In his essay looking back on Lincoln Center on its 50th birthday, Joe Horowitz suggests that the cultural citadel built optimistically to be a launching pad for the American performing arts, might have turned out instead to be a box canyon.
Perhaps the buildings are to blame: the Met theatre is too big and unwieldy, and Philharmonic Hall and the State Theatre, despite renovations, haven’t worked all that well acoustically. But forget for a moment the physical issues.
While there is an argument to be made for clustering together arts organizations and cultural buildings, the idea has to be animated in some way. Why should these organizations physically be together? Is it about art or about buildings? If it’s about buildings – creating a kind of critical mass of cultural activity that benefits by proximity – then the art comes to be defined by the buildings and how they’re used. The institutions themselves also come to be defined at least in part by their buildings. Build institutions and buildings that are impressive and can be visited and admired and pointed to with pride. That’s how you build the arts, goes the conventional wisdom – build institutions and the physical infrastructure to support them.
Except what if it isn’t?
We live in a time of gathering distrust of institutions. Where institutions were once essential for marshaling resources to accomplish things, we all know that institutions are inherently inefficient. They can be clumsy and broad-stroked. Generic and slow to react. Cautious. Institutions now seem to be at a disadvantage compared to dynamic constantly-reconfiguring networks that can move quickly and nimbly adapt. Increasingly more of the creative energy in our culture is found outside of traditional institutions.
This while much of the arts world is built on an institutional model and many of our biggest arts institutions are locked into facilities that might not serve changing audience tastes or be adaptive to artistic evolution.
There seems to be a consensus that the arts are struggling for relevance and constituency in a crowded contemporary world full of distraction. Many of the efforts to make arts organizations more relevant in recent years have focused on trying to adapt to the digital age and adjusting business models. Data suggest that the arts audience has been shrinking over the past few decades, despite ever-intensifying efforts to expand the arts base. Though most frequently framed as strategic or tactical issues focused on finding more audience, this is at least as much an artistic challenge as anything else.
What is artistic leadership and where is it today? After decades of preaching inclusiveness and diversity, many in America’s arts community were caught by surprise by November’s election. America’s artists might not, it turns out, reflect the communities in which they work, and a question worth asking is what should the role of artists be in their communities.
Building performing arts centers such as Lincoln Center was a vote for a particular European notion of culture, and set us firmly on the road to the institutionalization of American arts. Perhaps it is that institutionalization that is really the box canyon rather than the cultural campuses themselves. In this new age of collaboration that seems to be animating many fields, maybe performing arts centers reconceived as collaborative artistic spaces rather than joint-tenancies might reinvigorate the idea and produce bolder artistic leadership.