Portrait by William Vasillov
Lincoln Kirstein was well-to-do, received a superior education, had a passionate interest in the arts, and was well-connected socially. He could easily have led a comfortable Manhattan life as a minor patron of the arts. Instead he marshaled his considerable energy, intellect, and organizational skills to serve the art world as an extraordinary facilitator and a tireless proselytizer.
Kirstein was born in 1907 and grew up principally in Boston. He attended Harvard University where, with classmates, he founded the influential literary magazine Hound & Horn, and the Harvard Society of Contemporary Art, forerunner of the Museum of Modern Art.
Moving to New York, he pursued what would probably be the effort for which he is most widely know, the ballet. Kirstein is the man who brought George Balanchine to America (1933); together they elevated American dance to a high art, saving it from a vaudeville existence. First establishing a solid base in the School of American Ballet (1934), they later founded the New York City Ballet (1948).
Nurturing this company and making it possible for Balanchine to develop a style and repertory uniquely American was Kirstein’s principal preoccupation for six decades. But his “outside” interests were many and varied.
- He championed the art of Pavel Tchelitchev and Elie Nadelman, writing monographs, museum catalogues, and eventually books on both artists (1994 and 1974).
- He was an early advocate of photography as a serious contemporary art form, recognizing especially the work of Walker Evans and Henri Cartier-Bresson.
- Pursuing an interest in Japanese art, he lived briefly in Japan and eventually was instrumental in bringing both Gagaku and Kabuki to New York (1959, 1960).
- He helped found the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut (1955) and produced A Midsummer Night’s Dream for its first season.
- He was active in the American Dressage Institute.
- Among his many books was a history of the New York City Ballet on its 25th anniversary (1973) which he updated on the 30th (1978).
- Committed to the U.S. civil rights movement, he marched in Alabama (1965).
- Serving in the U.S. Army in World War II, he drew upon his experiences for a book of poems, Rhymes of a Pfc (published 1964).
- He produced The Play of Daniel with Noah Greenberg’s Pro Musica Antiqua (1950s).
- He worked with old friends Nelson Rockefeller and Philip Johnson to build the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center (opened 1964).
Kirstein's main focus, however, was always Balanchine – and New York City Ballet and the School of American Ballet. With incredible foresight and perspicacity he forged these two organizations – nearly single handedly it often seemed and against great odds – into permanent cultural institutions with independent viability that would outlast its founders.