Lincoln Center has failed the arts

Lincoln Center has failed the arts


norman lebrecht

February 18, 2017

In a thoughtful jubilee essay on the evolution of the arts center, the historian Joseph Horowitz argues that the Manhattan project has patently failed in its mission to create a union of all the arts.



The Lincoln Center dream (however vague) was of American performing arts synergistically feeding off one another in a single charged location. But today’s Metropolitan Opera, New York Philharmonic, and New York City Ballet are institutions wholly distinct in identity, achievement, and potential.

The Met pursues grand opera in a grand space – a brave but increasingly riddled enterprise.

The Philharmonic has enjoyed no sustained artistic mission. As of this writing, it is preparing to decamp in 2019…

As for City Ballet, the Stravinsky identity Balanchine conferred – an apotheosis of impersonality and lucidity – is not as timeless as the coda to Apollo.

Read the full essay here.


In a commentary on Joe’s essay, editor Doug McLennan wonders whether an arts centre is still a sustainable concept:

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.

Doug is right. The arts centre is a peculiar European idea, one that has failed over and over again. Look no further than the South Bank in London.

There is a case to be made for dismantling multi-disciplinary arts hubs, starting with the Lincoln Center.

Tear them down.


  • Nikos Salingaros says:


    The so-called “arts center” is one of the misconceptions coming from industrial-modernist urbanism, adopted wholeheartedly in the post-war years. It decreed a segregation of functions, imposing groupings of buildings with the same or similar function. Thus, in modern suburbia, offices are now separated from restaurants, which are separated from schools and residences, etc. This philosophy kills the living city.

    The “arts-center” is the result of this warped thinking: put several arts venues in close proximity in keeping with the segregative/monofunctional zoning idea. It never worked. As has already been explained by numerous urbanists and astute commentators, nobody will attend the Ballet after sitting through an Opera or Symphony concert. The whole idea simply doesn’t make sense.

    So, why have millions of people accepted this urban crazy typology? Because it became part of our disoriented culture. architects turned from building according to the way human beings actually live and interact, to creating projects that look “nice” on paper (and nowadays, on a computer screen). An “arts-complex” like Lincoln Center certainly looks nice on a photo. But the design remains on an astonishingly shallow level of superficiality.

    Kind regards,
    Nikos Salingaros

    • Don Ciccio says:

      Sorry but you are wrong. It happened to me not once to attend say an opera or ballet at matinee, a Film Society of Lincoln Center screening in the afternoon and a concert – or another opera, ballet or play – in the evening (though I have to admit that sometime I combine Lincoln Center with Carnegie Hall – or, rarely, with Broadway) in the same day. More so now during my not infrequent visits since I don’t live in New York any longer. Between these events I eat at local restaurants or eateries.

      Can’t speak for anyone else but I suspect that I am not the only one who does that. In any case, for me Lincoln Center works wonders.

  • Alexander Davidson says:

    It seems a bit harsh to say that the South Bank has failed. I assume that by “South Bank” you mean the Southbank Centre, BFI Southbank, and National Theatre, not the Southbank Centre alone. The only problem with music at the Southbank Centre is that the Royal Festival Hall is acoustically substandard. The artistic quality is outstanding, and the programming ranges from average to outstanding. The series “The Rest is Noise” was a brilliant project. I suppose where the Southbank Centre fails is that its offerings in the visual arts and literature are poor and are probably seen by most as a token offering to justify the existence of the Southbank Centre as something other than purely a classical music venue. I would be interested to know what fault anybody could find in the BFI Southbank or National Theatre.

  • Ravi Narasimhan says:

    ‘…the historian Joseph Horowitz argues that the Manhattan project has patently failed in its mission to create a union of all the arts….There is a case to be made for dismantling multi-disciplinary arts hubs, starting with the Lincoln Center.”

    So, if it doesn’t work in NYC, it is a mistake everywhere?

    • Ross says:

      How doesn’t it work on New York?
      A lot of people come there to attend a performance. A lot of people who attend performances there eat at nearby restaurants. A lot of people live nearby.
      Every time I go to any of those 3 aforementioned institutions, the house is packed, and it’s difficult to get a table at any nearby restaurant.

      As for Nikos’s point about not going from one venue to another consecutively, why does that matter?

      Why should it bother someone that the ballet, the philharmonic, and the opera are in the same plaza? How would it improve your experience if they moved and were all located far away from each other? It certainly wouldn’t help the scalpers who stand outside with tickets to several different events!

      • Ravi Narasimhan says:

        I am not saying that it has failed in NYC. I don’t live there and have no direct experience of Lincoln Center.

        Horowitz’s article however makes it sound like LC has failed. The piling on afterward makes it sound like that should direct the civic futures of other cities.

        “If you can’t make it there
        You can’t make it anywhere…”

  • Steven Holloway says:

    Joseph Horowitz is a music critic, not an historian. It baffles me how all these errors on SD come about. Horowitz’ most significant work is probably Conversations with Arrau, which cannot be recommended highly enough.

  • Bill says:

    This seems like a specious argument, to say the least. So the Philharmonic has no artistic direction and maybe Van Zweden was a bad choice. That may be so, but that is a failure of the Philharmonic’s management to hire a music director with a vision, not the fact that they are located in Lincoln Center. If “Arts Centers” are such dismal failures, how does one account for the spectacular success of the LA Philharmonic in Disney hall, just across the plaza from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion?
    As far as Geffen Hall’s acoustic failures, hopefully they will be addressed properly this time. Orchestra Hall in Chicago, built in 1904, was not exactly a triumph of acoustic design either, and that is a stand alone building. Geffen Hall is not the worst hall, by a long shot. But it has the misfortune of being both the successor and existing in the same city as Carnegie Hall. Geffen Hall’s problems are a failure of acousticians to deliver a satisfactory acoustical design, not the fact it’s in an arts hub.
    I still see plenty of sold out audiences and crowds in and around Lincoln Center. The area was blighted before it was there, and New York and the arts have benefited enormously from its presence. As a conservatory student that attended Manhattan School of Music 60 blocks uptown, we were definitely at a disadvantage to the students at Julliard that had the synergy and easy and quick access to their teachers and to performances right on their block.

    I’ve been reading about the imminent failure of Classical Music and Opera and Ballet for about 40 years now, and I’ve read articles written in the 1930’s lamenting the imminent collapse of the art. Any minute now, it’s gonna happen, just like all the wealth the Republicans promise will trickle down.

    As far as “Institutionalizing the Arts” That’s a bad thing? As opposed to what? Karen Findlay smearing chocolate syrup all over her body? Give me a break…

  • Christopher Wilson says:

    Mr. Horowitz should visit Le Quatier des Spectacles in Montreal, especially now during Montreal en Lumière.
    There is art and action everywhere and the area thronged with spectators
    A fifty page programme integrates everything and sampling one event leads one to exposure to almost 100 others and the famous Nuit Blanche on March 4th to the whole city network of museums and galleries radiating radiating from there with free all night Metro trains.

  • David Boxwell says:

    The Kennedy Center, arguably, is an exception to the “arts centre” concept. Many, many diverse artists and audiences attend.

  • PhilOrchFan says:

    Does synergy require these organizations to share an identity? My preference is instrumental orchestra music over opera and ballet, and when I lived in other cities, I only attended orchestra performances. But when I live in NYC, I step out onto the terrace of David Geffen Hall during intermission of a NY Phil concert, look out to the rest of the Lincoln Center complex, and feel inspired to expand beyond my comfort zone. That’s pretty synergistic to me.

  • Lawrence Christon says:

    In Los Angeles, the 1964 creation of the Music Center, which eventually housed symphonic music, opera and theater, brought to the city the tag “the Acropolis of the West.” It unified the old money WASP crowd in Pasadena with the new money entertainment industry, led mostly by Jews with cultural ties to Europe. It sparked a citywide explosion in professional theater, which led to the Equity Waiver rule, allowing actors, producers, writers, directors and auxiliary personnel to enjoy sustained runs for as long a audiences came to support them. It put a sprawling metropolis in touch with itself. It may well have been a factor in the election of Mayor Tom Bradley in 1972, L.A.’s first black mayor, and a surge of black theater citywide. It was a factor in the city being awarded the 1984 Olympics, which was preceded by a magnificent arts festival that brought in the best talent in the world. The Mark Taper Forum, part of the complex, introduced “Zoot Suit,” “Children of a Lesser God” and “Angels in America,” all of which created an element of progressive social change as well as good, even spectacular theater. Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall would probably not have gone up without the Music Center.
    What’s wrong with an opulent arts venue glowing in the night? It gives culture a sense of moment, of event. We dress up. We dine out. We give it anniversary significance, which is deserves, because every performance is different from every other. Sure, I can see the risk of deadliness, pretentiousness, the emptiest kind of civic pride, the insufferably vapid and dismissive air of being In the Know. But the environment still glorifies what goes on in it. What’s so bad about that?

  • harold braun says:

    Joseph Horowitz is a gasbag,blowing the same tune for decades.He has also written a totally ridiculous,self important,would be intellectual book on Toscanini.Pretentious bullshit,same here.

  • Linda Blandford says:

    The South Bank Centre reaches from the Globe to the Eye. Any day it isn’t raining (it’s London after all) stroll along the river bank – a jumble of families, couples, singles, dogs, bicycles, skateboarders, it’s an entire community of creative arts. Some drop in to eat at the BFI and go to the theatre next door, have a drink at the Festival Bar and go by the book shop or stalls, listen to lobby music at the QEH, sniff out the exhibition at Hayward and all the while the Thames glides by, binding together an old, old space. Tear it down? Pull down the sky while you’re about it.

    • Una says:

      You can’t compare New York or Los Angeles with London and the South Bank. The culture is different to start with, and concert-going and programming is also so very different. London is a much older city and got enormous history behind it, and I can’t remember how many theatres alone it has. The Lincoln Center may well have failed Americans – I really don’t know, and only they will know. But most certainly the South Bank has not failed, and in the process of a further make-over and acoustic improvement for the Festival Hall, even though I’ve both sung in all three halls myself as soloist and listened in there since I was a child – not as bad as it is made out to be but no doubt not the best in the world. There isn’t a repeat of any concert two nights running in there. It’s amazingly good quality – and great value for money.

  • phf655 says:

    Yes Horowitz has been singing the same tune for decades, but he is a thoughtful man. The concept of orchestras that are not ‘performance based’ is an intriguing one, until one tries to imagine the content of a season that is based on the new. The New York Philharmonic played a lot of new music under Alan Gilbert. Were audiences lined up around the hall to hear it, and craving for more? How much of that music has ever been performed more than once, up to now or will it be heard again in the future? The flowering of western art music that roughly extends from Monteverdi to Britten and Shostakovich is unique and an unfathomable mystery. It seems that writers such as Horowitz, Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times, and Alex Ross of the New Yorker, in their constant craving for the new, are in denial of history and of audience preferences.