Jane Moss, an impresario who prodded Lincoln Center to evolve from a complacent institution into a spiritual force, will step down this summer after 27 years. The move, effective August 1, leaves her with no specific plans and the organization without an artistic leader at a time when performances have stopped, planning is impossible, and the future of live arts is a frightening unknown. Moss says that the surreal pause of the past few months, when she’s spent more evenings at home than she has in years, allowed her to reflect and conclude that perhaps she and Lincoln Center don’t need each other quite as much as they used to.
“Performances are my emotional nourishment. Now all I was doing was canceling them, and suddenly I had nothing to go to except the 7 o’clock shout-out. At the beginning, the withdrawal was terrible, but it also gave me some psychological distance.” She concluded that if she stayed in her job long enough to steer Lincoln Center past the next perilous year or two, she’d have to stay longer to get the programming back on track and skittish audiences back in the halls. “I’m 67, and I want one more chapter,” she says. (She claims to have no idea what that will be.)
Moss has presided over a citywide shift in arts presentation. In the early 1990s, the Brooklyn Academy of Music dominated the interdisciplinary spectacle with a very downtown roster: Philip Glass, Robert Wilson, Mark Morris, Meredith Monk, Tricia Brown. Lincoln Center struggled to shed its staid uptown identity, and its concert-music offerings were overwhelmingly oriented toward Europe. As a presenter, Lincoln Center is just one of a bouquet of organizations that occupy the campus, one with no clear charter, ensemble, or venue to call its own. Whatever orchestral concerts, chamber music, opera, dance, film, and outdoor popular concerts it presents have to fit into the interstices of the other constituents’ turf. When Moss arrived in 1992, that purview consisted primarily of the celebrity concert series Great Performers and the Mostly Mozart Festival, a summertime date-night fixture. A quarter-century later, Lincoln Center is a year-round, multi-stage operation that ranges from expensive extravaganzas to boutique performances like the popular post-concert series “A Little Night Music,” where musicians perform in an intimate space with the audience sipping wine at café tables.
“It used to be that you’d just announce a lot of famous performers’ names and that’s all you had to do,” she says. “That wasn’t working as well as it once had, so we began to shift the emphasis from performance to experience.”
The old audiences, who often knew the works on the program from recordings, attended concerts to savor the fine points of execution. The dependable army of subscribers and connoisseurs was dwindling, though, and Moss wanted to reinforce it with new audiences that had fewer preconceptions and craved artistic encounters they couldn’t find on their screens. Rather than supplying distilled excellence, she needed to offer ambiance, theatrics, and genre-mixing. She didn’t have to invent the wheel: Jazz at Lincoln Center and the Serious Fun! summertime dance festival had launched in 1987. In 1995, Moss brought those worlds together for “Degga,” a three-way collaboration among Toni Morrison, Bill T. Jones, and Max Roach.
“That’s where the culture was going,” she says. “There was a whole new generation of artists who were also tired of the routine.”
As Lincoln Center flowered, so did the competition. The Park Avenue Armory began staging operas in its immense Drill Hall, an assortment of tiny venues in lower Manhattan and Brooklyn nurtured contemporary music, and the Shed came online — all of them competing for audiences, artists, and philanthropic dollars. But Moss was astute at identifying and cultivating like-minded artists. “A lot of my favorite projects grew out of relationships with people like Esa-Pekka Salonen [who conducted Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde along with slo-mo videos by Bill Viola], Mark Morris [who created his Mozart Dances for the Mostly Mozart Festival], and Peter Sellars [who directed mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in a moving performance of two Bach cantatas].” Even as she gave stars plenty of creative freedom, Moss also reached out to younger performers and fledgling ensembles like ICE — the International Contemporary Ensemble, founded by flutist Claire Chase. Over time, Moss has challenged the classical music Establishment to dismantle some of its stringently defended borders. That’s paid off in the Mostly Mozart Festival, which (along with music director Louis Langrée) she reconceived as an adventure that honored its namesake’s musical curiosity by ranging from baroque to contemporary music.
Moss has gradually extended her reach, colonizing venues as far afield as the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola, the Park Avenue Armory, and the rectory of St. John the Divine. Lincoln Center Festival, a rival event that imported large-scale productions from around the world, folded in 2017, leaving her in total control of programming. Her signature innovation was the White Light Festival, an autumn series of events united not by style, period, or geography but a spiritual sensibility. Its genius was that it could embrace Brahms’s German Requiem, an ecstatic Sufi rite from Northern India, Georgian choral music, and an 18th-century Japanese puppet play, and still somehow feel like they belonged in the same brochure.
The pandemic has shut down that entire global circuit, scrapping productions years in the making and threatening the existence of ensembles all over the world. “What’s happened to artists is tragic: entire livelihoods wiped out,” she says. Moss is not sanguine about the near future. It may be years before touring performers can travel freely or audiences will feel comfortable packing into large auditoriums. She says it will take a vaccine for Lincoln Center to go back to being Lincoln Center. The performing-arts world that emerges after the emergency has ebbed may be thoroughly transformed.
Still, Moss believes that reviving and reinventing the performing arts in the wake of catastrophe will be an exciting challenge for her successor because, in the end, the job is to supply the soul with essential nutrient. “I see art as a force of nature within the human psyche,” she says. “Art has a way of finding the people who need it.”