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Putting Your Money Where Your Heart Is

Putting Your Money Where Your Heart Is

How Lincoln Kirstein changed the face of American culture

Pavel Tchelitchev, Lincoln Kirstein, 1937.
Oil on Kanvas, 48 inches by 36 inches.
Photo by Garfield Hall.

For some, patronage of the arts is simply part of the noblesse oblige that accompanies membership in the moneyed set. This is nothing to sneer at, of course: all arts organizations are dependent on those who go in for the symphony, ballet or opera just to make the society pages. Rare is the patron who combines daring vision and down-to-earth practicality with an ability to proselytize on behalf of artists. Yet the astonishing Lincoln Kirstein—a solemn, well-heeled, towering Harvard graduate—had all these qualities, and he used them to effect a permanent change in American culture.

This year, ballet companies worldwide are paying homage to the great choreographer George Balanchine, celebrating the centennial of his birth, so it seems an apt time to also remember Kirstein’s influence on American ballet. Indeed, without Kirstein, it’s unlikely that we in North America would even be celebrating Balanchine. Through his sustained efforts to establish New York City Ballet, Kirstein afforded the Russian maestro a stability enjoyed by very few choreographers before or since.

And that’s just for starters. Kirstein’s patronage extended across the arts. If not for his indefatigable promotion, innovators like photographer Walker Evans, poet e.e. cummings and composer Aaron Copland may never have made the impact that they did.

Lincoln Kirstein (1907–1996) grew up in a prosperous Jewish family in Boston. His father, Louis, began his career selling eyeglasses and weathered three bankruptcies before hitting pay dirt with his partnership in the Boston department store Filene’s. His father’s commercial success enabled Lincoln to go on the Grand Tour to see the masterpieces of Europe and, later in adolescence, to spend time with his older sister, Mina, in London. Mina introduced him to the Bloomsbury Group, whose brilliant conversations educated him in the art and ideas of the day. Perhaps more importantly, while in London the impressionable young man attended a Ballets Russes production of Balanchine’s Apollo and became impassioned about the art of dance.

Kirstein formed his opinions about money and the arts very early in life. In a little-known incident, the eighteen-year-old Lincoln apprenticed at a local stained-glass factory before begin-ning university. When a workers’ strike threatened to break out, Kirstein—particularly concerned for the family of a fellow worker he had befriended—realized for the first time in his privileged life that, in his words, “money was all.”

Musing in his memoir Mosaic, he wrote, “If there had, indeed, been a strike, how would I have counted myself? Ambivalence reduced me to lingering guilt for my wan morality which I was unable to push past soothing equivocations.” Kirstein was embarrassed into discovering a new, audacious resolve. He would soon decide that “life was not a career but a service,” and money not an end but a means to help others.

Something of an outsider at Harvard because of his intense artistic preoccupations, he nevertheless soon found like-minded cohorts among his fellow students, individuals who would continue to support his cultural efforts over the years. In 1927, during his second year at university, Kirstein and his friend Varian Fry founded the literary journal Hound and Horn. In its seven-year run, the magazine published a veritable who’s who of modern writers: Joyce, Stein, Valéry, Eisenstein, Eliot, Williams, Stevens and many others (including a physics student named Robert Oppenheimer, who contributed a short poem titled “Los Alamos”).

The following year, Kirstein and classmates Eddie Warburg and John Walker III opened a modest gallery in Cambridge called the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art. The ambitious young curators exhibited Japanese pottery, Mexican art and the latest work of such artists as Matisse, Picasso, Derain, Klee, Brancusi and O’Keefe. Their venture provided the model for New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), which was established in 1929, and all three young men were appointed to the museum’s advisory committee. Not bad for a few undergrads.

If Kirstein had been responsible for nothing more than these two cultural projects, he would still have been an intriguing figure in the annals of Americana. But he couldn’t help being a dynamo, possessing as he did a restless mind that overflowed with ideas, ambition and energy. Kirstein wrote poetry, two novels (one unpublished), a seemingly endless stream of dance, literary, film and arts criticism, and book after book on dance and fine arts—including the historical monograph “Lay this Laurel,” one of the sources for the Academy Award–winning film Glory. During one of New York City Ballet’s European tours, Kirstein’s London host even complained that he was kept up all night by his guest’s incessant typing.

What this arts proselytizer will be best remembered for, though, is bringing Balanchine to America in 1933. The story actually begins a few years earlier, in 1929. While on holiday in Venice, Kirstein unwittingly wandered into the funeral of Serge Diaghilev, the renowned director of the Ballets Russes. Kirstein was an ardent admirer of Diaghilev’s attempts to fuse early-twentieth-century art, music and dance. A few years later, he would write, “The world needs a new Diaghilev to reintegrate the arts, but [to] save dancing in particular from a facile oblivion.” (One wonders if he had himself in mind for the job.)

Kirstein had been especially impres-sed by the work of Diaghilev’s last ballet master, George Balanchine. When the two men were introduced in 1933, the twenty-seven-year-old patron wasted no time in convincing the choreographer to come to America, where ballet was almost non-existent as an art at the time. Almost immediately after his conversations with Balanchine, Kirstein wrote a passionate sixteen-page letter to Harvard buddy Chick Austin, who was then the director of the Wadsworth Atheneum museum in Hartford, Connecticut:
Dear Chick, This will be the most important letter I will ever write you as you will see. My pen burns my hand as I write: words will not flow into the ink fast enough. We have a real chance to have an American ballet within three yrs. time…[Balanchine] is an honest man, a serious artist and I’d stake my life on his talent…We have the future in our hands. For Christ’s sweet sake let us honor it.

Austin responded by marshalling some of their old Harvard pals to raise the funds needed for Balanchine’s passage and initial living expenses. When Balanchine rejected the original scheme of setting up shop in Hartford, Kirstein quickly put together a new plan of action, in which New York City would serve as home base for both a dance company and an academy.

Diaghilev had never bothered to establish a school for his company, but both Balanchine and Kirstein understood what the Russian impresario had not: starting from the ground up is the only way to exert long-lasting cultural power. In 1934, the two men opened the School of American Ballet (SAB), which remains to this day the premier ballet academy in the United States. A successful dance company, however, proved more elusive. Instead of three years, as Kirstein had predicted to Austin, it took over a decade (and several failed companies) before Ballet Society took hold in 1946. Eventually renamed New York City Ballet, the dance company and the SAB would become Kirstein’s crowning achievements, and he would tirelessly serve both institutions for over fifty years.

It’s baffling, really, that so pivotal a figure continues to be neglected by all but a few dance and art historians. Kirstein’s obscurity may be by design, though; the ego’s need to shine was one of his bugbears. By mid-life, he had adopted as his standard uniform a funereal black suit and tie that seemed calculated to enhance his anonymity. And in his memoirs, he tellingly recounts how his father attended temple only on Yom Kippur, specifically because “the self’s relative unimportance,” and “not satisfaction with self,” was what was stressed on that day. “He gives you money and runs away before you can thank him,” Balanchine once said of his steadfast patron.

A curious attitude, perhaps, but then we assume too readily that the desire to exercise power, to make a difference, is synonymous with the desire to be seen doing so. Kirstein believed that a partnership between educated, elite individuals (like himself) and highly trained artists (naïve amateurs did not impress him) was essential to the cultural vitality of a nation, no matter how egalitarian its ideals. “Talent, commitment, and cash notwithstanding,” arts organizations in a democracy depend “on private patronage, whatever public monies may be captured,” he wrote in his memoir Quarry. “We must also admit,” he argued at a 1977 forum on the performing arts, that this elite “is self-responsible, self-chosen, and in a rather lonely sense, self-serving. Who has the wit to choose? Only those who have been exposed to the vast range of possibilities.”

Why did he do it? Who, after all, starts out wanting to be a patron of the arts? As Nancy Reynolds, the director of research for the George Balanchine Foundation and editor of Kirstein’s book Movement and Metaphor, puts it, “He had some money and loads of connections, and he could have just flitted around his whole life being an aesthete, sampling this, that, or the other. But instead, he took off his jacket, rolled up his shirtsleeves, and really went to work. He got his hands dirty.”

Perhaps Kirstein understood something our faddish and money-worshipping culture has forgotten. Take, by way of example, this gem from celebrity CEO Michael Eisner, delivered during his tenure at Paramount: “We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make a statement. To make money is our only objective.”

Kirstein would have vigorously opposed this philosophy. “Those artists of my time to whom I am most grateful,” he said, “all testified to a credo which suggested orare est laborare [to pray is to work], and vice versa.” For this extraordinary man, money wasn’t the point. The art was.