Lincoln Center blowback

Veterans Memorial Auditorium, in Providence. (

Veterans Memorial Auditorium, in Providence. (

New York’s mammoth Lincoln Center has in recent years seen the demise of the New York City Opera – after its director cancelled a season of popular operas and replaced it with “modern” operas – and the near demise of the Metropolitan Opera, which has suffered under a big-spending director with “erratic artistic judgment.” And the director of the New York Philharmonic is stepping down amid widespread dismay over his tenure as its leader even as the concert hall closes for necessary renovations.

The judgments are from Terry Teachout’s thorough assessment of the grand facility in the latest issue of Commentary. “Lincoln Center’s Dark Legacy” describes, in part, how Lincoln Center mismanagement has undermined the fine arts and the performing arts in the rest of the country.

Teachout says that even for New York City, the out-of-scale ambition of the Lincoln Center, as conceived by New York’s development impresario Robert Moses, is largely unsustainable. Noting that only its smallest venue, Lincoln Center Theater, is on a sound artistic and managerial footing, he adds that

Lincoln Center’s performing spaces, in common with other concert halls and opera houses built in the ’60s, lack the inviting aura of 19th-century auditoriums like Carnegie Hall or the Vienna Staatsoper. Not only are they “modern” in an anonymous, off-putting way, but their public areas are famously uncomfortable.

Modernism in facility aesthetics and programming is not Teachout’s focus, but the rest of us should pay attention. Its degenerative influence is even more severe on places that lack the “captive” audience of Manhattan.

Leaving aside the plug-ugly copy-cat facilities everywhere, the Lincoln Center’s legacy of gigantism and its penchant for avant-garde fare has trickled down throughout the nation. Such trends have only made it more difficult for smaller concert halls, opera houses and other facilities, public and private, usually on tighter budgets, to keep aging audiences for music and other performing arts satisfied. That’s a big challenge as other entertainment options, often without any pretense to finesse, grow inside and outside of the home.

With news of the retirement in two years of Larry Rachleff, the beloved artistic director of the excellent Rhode Island Philharmonic, some of Teachout’s judgments bear on Rhode Island’s fine-arts future.

Nobody wants Rachleff to go, of course. In 20 years filling his part-time post, he has raised the quality of performances by the orchestra to a level that warrants and receives national acclaim. To be sure, modernist pieces that test the patience of listeners are inserted into almost every program – never at the end, of course: people could just walk out at the end of the previous piece; after all, the finale ought to be worth standing up for. But his talents as a conductor and leader of the orchestra and of the Music School – talents so extraordinary – have made up for that very serious flaw in his concert programming.

Many Rhode Islanders recall what happened when Adrian Hall retired after a quarter century as Trinity Rep’s artistic director. Anne Bogart brought in a raft of modernist plays and staged classic plays in modernist garb. Subscribers said “No thanks!” in droves. Her tenure lasted just one year but did years of damage to the theater’s bottom line.

With that model of what not to do still strong in Rhode Island’s artistic firmament, the philharmonic’s board is, I assume, intelligent enough to avoid making that mistake.

But don’t hold your breath. The state keeps making that mistake in the realm of development, and keeps wondering why the state’s economy just keeps on sucking wind.

In a state as small as this, it is both necessary and possible to keep faith with a market and an electorate whose populations are closer to their leaders than anywhere else in the country. Thus, it makes no sense that state and private development projects continue to be designed here as if poking the public in the eye with a stick will create jobs. Just look at the garage being proposed for the nursing school at South Street Landing. If the state’s leaders can ignore obvious wisdom in economic development, it can easily do so – again – in the fine arts.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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2 Responses to Lincoln Center blowback

  1. That sure is a pretty lavender-colored glasses image of VETS…let’s hope there is time and good institutional memory behind Rachleff’s replacement and future of the philharmonic. He’s been a powerhouse asset in RI music. And while I adored Anne Bogart’s challenge to traditional theater, one must be profitable and accepted by your core to continue to be able to speak to them.


    • Cannot join you in your admiration for Bogart, Nancy. Some modernism – art and architecture – is very good, but it is intrinsically risky. And today, instead of advancing fine art by bringing traditional methods to higher and higher levels of virtuosity, and balancing that with experimentation – abandoning traditional methods in an effort to create novelty on a higher scale – we have leaned almost totally toward the latter, so that modest yet pleasant efforts toward the former have gained the reputation of kitsch (as most stuff at the Wickford Art Festival would be considered these days). Bogart joined the march off the cliff. Luckily she was at Trinity only one year. But her thinking has captivated the entire world of art, to the detriment of most art lovers.


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