Arts and Culture in New York
Describing the arts and culture of New York State has been compared to counting the fleas in a doghouse—you only need to look on the dog. The analogy unfairly suggests that the state’s only cultural attractions are in New York City (it being the proverbial "dog" in the equation). While the facts don’t bear out that notion—Upstate New York actually boasts a number of fine cultural institutions—there is no denying that the behemoth of New York City dominates the state and is a compelling attraction for talent and creative energy.
It’s no use trying to compete with the "Big Apple," the most densely populated, most diverse, and arguably most happening city in the U.S. The "City That Never Sleeps" offers a dizzying panoply of attractions, from museums, parks, cafés, and historic venues by day to clubs, concerts, and theater by night. Even more impressive, much of the best art is accessible to everyone, thanks to substantial public and private support. The city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, over a century old and the biggest arts patron in the country, provides grants to nearly 900 nonprofit organizations that produce, present, or promote art for the benefit of the city’s inhabitants and visitors.
Meanwhile, private foundations like the Carnegie Corporation of New York fund arts projects and programs, while nonprofits fill in other needed services. The Alliance for the Arts, for example, acts as an information clearinghouse not only on NYC art events, but also on research documenting the economic and social benefits of a vital cultural environment. This kind of institutional glue for the arts is only one part of the picture, though; another is the readiness of New Yorkers to take part in all kinds of artistic happenings, from discussing a piece of public sculpture to tapping a toe at a street-corner jam session.
Against the glare of New York City’s brilliant cultural scene, Upstate cities (cities outside the orbit of NYC) are habitually perceived as dowdy and provincial. Yet Buffalo’s visual arts are standouts nationally, Rochester’s musical and film events attract tens of thousands to the city each year, and even Syracuse, with a population of only 140,000, supports a professional full-time symphony orchestra. Culture happens up here, just a bit more quietly.
Many upstate cultural institutions date from the late 1800s, when philanthropic contributions to local communities were at their peak. Examples of these contributions include Buffalo’s stellar Albright-Knox Art Gallery (founded 1890 by John Albright), the Eastman School of Music and Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra (1921 and 1922, respectively, by George Eastman), and Cornell University in Ithaca (1865, Ezra Cornell). New York’s northern and western cities continue to benefit from the legacy of these contributions, as they also work to build on them. Public support for such efforts comes from the New York State Council on the Arts.
Many of the nation’s most respected and influential artistic institutions call Manhattan home. New York City Ballet, for example, was founded by the "Father of Modern Ballet," the legendary George Balanchine. The NYC Ballet’s home is the Lincoln Center, also the base of operations of the New York City Opera, the Metropolitan Opera (usually just "the Met,") and the New York Philharmonic, as well as the nationally revered Julliard School and several other arts organizations. Covering nearly two city blocks, the Lincoln Center complex comprises seven buildings (up to 10 stories tall) and two plazas and features 13 performance venues, several rehearsal studios, and office spaces.
Dotted around the rest of Manhattan are several more ballet companies and schools, notably the brilliant Dance Theatre of Harlem; concert halls (not to forget Carnegie Hall, that icon of the performing arts world); and, oh yes, museums. The colossal Metropolitan Museum of Art (also known as just "the Met") is the granddaddy; with its comprehensive collection of art, artifacts and architectural elements, it covers nearly a quarter of Manhattan’s "Museum Mile" on Fifth Avenue.
Outside Manhattan, the rest of the New York City megalopolis hardly starves for high culture. The world-class Brooklyn Museum is nearly as large and important as the Met. The Bronx may be infamous for its ghettos, but it boasts the Bronx Opera, the fully professional Orchestra of the Bronx, and theBronx Symphony, a community orchestra that tours the borough providing free concerts. Affluent Westchester County residents, although they are a half-hour drive from Manhattan, don’t need to go so far to hear a symphony performance; they have their own professional symphony.
Venturing farther afield, the state continues to offer artistic treats, some of them in unexpected locations. On a rural highway halfway between Syracuse and Schenectady, the Glimmerglass Opera Company performs new and traditional operas in the original languages. Their performance hall, theAlice Busch Opera Theater, blends deceptively with the rural landscape, outwardly resembling a barn yet inwardly offering a fine acoustic environment, seating for 900, and classroom spaces. Guests come from far off for the summer opera festival; international music directors recruit talent from among students in the Young American Artists program.
New York City is a place where diverse influences meet, meld, and head off in new directions. Take the Blues. This style of music lurked in its rural southern homeland for decades, with steady, driving beat and characteristic chord progressions. When it hit New York, though, it fused with jazz in the Harlem cauldron and produced artists such as Lucky Millinder, Buddy Johnson, and Cootie Williams.
But of course, New York’s dynamic presence in music was making itself felt long before the Blues arrived there. From about 1885 to 1930, New York City saw an explosion of popular music composition. One neighborhood in particular was a creative hotbed: West 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues in Lower Manhattan, dubbed "Tin Pan Alley." Composers hammered away on their pianos as they worked out their tunes, songwriters brought their lyrics, performers from Broadway came to collaborate and popularize the tunes, and collaborations blossomed.
Tin Pan Alley produced greats such as Irving Berlin and George Gershwin, among many other talents. The flourishing vaudeville shows were one venue for their works, starting with small-time gigs in makeshift theaters and eventually gaining the popularity and prestige to merit big venues. Two of Oscar Hammerstein’s theaters, the Manhattan Opera House (built 1893) and Victoria Theatre (1898), were among the big names, but the grande dame of New York vaudeville was the Palace Theatre, built in 1913.
Jazz, that American idiom that has become an international lingua franca, was born in Harlem and spread to Manhattan in the 1920s. So many jazz clubs sprouted up along 52nd Street that it was known as "Swing Street" or "Swing Alley." The 1950s saw the peak of the genre’s popularity, when such greats as pianist and bandleader "Duke" Ellington (1899–1974), trumpeter and singer Louis Armstrong (1901–1971), saxophonist Charlie Parker (1920–1955) and multi-talented trumpeter "Dizzy" Gillespie (1917–1993) broke new ground in instrumentation, composition, and performance. Parker and Gillespie pioneered a new sound in jazz that came to be called bebop.
For musicians and music lovers, a terrific range of venues give the Big Apple a big advantage over other cities. Clubs and cafés, subways and doorways are available for those who haven’t made it big enough to rent, say, the Roseland Ballroom (capacity 3,200). There are plenty of music flavors to choose from in this most international of cities. Indie rock lovers flock to the Lower East side and East Village. Among other genres, klezmer and meringue are especially well represented.
Punk rock, born from a local establishment-bashing youth culture of the time, originated downtown in the 1970s, principally at a rock venue known as CBGB's. Rejecting the increasing corporate control of the music industry and the blandness of mass-produced fashion and consciousness, punk rockers leaned toward lyrics that challenged the status quo, both politically and intellectually, and a sound that was edgy and unsettling and usually very loud.
Over in the Bronx, the rap/hip-hop movement taking off in the minority black and Latino communities paralleled punk in its rejection of the mainstream. Early rappers were virtuoso spoken-word improvisers whose thought-provoking verses, delivered to an insistent 4/4 beat often without musical accompaniment, usually contained messages about self-respect and the realities of life in disadvantaged communities. Hip-hop went on to incorporate rap into a new musical form that often created a beat through "sampling," taking sounds from one musical or non-musical environment to use in another.
Outside of NYC, residents of the state’s other cities can take in a broad range of music at places like theTralf Music Hall of Buffalo, hosting nationally-known figures as well as innovative local talent. Warm summer evenings encourage outdoor performances such as the 10-day extravaganza of music (and other good things) at the Lilac Festival, held in Rochester’s Highland Park each May.
It wouldn’t do to talk about New York music without mentioning the most famous popular-music festival of the 1960s, and a landmark event of the counterculture, the Woodstock Festival in 1969. An estimated 400,000 people converged in a messy and glorious celebration of music and humanity. Today, campout-style outdoor music festivals are regular features of the folk music community. Some annual events are the Great Hudson River Revival and the Old Songs Festival in June (Croton-on-Hudson and Altamont), the Finger Lakes Grassroots Festival and Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in July (Trumansburg and Hillsdale), and the Turtle Hill Folk Festival in September (Rush, near Rochester).
THEATER AND PERFORMING ARTS
In New York theater, Broadway is the inescapable reference point. Named for the 40-square-block Theatre District’s main artery, the phenomenon has come to be synonymous with the "big time" in entertainment, particularly musical theater. The district’s 36 large houses present the shows producers judge most likely to succeed. Just appearing on Broadway is a stamp of commercial success, and the length of a run is a measure of that success. Broadway doesn’t show any signs of winding down. The biggest hit of the 1930s was Tobacco Road, with 3,182 performances; in the 1960s, it was Fiddler on the Roof, with 3,242; in the 1970s, A Chorus Line showed 6,137 times; and the current top show, The Phantom of the Opera, had already clocked over 9,000 performances at the beginning of 2010.
The flair and showiness of these colossal productions impresses audiences and creates a reputation that frequently spawns cross-country and even overseas touring productions. On the other hand, "off-Broadway" productions, geared to smaller audiences, appeal to many serious theater-goers for often more daring interpretations and themes. For the truly avant-garde, the "off-off-Broadway" theater scene offers plays that may be intense, quirky, intellectually challenging, politically charged and/or experimental, presented in intimate settings (by definition, off-off-Broadway means fewer than 100 seats). With its hundreds of performance theaters, New York positively throbs with dramatic energy.
Since the 1960s and the expansion of National Endowment for the Arts funding, theaters "off Manhattan" have developed robust programs, staging both mainstays of the dramatic repertoire and new works. Resident theaters are the Syracuse Stage, the Capital Repertory Theatre (Albany), and GEVA(Rochester). Small community theaters both contribute to and benefit from the energy generated by these larger institutions.
For dance in New York City, the City Center presents the big names, such as Alvin Ailey, Twyla Tharp and Dancers, and the dance companies of Martha Graham, Paul Taylor, and Merce Cunningham. Most of these modern dance institutions have their own studios where serious students can learn the approaches and techniques that make each company distinct. Other prominent companies include José Limon, Ballet Hispanico, ABAKUÁ Afro-Latin Dance Company, and Mark Morris Dance Group. Upstate, the superlative Garth Fagan Dance makes its home in Rochester but tours all over the world, earning praise and awards.
The size of New York’s film industry is second only to that of Los Angeles. In the early days, the city’s theatrical establishment offered ready-made resources for the nascent film industry; the resulting drain in money, talent, and venues was a death blow to vaudeville.
At one time, NYC was as famous for its movie-going experiences as for its movie production. Radio City Music Hall was built for opera, initially housed a radio corporation, and tried to make a go of upscale vaudeville before launching (in 1933) into the combination of stage and film shows that made it famous. The vast and ornate Art Deco auditorium with its four-keyboard Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ made a glamorous setting well suited to the days when both film and live theater were popular not just as entertainment, but also as social occasions.
New York got off to a fast start in filmmaking. The Astoria Studio in Queens was one of the early producers of popular films starting in the 1920s, featuring such acts as the Marx Brothers and W.C Fields. Astoria released 120 movies before being commissioned for use by the Army during WWII. During this same time, many large New York studios were drawn to the southern California climate, where year-round filming was possible. But plenty of smaller production and distribution companies remained in New York, and the city has remained a favorite setting for film, with hundreds of movies shot on New York’s streets since the five-minute The Thieving Hand in 1908.
Today, the Big Apple is poised for a comeback with two new mega-studios, the Silvercup complex, promising to be a "vertical Hollywood," and the Steiner Studios, occupying 15 acres of former shipyard. The Astoria has also reopened as the Kaufman Astoria. And independent filmmaking will always thrive in New York’s creatively charged atmosphere.
The state’s other capital of film is Rochester, home of the film company Kodak. Rochester and the film industry owe each other a great deal, and the city continues to uphold a tradition of celebrating fine films. A diminutive movie house appropriately known as the Little Theatre has for 90 years remained true to its original purpose of showing "art films that appeal to the intelligent and sophisticated."
The home of Kodak’s founder, George Eastman House, is now a museum and home to a renowned store of motion picture archives as well as photographs. The 360|365 George Eastman House Film Festival, held each spring but moving towards year-round activity, showcases the best films by women as well as archival films from the Eastman House’s vaults. The Rochester International Film Festival, meanwhile, shows selected short films in Eastman House’s Dryden Theater.
James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851), who examined events of both the Old World and the New, wrote several works set in his family’s home state of New York. Some of the most famous are the The Last of the Mohicans and The Pathfinder. He also wrote about the sea and naval history, having spent several years in the merchant marines and the U.S. Navy. Washington Irving (1783–1859) lived in and extensively wrote about Europe, so it is ironic that he is best known now for "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," set in a village near his home in Tarrytown, New York.
Herman Melville (1819–1891), another New Yorker famous for his sea tales, was born and died in New York City. He spent his youth in Albany, his home base during his seafaring years, and wrote his first three novels there. These and subsequent works, including Moby-Dick, had little to do with quiet town life that surrounded him as he wrote. Melville usually sought exotic environments as the ground for his relentless explorations of life and the human psyche.
Entering the 20th century, many of the state’s notable authors continued to divide their time between Upstate homes and New York City. Renowned poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892–1950), for example, spent most of her adulthood in Greenwich Village and the upstate town of Austerlitz. Her Austerlitz home is now the Millay Colony for the Arts, where month-long residencies are available for artists of various stripes. Another well-established artist community is Yaddo in Saratoga Springs.
New York’s modern authors of note include John Gardner (1933–1982; Grendel), writer, editor, and critic Edmund Wilson (1895–1972, Memoirs of Hecate County), Mary Therese McCarthy (1912–1989, The Group), Dwight Macdonald (1906–1982, Our Invisible Poor), and Joyce Carol Oates(1938–, Them).
Rubbing shoulders in the literary maelstrom of New York City, writers from all over the country have exchanged ideas, sought publication in the city’s many publishing houses, and parted ways to jump across the Atlantic or to venture afield in North America before meeting again in person or on the pages of literary magazines, of which The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books are only the most obvious.
In New York City, society and art glorify each other. A proper society event needs at least a sprinkling of artists to add cultural dimension to the conversation, and artists benefit from the high level of patronage. Well-appointed living rooms, lounges, and hotel lobbies require objets d’art; the city’s dozens of art galleries provide opportunities for contemplation, discussion, and shopping while showcasing artists’ work. Some also offer lectures, classes, and residencies. Collectors from all over the world come to the gallery neighborhoods in Brooklyn's DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) neighborhood and the Chelsea district of Manhattan.
Every artist visiting New York wants to spend time in the fabulous Met, the inviting and intriguingGuggenheim, and the great Museum of Modern Art. Smaller museums of distinction include theFrick Collection, a fine collection housed in a former mansion; the Whitney, with many significant modern canvases and sculptures, and the New Museum of Contemporary Art for the best in new work.
NYC puts a lot of art in public view, fostered by several organizations. Two more public-art agencies were founded in the 1970s to promote artistic innovation and enrich the public experience. The Public Art Fund works to install art where it will be seen the most. Creative Time commissions and presents public artworks. The scale of some of New York’s public-art installations is colossal; for example, Christo’s 2005 Gates in Central Park covered 23 miles of pathways and Anish Kapoor’s three-story Sky Mirror stood at Rockefeller Center in 2006.
Upstate, the visual arts are alive and well in the larger cities. The highlight is the small but mightyAlbright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo. Displaying a fine permanent collection of representative art from earlier centuries, the gallery really shines in its modern and contemporary art exhibits, earning respect from prominent art curators who make the trip to Buffalo just for the art’s sake. Another big Buffalo draw is the Allentown Arts Festival in June.
HANDICRAFT AND FOLK ART
New York has had a substantial crafts movement since Elbert Hubbard founded the large and influentialRoycrofters community in East Aurora at the end of the 19th century. At its peak, the community included 500 workers and produced distinctive furniture, metalwork, leathercrafts, and two monthly journals published in the founder’s print shop. It also ran a hotel for visitors attracted by the handiwork and by the community itself. The Roycrofters continued to operate until 1938.
The spirit of craftsmanship continued, however. A decade after the Roycrofter settlement disbanded, the American Craftsman's Educational Council founded a School for American Crafts. Today, Rochester Institute of Technology operates the school, offering undergraduate and graduate degrees in four categories of crafts. As a result of the high level of training received in these programs, the Rochester area is especially rich in high-quality work in ceramics, glass, metal and wood.
A former instructor at the school, Wendell Castle, is a prominent designer of furniture whose award-winning work blurs the distinction between furniture and art, leading to the term Art Furniture Movement applied to his and other craftsmen’s creations. Castle now runs the Wendell Castle School in Scottsville.
HISTORIC ART MOVEMENTS
Most of New York was very much frontier when the state’s first art movement took shape. Artists traveling into the new territory were awed by the majesty of vast wilderness, open expanses, and mighty rivers and landforms. In 1825, an English painter named Henry Cole traveled up the Hudson River by steamboat and set off into backcountry to paint remote areas. His paintings inspired other artists to capture the wild areas, often on large canvasses to evoke the scale of the landscapes. TheHudson River School, as it became known, was a sensation in its day, tapping into a growing sense of appreciation of wild nature. In this respect, it was a phenomenon of the New World, although the techniques of applying paint were nothing new. The revolution in brushstrokes and color would come from Europe’s Impressionists half a century later.
By the early 1900s, though, the avant-garde of Impressionism was old. European artists were coming up with bold new ideas to put on canvas and form into sculpture. When their works were displayed at the 1913 exhibition in NYC’s Armory, a shock went through the American art world and sent it catapulting into Expressionism. At the same time, art photography stopped trying to imitate painting and began making new use of its ability to capture sometimes fleeting images with clear focus.
After WWII, American artists began departing from the realm of realism, which photography captured so well, to explore form and color without representing anything at all. The movement took on the nameAbstract Expressionism, and now the tables were turned: the United States, particularly New York, shook the art world of Europe. Willem de Kooning’s depictions lurked disturbingly at the edge of consciousness, while chaotic canvasses by Jackson Pollock caused a sensation, defying the notion that an artist’s task was to make sense of the world.
Hot on the heels of this trend, other New York artists thumbed their noses at abstraction, instead turning their attention to the scrutiny of banal consumer culture. The visual repertoire of Pop Art came from advertising and popular culture, often confronting viewers with familiar images removed from their marketing context. A 1962 New York exhibition called "The New Realists" brought the work of such artists as Andy Warhol, Jim Dine, Roy Lichtenstein, and Mark Rothko into prominence. During that same year, Warhol again brought the art/commercial duality into question by founding famed New York City art collective The Factory, where artists "manufactured" pop art and threw elaborate, often debaucherous parties featuring members of the city's "glitterati."
SPECIAL CULTURAL EVENTS
In terms of major cultural events, it would never do to leave out the parades of New York City. Of the dozens held each year, many of the largest celebrate the cultures of varying ethnic groups. Not only is New York City's St. Patrick’s Day Parade now the largest such parade in the world, it's also reputedly the oldest parade in the U.S. The parade's size is rivaled only by the Labor Day Carnival, also known as the West Indian Carnival, which draws between one and three million spectators to Brooklyn each September.
The Puerto Rican Day Parade is also a huge event. Many of the nation’s football fans, in particular, have seen the spectacular floats of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on their televisions while waiting for the turkey to come out of the oven. Some parades are political, for example the Captive Nations Parade. Other parades tend more toward the frivolous than the fabulous: take the April Fool’s Parade or the Coney Island Mermaid Parade.
-World Trade Press