At the Center of It All
thomas mellins wouldn't have identified himself as a budding curator growing up on long island, but he does remember going to museums and feeling very comfortable in gallery settings. a former curator of special exhibitions at the museum of the city of new york, mellins is now an independent curator with an impressive record of work at yale university, the national building museum and the south street seaport museum. but his most rewarding project may be his current endeavor, "lincoln center: celebrating 50 years," opening oct. 15 at the new york public library for the performing arts at lincoln center. with approximately 400 historical objects representing the 12 resident organizations at the west side campus, mellins said that the project posed unique challenges because of its breadth and scope.
"there's a huge amount of material documenting the center," he said. "so the question is, how do you organize and select the material, and what kind of framework or filter can you devise to help you make selections and then organize all the material in a coherent fashion?"
he ultimately devised seven key themes that encompassed and illuminated lincoln center's rich contributions during a half-century: urban renewal, commerce and media, architecture and the visual arts program, the use of technology, education, performers and performances. the exhibit is eclectic, but its themes bridge decades.
eileen mcmahon, senior director of publicity and publications at lincoln center, praised mellins for shepherding the project since 2007.
"we feel he has done such a superb job of organizing the history of lincoln center into seven different categories of focus," she said. "and we really feel that people who come to the exhibit and go through the exhibit will come away with a much better understanding of lincoln center and its contribution, not just to the west side, but to new york and the performing arts all over the world."
mellins has a commanding knowledge of new york city history (he co-authored new york 1880, new york 1930 and new york 1960), and he fused his erudition and experience with characteristic panache in orchestrating lincoln center's first major exhibition. the exhibit will include the actual construction hard hats used during lincoln center's original construction, correspondence, photographs, props, costumes and a giant 15-foot-high set piece of "a cook's head" from maurice sendak's design for prokofiev's the love of three oranges.
because the performing arts are at the core of lincoln center's mission, mellins made video recordings a central component. continuous loops showcase major productions, while other footage focuses on history, including footage of president dwight eisenhower breaking ground with a shovel on may 14, 1959.
an upper west sider for about 30 years, mellins and his wife, judy weinstein, live with their son in the neighborhood. he said that curating the lincoln center exhibition was a sentimental experience.
"i have been coming to lincoln center since i was a small child," he said. "i have a childhood memory of seeing a production of the merry widow at the new york state theater shortly after it was constructed and completed. my history doesn't encompass the entire history that i am documenting, but it does embrace the lion's share of it."
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