Unanswered Question | Arts Leadership in the Age of Trump

In 1966 the New York Philharmonic undertook an 18-day Stravinsky festival as a kind of try-out for Lukas Foss, whom Leonard Bernstein favored to take over as music director. The conductors included Foss, Bernstein, Ernest Ansermet (who had conducted for Diaghilev), Kiril Kondrashin (a major Soviet artist), and Stravinsky himself. George Balanchine choreographed Ragtime for Suzanne Farrell and Arthur Mitchell. The Soldier’s Tale was given with John Cage as the Devil, Elliott Carter as the Soldier, and Aaron Copland narrating. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf sang five Stravinsky songs, Pulcinella, an excerpt from The Rake’sProgress. Larry Rivers created a visual presentation for Oedipus Rex. Remarkably, the Stravinsky festival fizzled and Foss was passed over in favor of a French composer/conductor – Pierre Boulez – as much a stranger to Bernstein’s American agenda as to Indian ragas or Brazilian sambas.

In 1972, across the Lincoln Center Plaza, New York City Ballet undertook a Stravinsky festival of its own. Balanchine’s company gave seven Stravinsky programs in eight days. Of 31 ballets presented, 21 were premieres. The eight Balanchine premieres included Violin Concerto, instantly recognized as iconic, and – on the same opening night — Symphony in Three Movements, which would take some years to register.

Comparisons to the Philharmonic’s Stravinsky festival six years previous were and are inescapable. The Philharmonic festival was bigger, with more big names and a fuller perspective on the Stravinsky odyssey — but was quickly forgotten. Obviously, the City Ballet festival enjoyed a creative component: the new ballets. Equally obvious was the difference in reception. For the Philharmonic subscribers, Stravinsky remained a chore. For patrons of City Ballet, Stravinsky was a privilege.

I tell this story in the course of a 10,000-word essay on arts leadership, written last year when I was a Resident Fellow at NYU’s Center for Ballet and the Arts. It’s currently posted on Doug McLennan’s invaluable artsjournal.com site, with five substantial responses – an “AJ Debate” itself linked to a recent “arts leadership” conclave at the University of Texas/El Paso.

A villain in my tale is Arthur Judson, for decades the major powerbroker for classical music in the US. Abdicating arts leadership (he even disfavored engaging a music director), Judson had for 34 years haphazardly fostered a faceless Philharmonic constituency. Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein had since 1948 purposefully honed a validating cultural community. George Balanchine and City Ballet changed the face of dance. Leonard Bernstein led audiences to Mahler: he expanded the canon. But Bernstein could not change the face of the New York Philharmonic.

The starting point of my essay is an iconic 1966 photograph I remember from my teenage years. Balanchine, Bernstein, and Rudolf Bing, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, are posed in front of Lincoln Center’s Philharmonic Hall. The Met is about to inaugurate its new home, completing the move to Lincoln Center of the three main institutional constituents. Bing stands alongside a poster brandishing the sold-out world premiere of Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra, inaugurating the New Met. Bernstein (with cigarette) stands alongside a poster showing the sold-out run of a subscription program comprising an obscure Beethoven overture, William Schuman’s String Symphony, and Mahler’s First (not yet a repertoire staple). A City Ballet poster, to the rear, announces the dates of the Fall season. So depicted, three performing arts leaders – all of them famously strong personalities — are seen poised to drive their celebrated companies to greater heights, buoying an unprecedented American cultural complex

Ten thousand words later, my essay ends:

“Lincoln Center was conceived by public-spirited corporate businessmen, led by John D. Rockefeller III. It never became a magnet for artists and intellectuals, humming with creativity, after the fashion of Harvey Lichtenstein’s BAM or Joe Papp’s Public Theatre. It has lately acquired a $1.5 billion facelift, including a dramatically thrusting façade for Alice Tully Hall and the Juilliard School; Tully itself, however, remains deficient in the intimacy and warmth appropriate to a chamber-music venue.

“Imagine, if you can, a photograph of Peter Gelb, Alan Gilbert, and Peter Martins posed in front of the new, glass-enclosed Tully complex. All three institutions are poised to collaborate on a multi-week festival addressing pressing contemporary social and political issues, with the full participation of the New York City public schools and the City University of New York (whose Hunter College Auditorium will reportedly host the Philharmonic during Geffen Hall renovations).”

I cited this pipe dream because I knew it would be realized this February in the city of El Paso, where a “Copland and Mexico” festival, supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, would celebrate cultural collaboration between two nations embroiled in an uncertain future relationship. Mexico’s amazing artistic efflorescence of the 1930s – today mostly unremembered by young Mexican-Americans – would be the central topic.

A centerpiece of the programming would be the iconic film of the Mexican Revolution: Redes (1935), which thrillingly combines the talents of a master (and under-recognized) Mexican composer —  Silvestre Revueltas — and a legendary American photographer – Paul Strand. The participating institutions would include the El Paso Symphony Orchestra, the El Paso public schools, and the University of Texas/El Paso (UTEP), with classes and faculty members in half a dozen departments taking part. The festival would penetrate outlying “colonias” without paved roads or running water, and also the neighboring Mexican city of Juarez. The many scheduled events would include “Copland and the Cold War” – an evening of music and theater exploring the impact of the Red Scare on America’s most prominent composer of concert music. It all duly transpired a week ago.

What I could not anticipate was the pertinence of the El Paso Festival to arts leadership in the age of Donald Trump – the inevitable focus of the artsjournal conclave in El Paso on Feb. 17. The participants, in addition to Doug and myself, were two bona fide arts leaders: Frank Candelaria, UTEP’s missionary Associate Provost, and Delta David Gier, music director of the unique South Dakota Symphony – whose Lakota Music Project I have extolled in this space. You can watch the conclave here. The talks are 20 minutes each. They tell stories — about how the arts can impact on the way we live, and on individual lives — that need to be heard, and never more than now.