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A consortium of civic leaders and others led by, and under the initiative of, John D. Rockefeller III built Lincoln Center as part of the "Lincoln Square Renewal Project" during Robert Moses' program of urban renewal in the 1950s and 1960s. Respected architects were contracted to design the major buildings on the site, and over the next thirty years the previously diverse working class area around Lincoln Center was replaced with a conglomeration of high culture to please the tastes of the consortium.
Rockefeller was appointed as the Lincoln Center's inaugural president in 1956, and once he resigned, became its chairman in 1961. He is credited with raising more than half of the $184.5 million in private funds needed to build the complex, including drawing from his own funds; the Rockefeller Brothers Fund also contributed to the project. Numerous architects were hired to build different parts of the center (see § Architects). The center's three buildings, David Geffen Hall (formerly Avery Fisher Hall, originally named Philharmonic Hall), David H. Koch Theater (formerly the New York State Theater) and the Metropolitan Opera House were opened in 1962, 1964 and 1966, respectively.
It is unclear whether the center was named as a tribute to U.S. PresidentAbraham Lincoln or for its location in the Lincoln Square Neighborhood. The name was bestowed on the area in 1906 by the New York City Board of Aldermen, but records give no reason for choosing that name. There has long been speculation that the name came from a local landowner, because the square was previously named Lincoln Square. However, property records from the New York Municipal Archives from that time have no record of a Lincoln surname; they only list the names Johannes van Bruch, Thomas Hall, Stephan de Lancey, James de Lancey, James de Lancey, Jr. and John Somerindyck. One speculation is that references to President Lincoln were omitted from the records because the mayor in 1906 was George B. McClellan Jr., son of General George B. McClellan, who was general-in-chief of the Union Army early in the American Civil War and a bitter rival of Lincoln's.
April 21, 1955: The Mayor's Slum Clearance Committee chaired by Robert Moses is approved by the New York City Board of Estimate to designate Lincoln Square for urban renewal.
November 8, 1955: John D. Rockefeller III is elected as chairman.
June 22, 1956: Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Inc. incorporated.
May 20, 1974: The Lincoln Center Institute is officially founded.
October 22, 1974: The Avery Fisher Artist Program is founded to give outstanding American instrumentalists significant recognition on which to continue to build their careers. It includes both The Avery Fisher Prize and the Avery Fisher Career Grants.
January 30, 1976: The first live telecast of Live from Lincoln Center is broadcast over PBS.
October 19, 1976: Avery Fisher Hall re-opens after renovation to improve acoustics.
December 4, 1981: The Big Apple Circus marks its first performances at its winter home in Damrosch Park. The circus has performed every winter at Lincoln Center through the 2016 season when it was forced to liquidate its assets due to continued financial losses.
September 7, 1982: New York State Theater re-opens after renovation to improve acoustics.
August 3, 1987: Classical Jazz, Lincoln Center's first concert series devoted exclusively to jazz, begins in Alice Tully Hall.
November 19, 1990: The Samuel B. and David Rose Building opens housing the Walter Reade Theater, the Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse, the Daniel and Joanna S. Rose Rehearsal Studio, the Clark Studio Theater, the School of American Ballet, Juilliard School student residences, and office space for a number of the member organizations.
January 27, 1991: The Mozart Bicentennial at Lincoln Center opens with concerts held at Avery Fisher Hall and the Metropolitan Opera House, making it the world's largest and most comprehensive tribute to the life and works of Mozart.
June 13, 1994: Beverly Sills is elected Chairman of the Board of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Inc. She is the first woman and the first professional musician to be elected to this position, serving until May 1, 2002.
January 18, 2001: The Lincoln Center Constituent Development Project is established to implement and oversee the comprehensive reconstruction, renovation, and modernization of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
October 18, 2004: Jazz at Lincoln Center opens. The hall is made up of three theaters: the Rose Theater, the Allen Room, and Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola.
March 20, 2006: Preliminary construction on the West 65th Street Project begins. The Promenade Project, a plan to renovate Josie Robertson Plaza and the Columbus Avenue frontage to the Lincoln Center campus, is announced.
June 8, 2006: Lincoln Center announces plans to transform the nearby Harmony Atrium into a public space for the arts open to the public, neighbors, students, and center patrons.
February 22, 2009: Alice Tully Hall reopens after redevelopment.
September 30, 2009: Opening of the redesigned Charles H. Revson Fountain.
May 21, 2010: Renovation plans of central and north plazas unveiled.
October 9, 2014: Thirty-six solar panels are installed on the roof of Lincoln Center's Rose Building as a part of the organization's initiative to go green.
September 24, 2015: Avery Fisher Hall renamed David Geffen Hall.
January 22, 2016: The New York City Opera resumes performances in the Rose Theater.
November 16, 2016: Debora Spar becomes Lincoln Center's first woman president after the sudden departure of Jed Bernstein. 
September 3, 2019: Allison Allen was hired as Chief People Officer, a newly-created position to lead human resources functions with a core focus on implementation of LCPA's diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) plan.
In 1955, the first city institution to commit to be part of the Lincoln Square Renewal Project, an effort to revitalize the city's west side with a new performing arts complex that would become the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, was the Fordham Law School of Fordham University. In 1961, Fordham Law School was the first building to open as part of the renewal project, and in 1968, Fordham College at Lincoln Center welcomed its first students.
The center's cultural institutions also have since made use of facilities located away from the main campus. In 2004, the center expanded through the addition of Jazz at Lincoln Center's newly built facilities, the Frederick P. Rose Hall, at the new Time Warner Center, located a few blocks to the south. In March 2006, the center launched construction on a major redevelopment plan that modernized, renovated, and opened up its campus. Redevelopment was completed in 2012 with the completion of the President's Bridge over West 65th Street.
In March 2006, the center launched the 65th Street Project – part of a major redevelopment plan continuing through the fall of 2012 – to create a new pedestrian promenade designed to improve accessibility and the aesthetics of that area of the campus. Additionally, Alice Tully Hall was modernized and reopened to critical and popular acclaim in 2009 and the Film Society of Lincoln Center expanded with the new Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center. Topped by a sloping lawn roof, the film center is part of a new pavilion that also houses a destination restaurant named Lincoln, as well as offices. Subsequent projects were added which addressed improvements to the main plazas and Columbus Avenue Grand Stairs. Under the direction of the Lincoln Center Development Project, Diller Scofidio + Renfro in association with FXFOWLE Architects and Beyer Blinder Belle Architects provided the design services. Additionally, Turner Construction Company and RCDolner, LLC were the construction managers for the projects. Another component to redevelopment was the addition of the David Rubenstein Atrium designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, a visitors' center and a gateway to the center that offers free performances, day-of-discount tickets, food, and free Wi-Fi.
Vivian Beaumont Theater: a 1,080-seat Broadway theater; operated since 1985 as the main stage of Lincoln Center Theater; previously occupied by The Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center (1965-1973) and The New York Shakespeare Festival (1973-1977)
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater (originally known as the Forum): a 299-seat theater; operated by Lincoln Center Theater for its Off-Broadway-style productions
Damrosch Park: an outdoor amphitheater with a bowl-style stage known as the Guggenheim Band Shell; used for free Lincoln Center Out of Doors presentations and with a special dance floor for Midsummer Night Swing.
Daniel and Joanna S. Rose Rehearsal Studio
Josie Robertson Plaza: the center's central plaza, featuring its iconic fountain; the three main buildings (Metropolitan Opera House, David Geffen Hall, and David H. Koch Theater) face onto this plaza; used as an outdoor venue during Lincoln Center Out of Doors presentations
Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse: a nightclub-style venue; used for intimate concerts, "Meet the Artist" and Great Performers events, lectures, and other events where a small, intimate space is preferred; was also used for jazz performances prior to the construction of the new Jazz at Lincoln Center facilities
Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts (LCPA) is one of the twelve resident organizations, and serves three primary roles: presenter of artistic programming, national leader in arts and education and community relations, and manager of the center's campus. As the world's largest presenter of performing arts offering some 5,000 programs, initiatives and events annually, its programs include American Songbook, Great Performers, Lincoln Center Festival, Lincoln Center Out of Doors, Midsummer Night Swing, the Mostly Mozart Festival, Target Free Thursdays, the White Light Festival and the Emmy Award-winning Live from Lincoln Center.
In July 2006, the LCPA announced it would join with publishing company John Wiley & Sons to publish at least 15 books on performing arts, and would draw on the Lincoln Center Institute's educational background and archives.
Cultural Innovation Fund
Lincoln Center Cultural Innovation Fund is the first of its kind as a grant program that seeks to make the arts accessible to all people, focusing on those who live in some of New York City's poorest neighborhoods. Partnering with the Rockefeller Foundation, the new pilot grant program offers one-time grants to non-profit organizations to provide cultural activities in these communities in the diverse neighborhoods of Central Brooklyn and the South Bronx. Each of the 12 grantees will receive support and financial backing for their project based on organizational budget size. These are one-year long projects, and grant amounts range from $50,000-$100,000. The over-all goal of the program is to support non-profit organizations in creating cultural innovative strategies that cultivate participation in the arts as well as increase the range and availability of cultural activities to underserved communities.
In popular culture
Lincoln Center is featured in multiple works of art and media. Examples include:
The Producers (1968), in which the theatrical producers Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) and Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) meet at the Revson Fountain to discuss their scheme to defraud their investors; the climax of the scene is provided by the eruption of the plaza's fountain while Bloom dances around
Ghostbusters (1984), Peter meets Dana by the fountain after her rehearsal with a guest conductor
Pitch Perfect (2012), in which the final competition takes place at Lincoln Center
John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017), in which a shootout takes place in the plaza before moving into the Subway