Lincoln Center Upbeat About Face-Lift

 
May 11, 2009
When Lincoln Center kicks off its 50th anniversary festivities on Monday with performances by the likes of Itzhak Perlman and Wynton Marsalis, it will, in a way, be celebrating the future more than commemorating the past.

The event, after all, will be taking place in the newly renovated Alice Tully Hall, which reopened in February. Its auditorium has received rave architectural and acoustical reviews, and its lobby cafe, at 65, is attracting so many people that extra seating has been added.

Lincoln Center still has more than $200 million to raise in a tough economic climate to pay off the last of the redevelopment's $1.2 billion bill. And plans are still unclear for a renovation of Avery Fisher Hall, a major undertaking that is not part of this phase of redevelopment.

But all around the campus are signs that the overhaul of Lincoln Center, the country's largest performing arts center, is in the home stretch. On balmy days people have been hanging out on the new bleachers, opposite Alice Tully's entrance on the corner of Broadway and West 65th Street, and on the steps leading down to the front doors, just as Lincoln Center officials had hoped.

"There's a theme here, and the theme is how best in the 21st century to maximize the use of these precious public spaces," Reynold Levy, the president of Lincoln Center, said in an interview. "Also for the general visitor to feel welcome, feel they're invited and have a place to hang out. We're multiplying the number of places people can say, 'Meet me at. ...' "

The skeleton of the green roof that will cover a new restaurant overlooking the north plaza reflecting pool, in front of Lincoln Center Theater, is taking shape; it is scheduled to open in September 2010. A black-box theater designed by the architect Hugh Hardy and suitable for smaller, experimental productions originally supposed to take up space in the center's garage is planned for the roof of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, though it still needs city approval. The grove of trees, with scattered seating, in front of the library is about to open to the public.

And the whole campus now has free WiFi.

Among other changes to come are the openings of the new visitor space and discount-ticket hub in the former Harmony Atrium, between 62nd and 63rd Streets, and of WNET's glass-walled public-television studio, on Broadway and 66th Street, next to Alice Tully. By 2011 a new pedestrian bridge will span 65th Street; conceptual designs have been approved.

In the David H. Koch Theater, home to New York City Ballet and New York City Opera, the work has been expanded to add two side aisles to the orchestra level. While the opera has been displaced by the construction which includes a larger orchestra pit and new seats the ballet is managing to perform around the renovation work. The theater officially reopens in November.

But the redevelopment is not without remaining challenges, including how to pay for it all. Having raised $940 million, Lincoln Center has $235 million more to go. The center's constituent groups, which are sharing the cost, have $100 million left to raise.

While eliciting contributions is now more of an uphill climb than when the plans were conceived, Mr. Levy said he remained optimistic. "The economic climate has made the balance of the fund-raising slower," he said. "People feel they need a little more time to make an initial gift or a supplemental gift. But the reception has been positive."

"We're going to raise every penny of this money," he added. "We're confident about that."

One fund-raising effort is centered on the new Columbus Avenue staircase and promenade, which Lincoln Center is naming after Beverly Sills, the soprano who died in 2007. In her years on the campus Sills presided as chairwoman of Lincoln Center and of the Metropolitan Opera, led the New York City Opera and served on the board of Lincoln Center Theater. Donors are being encouraged to make gifts in her honor.

Another way that Lincoln Center will help pay the bills is by turning over its plazas and theaters to the Fashion Week tents that for the last 16 years have filled Bryant Park for a week each February and September. The fashion shows will move in September 2010, and while Mr. Levy would not disclose the value of the five-year agreement, he said it would be "very meaningful for the upkeep of the campus."

That leaves Avery Fisher Hall. The British architect Norman Foster won the competition to redesign the inside in 2002, and the New York Philharmonic board approved his plans in 2005, but since then the redesign has stalled. Lincoln Center is in discussions with the Philharmonic to frame a new constituency agreement the current one expires in June 2011 after which they will address a renovation, Mr. Levy said.

"Even though we're on one 16-acre campus, the life of each of these institutions is organic, and they're ready when they're ready," he added. "I think it's a mistake to force this. It's such a major commitment of time and sweat equity, such a displacement and sacrifice for employees and audiences."

Zarin Mehta, president of the Philharmonic, said the orchestra would proceed when the timing is right. "The renovation of the hall, whichever form it takes, will have to take place," he said. "This is economically not the best time to do anything."

Mr. Levy suggested that the choice of architect and the scope of the renovation, which had been limited to the building's interior, should be revisited in light of the campus's new aesthetic, by Diller Scofidio & Renfro.

"I think we need a fresh look on how best to approach it in light of all that's happened," Mr. Levy said. "There are new board members at the Philharmonic, and we've learned a lot about architecture ourselves. We've visited a lot of halls. We're smarter and better prepared clients. In light of that we'll sit down together and take a look."

Mr. Mehta does not seem to share this view. "The choice of Foster was made by a joint committee of the Philharmonic and Lincoln Center, and the discussion of anything else has not taken place," he said. "I see no reason to change."


Lincoln Center Upbeat About Face-Lift

by Robin Pogrebin - The New York Times