going on in or near their halls. They could work out ways to have these things complement the fountain, not compete with it. The point would be festivity — have everyone join in to make Lincoln Center (and the Met, and the Philharmonic, and the City Ballet) feel festive.
And/or you could have a fountain competition. The show I saw the fountain do (the video I made gives only a small taste of how wonderful it was) was expertly choreographed, like the best fireworks displays. It would be fun to have each constituent — including those not visible on the plaza, like the library, the Film Society, the Chamber Music Society — design their own fountain dances. Then advertise which dance was playing, whenever one began, and let the public vote on which one they liked best.
Yes, maybe this would stretch the resources of some of the constituents (even the big ones), and maybe some wouldn’t want to do it. But maybe some would. You could have a special evening show, with lights, with everybody’s fountain fun on display. You’d get attention, and — no small thing — have a wonderful time. There could be live music, food, a little festival.
The way to get attention is to make some noise. Don’t we want to do that in the arts?