Planning for Lincoln Center, one of the world’s major cultural centers, began in the mid-1950s. Ground was broken in 1959 and within a decade six theaters, a school, a library and museum, a fountain, and landscaped parks, all with Modern works of art, had been completed. The buildings that house music, opera, ballet, theater, and the Juilliard School were designed by leading American architects and all are faced in Italian travertine.
Philip Johnson was one of the major figures involved with the design, completing the New York State Theater (now the David H. Koch Theater) in 1964 as the home of the New York City Ballet. The east lobby contains a monumental canvas, “Numbers, 1964,” by Jasper Johns; it is his only public work of art. State Theater was designed specifically for New York City Ballet (NYCB), the company co-founded by Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine. Kirstein was determined to see ballet become a major art form in the United States. He brought Balanchine to America in 1933 to establish the School of American Ballet and a related company. In 1946, he founded a company called Ballet Society with Balanchine, which became NYCB two years later. When Jerome Robbins decided to leave Broadway in the mid-1960s for ballet, he choreographed for NYCB, creating such seminal ballets as Dances at a Gathering (1969) and The Goldberg Variations (1971).
The first theater to open was Philharmonic Hall (later Avery Fisher Hall and now David Geffen Hall). On September 23, 1962, Leonard Bernstein conducted the inaugural concert which included a new piece, Connotations, by Aaron Copland. Besides Copland, other composers attending the opening-night concert were Samuel Barber, Henry Cowell, and Virgil Thomson.
The Metropolitan Opera House opened on September 16, 1966 with the world premiere of Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra in a controversial production by Franco Zeffirelli, who not only wrote the libretto and directed, but also designed the lavish sets and costumes. The production was conducted by Thomas Schippers and choreographed by Alvin Ailey. For over forty years, beginning in 1976, the Met reached new musical heights under the baton of music director James Levine, who was suspended by the Met in December 2017 for sexual assault allegations.
At the southwest corner of the Lincoln Center complex is Damrosch Park. This was the site of the rally that kicked off the first AIDS Walk on May 18, 1986, sponsored by the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. The walk has been an annual fundraising and memorial event ever since.