Lincoln Center Broke Ground 60 Years Ago. Here’s How the Arts Institution Is Honoring That Land Now

Lincoln Center Broke Ground 60 Years Ago. Here’s How the Arts Institution Is Honoring That Land Now

When President Dwight D. Eisenhower broke ground at what is now recognizable as the Lincoln Center campus on May 14, 1959, he set in motion a plan engineered to bring New York City to the forefront of arts and culture. The plan — controversial for its human cost — brought together the power of Robert Moses and John D. Rockefeller III with the virtuosity of artistic leaders such as Leonard Bernstein, who opened the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in 1962 with Aaron Copland’s “Connotations for Orchestra.”

Six decades later, this vision of artistic excellence lingers over the institution, which has persisted through economic downturns, its share of scandals, renovations and name changes. And this Saturday, Lincoln Center will celebrate its legacy with programming throughout its campus, anchored by an outdoor block party stationed throughout the sprawling plaza. The party encompasses a wide array of activities, including live performances, art-making stations and film programming.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower breaking ground for Lincoln Center. Photo: Bob Serating.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower breaking ground for Lincoln Center. Photo: Bob Serating.

With a focus on the physical ground on which the institution stands, this year’s festivities will open with a land acknowledgment ceremony led by Chief Dwaine Perry of the Ramapough Lenape Nation, whose tribal status was recognized in March by the state of New Jersey. Perry, who has been the chief of the Ramapough Lenapes since 2007, will be joined by Cliff Matias — director of the Brooklyn-based Redhawk Native American Council — and artists from the Redhawk Dancers.

“Land acknowledgment is important; Native American nations have always formally welcomed and acknowledged land territories when hosting visitors and traveling to neighboring tribal communities,” Matias told ALL ARTS in a statement. “Land is not just merely space that bodies occupy; it is a depository of culture, story, history and tradition.”

By including the land ceremony, Lincoln Center joins a growing list of cultural institutions around the city (such as Performance Space New York and Gibney) that are taking time to acknowledge the historical significance of their performance spaces on Lenape homelands.

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“It’s not only looking at the legacy of 60 years but the legacy of our community,” said Lincoln Center’s Jordana Leigh on curating the anniversary event. “And for us to really do that it needs to start with who and what this land has been before us and continues to be, where we all should be aware and thoughtful of where we’re coming from.”

In acknowledging those who occupied the land originally, the anniversary event also calls attention to Lincoln Center’s own history within the development of New York City and offers a moment to reflect on the responsibility of cultural institutions to serve the communities that they enter into or change.

“I know that that history really does inform how we’re operating now and that it makes us really responsible for making Lincoln Center accessible and available to everyone,” said Leigh when asked about the communities that were displaced during the construction of the institution. “And that we feel that’s really core and critical to who we are, that we as an institution are obligated to welcome and bring everyone who is our community into Lincoln Center and make them feel that Lincoln Center is their center.”

The rest of the day’s activities support this mission, with the block party serving as a way for the community to engage with the performing arts institution through a free offering of song and dance that, explained Leigh, is reflective and celebratory of the diverse communities that comprise New York City.

Top Image: Groundbreaking ceremony at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Photo: Bob Serating.