The following is a conversation between Katy Clark, President of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: There are few performing arts institutions in New York outside of Manhattan that have a national reputation, and there are fewer still whose name is recognized and revered across the globe. But one of those would be the Brooklyn Academy of Music, commonly known as BAM. And it’s a pleasure to have with us tonight, the President of BAM, Katy Clark. Good evening, Katy, and welcome to The Business of Giving.
Katy: Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Denver: You are a historian by training, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music has a rich, rich history. Share with us some of that history, and maybe a pivotal moment or two along the way that has helped make BAM this internationally recognized institution.
Katy: The Brooklyn Academy of Music actually started in 1861. We’re the oldest continuously operating performing arts center in the country, which is something that people are sometimes surprised about. In 1861, Brooklyn was a city, and there was a civil war. Those are two interesting things to look back on. I would say that the other pivotal moment was 1967. That was the year that Harvey Lichtenstein came to BAM, and at that point, the institution had really declined. Harvey’s arrival ushered in a huge artistic renaissance at BAM.
Then there was the era of Harvey and Karen Hopkins and Joe Melillo. That brings us more or less to the current date. Also, our original building on Montague Street burned down, so that was the other big moment in BAM’s history, and civic leaders in Brooklyn decided that they wanted to build that space again, and they built it in the current location on 30 Lafayette, the Peter Jay Sharp Building. That was the other big pivotal moment.
Denver: I think back to 1861… there were no bridges to Manhattan back then. I think the Brooklyn Bridge was 1884, if I remember correctly.
Katy: Exactly. In fact, the New York based company is the Philharmonic; the Opera used to come on tour to BAM, and they used to bring things on boats. Exactly right.
Denver: For listeners who may not be familiar with the Brooklyn Academy of Music, just give us an overview of the breadth and scope of the programming that you offer.
Katy: We now have in addition to that venue I just referenced, we now have three venues; the Peter Jay Sharp Building which has its movie theaters and the Howard Gilman Opera House, which is a 2000-seat opera house. Also, the Harvey Theater, an iconic New York theater, one of the most beautiful and famous theaters in the world on Fulton Street is a 900-seat theater. The most recent addition to the BAM campus is the Fisher Building, which was built for a number of reasons, but really gave a home to our education programs, enabled us to build a smaller, more flexible theater– 250-seat black box– the Fishman Space– enabled us to serve a lot more emerging artists, which has been a huge focus of BAM’s, and also to rent space to groups that needed it in Brooklyn.
We have three spaces now on our campus, and we’ll be adding another one actually in the next couple of years. The breadth of programming in that sentence alluded to education, to film, to opera, to theater, to dance. We work across many, many platforms and many many genres, many spaces. I think one of the things that BAM is most famous for is for the mashups also between those genres– the sort of hybridity of the arts– and that was something that really characterized that artistic renaissance that I talked about earlier on with Harvey as well.
Denver: That’s your secret sauce in so many different ways.
Katy: Very much so. The Next Wave Festival which we will talk about.
Denver: In what ways does BAM stand for Brooklyn? By that, I mean: What about it just screams Brooklyn, as opposed to let’s say, Manhattan?
Katy: It’s partly to do with the complexity of Brooklyn. Brooklyn is a city of many neighborhoods, many communities, many populations. That speaks to the complexity of BAM’s programmatic operations and also this whole idea of local and global programming. We pride ourselves on bringing a lot to Brooklyn for many, many audiences to see. But that’s nearly always reflected in the diaspora community in Brooklyn, too. There’s a lot of exchange between the programs we bring and the communities that we serve.
Denver: You also led the growth of the Brooklyn cultural district, and that community just continues to grow and grow. Describe that for us, that cultural district, and also tell us about the economic impact that has had.
Katy: That’s the real the jewel in the crown, I think, of the Harvey, Karen, Joe era; that they really wanted to build this very vital cultural hub, and that wasn’t just about BAM. That was also about all these other organizations that moved to this part of Brooklyn and Fort Greene. Now, I think there are more or less 60 organizations that have a professional association at Downtown Brooklyn Arts Alliance; the economic impact is hundreds of millions now. We attract maybe 4 or 5 million visitors a year. The key companies of the district include Morris Dance Group right across the street, Bric, Urban Glass, Theater for a New Audience, the Brooklyn Music School and scores of others. It’s an exciting and vibrant place to be in, and it’s also again, speaking to that great diversity of the borough, all the buildings and all the organizations are different. Their architecture is different. Their programs are different. Their budget sizes are different. It’s a real ecosystem of culture, which I love. It’s very vital.
Denver: Talking about buildings, you are underway in a capital campaign… something called the BAM Strong Renovation Project. What you’re trying to do is improve site accessibility, and you’re trying to enhance the experience, and not only for the audience but also for the artist, which I think is interesting. Tell us where we stand and what’s going to happen.
Katy: This is a very exciting project. It’s really about uniting the streetscape as well on Fulton Street because we have an empty lot next to the Harvey which we’re going to be building out. We actually own a condo on the corner. That’s the only piece of real estate that BAM owns because, as you know, we’re part of the city’s cultural institution group, so the city owns our buildings. In partnership with the city, in fact, we’re developing the BAM Strong which will unite those buildings and really bring the Harvey Theater– the front of house amenities– into the 21st century.
We famously have improved – I should say that seats in the Harvey used to be wooden benches. Over the years, we have upgraded the seating in the Harvey. We recently did that as well. Also we’ve never had a way of accessing the balcony very easily. There are all kinds of accessibility missions built into the space. I’m excited about it. It’s going to be a very beautiful addition to the streetscape and to our campus. We’re also as part of that complex building space for our visual art program. So, that empty lot in between the Harvey and condo will become a visual art gallery.
Denver: Will that be the BAM Karen or something else.
Katy: No. That’s part of the BAM Strong. All part of the same complex.
One is: What is the local and national/ international community of artists really striving to do at the moment? What are the themes in their work? How are they pushing the envelope in their respective art forms? Then, as we’re thinking about that and what the artists bring, how are we thinking about what our communities want to participate in? What do they want to see? How are those developing? How is Brooklyn developing?
Denver: You mentioned a moment ago about trying to keep the balance as an international arts center and remain really committed to the community of Brooklyn. How do you keep that balance? How do you think about that?
Katy: There are two ways in which we think about programming at BAM in very broad terms. One is: What is the local and national/ international community of artists really striving to do at the moment? What are the themes in their work? How are they pushing the envelope in their respective art forms? Then, as we’re thinking about that and what the artists bring, how are we thinking about what our communities want to participate in? What do they want to see? How are those developing? How is Brooklyn developing? I think it’s the really sweet spot of marrying those two things. Harvey always used to say, “Follow the artist. Follow the artist where they may go, and then you match that up with the audience.” It’s not as hard as it sounds maybe to match up the local, the national, and the international. Also, because Brooklyn is a very international borough. It’s a borough now of 2.6 million people. 50% speak a language other than English at home, and 65% are people of color. That really informs our programming. So, that’s how we think about it.
…we are nothing if not eclectic.
Denver: One of your exciting programs coming up is the Next Wave Festival, and I believe that’s going to be running from October 3rd to December 23rd. This is going to be the final one that’s curated by BAM’s long-time Executive Producer, Joseph Melillo. Tell us about the festival, and tell us a little bit about Joe.
Katy: Joe has had I think an unparalleled career as an executive producer. When I was searching for his successor, which has been a big project of mine over the last couple of years and recently concluded, I heard time and time again just how extraordinary it is to have one person who has put together 35 seasons of programming, which is an immense accomplishment. It’s really an incredible accomplishment. Joe is revered. He’s a legend. His legacy is an astonishing one. I think this last Next Wave Festival of Joe’s reflects a lot of the enduring things that he has tried to do. Again, bringing art forms together. Following the artist. Representing the careers of iconic artists like Trisha Brown for example… like Philip Glass. I’m looking at S Satyagraha, Mark Morris, of course, and The Hard Nut. I think those reflect Joe’s long-time preoccupations. It’s a very bittersweet moment for us, I have to say, looking at Joe’s last Next Wave.
Denver: Tell us a little bit about his successor.
Katy: His successor is a fantastic, wonderful man of the theater. His name is David Binder. We went all the way around the world and back again and found our next artistic director in New York City in downtown New York City. I actually met him early in the search, and in fact came back to Joe and said, “Joe, I just met a really remarkable person.” Joe’s eyes lit up. Which was also a wonderful thing to see. David is a theater producer. He came to New York after college. He put his roots down as a producer and produced an enormous range of things right up to the thing that he is most famous for which was Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
He’s a remarkable guy, and I think the thing that’s remarkable about David which he shares with Joe is a huge curiosity that goes way beyond Broadway or theater, that goes to the dance community, the interdisciplinary community, performance art, visual art, music. I think he’s an enormously eclectic person, and we really need that man because as you are surely hearing, we are nothing if not eclectic.
Denver: That’s a wonderful characteristic, that curiosity you bring to that post. The organization, BAM, is so committed to making as many of your offerings available and affordable to the public as you possibly can. Tell us about some of your efforts in that regard.
Katy: I think when it comes to figuring out how to attract audiences, and I talk a lot about accessibility… I talk about the physical accessibility of the buildings. I talk about the accessibility of the programming, the way we talk about our programming. I talk about how we work in partnership with our communities and what their assets are and how we work together, but it’s also about pricing of course. The ticket prices for all our main stage engagements begin at $30. This does not include movie tickets. If you’re a member as well, you can get half price everything. The Fisher Space that I referenced earlier, there was a mandate there as well to have very affordable tickets. So those are $25 general admission tickets for the Next Wave Festival. We offered discounts to students, to seniors and veterans.
Actually one of the big programs that we participated in over the last few years is, of course, the city’s IDNYC Program which has been a fantastic gateway for people to have a free membership to BAM for a year, which entitles them to a lot of discounts and to get a sense of the institution, to dip into those different programming areas, and then maybe to sign up at the end of the year. I hear from a lot of people that that has been a really significant way to access the institution.
Of course, we have free programming such as the R&B Festival. We have lots of other free programs; one of my favorites is our annual Halloween Festival which is called BAMBoo, and I always bring that one up because I just like to say it. We have a fantastic program for seniors, Senior Cinema. Yesterday, I went into work. Walked up through the Lepercq Space, which is our big cafe space, and encountered hundreds of seniors dancing. We have a whole range of programs. There are really great programs.
Denver: You have a lot of visitors every year.
Katy: We have a lot of visitors, about 750,000 a year.
Technology is the great connector, but it is also a great artistic initiative as well for us.
Denver: How is the digital realm and technology? How you go about what you do? And how do you deliver your product? I know you have a very popular YouTube channel.
Katy: We have a very popular YouTube channel. We work a lot through social media, of course, as many institutions do. We have another very popular feature of our social media engagement–when an artist takes over our Instagram for a couple of days or for the time that they’re at BAM. It’s very cool. It’s very fun. We use technology to distribute things. We use technology to connect to audiences. One of the things I think is very interesting about BAM though, as we were talking earlier about interdisciplinary work and following the artist, is how artists also incorporate technology into their work. We show things like HD platforms like the Met HD platform, the National Theater Live in our movie theaters.
But actually on the main stage, you will often see artists using technology in their work, and I find that a particularly fascinating thing about BAM. We also use it a lot in our education programs. We use it to connect classrooms, to connect children and students that are in families that are working on different kinds of programs. We have a great after-school program called “Arts and Justice” where we famously connected a group of Brooklyn teenagers with teenagers in Saint Louis around the time of the troubles there a few years ago in Ferguson. I think technology is a great way to bring students together. We have virtual classrooms. We have productions that we’ve made available in that way. Technology is the great connector, but it is also a great artistic initiative as well for us.
Denver: Sounds like a pretty big operation you’ve got going on.
Katy: It really is. When I first got to BAM, I would say that the story of my first year was really understanding the full depth of the programming, and one other strand that we should maybe touch on is the places… BAM has always been a place for where people convene to talk. It’s a chatty, discursive organization. People like to meet and talk about the issues of the day. We didn’t talk much about the first hundred years of BAM. But there were many people that came during that time to give lectures, to talk, to convene. That endures to this day. We have a lot of programs, literary programs, programs where we bring people together to talk. That’s another feature of the organization. The staff also exemplify that trait too.
I believe that if you do not fully embrace all of those underrepresented narratives, those by people of color and also by women, who are leaving huge artistic riches off the table, you’re leaving things to the side that you should not be leaving to the side. I believe that it enriches organizations to take into account as big a number of perspectives as you possibly can. We work on that every single day.
Denver: You touched on the diversity in Brooklyn and what an incredible borough it is. Diversity is one of the most important things that is facing arts institutions today. Diversity in programming, in audiences, and staff and most certainly, the board. Tell us about how you think about that and what are some of the things you’re doing to achieve greater diversity.
Katy: If somebody was to ask me what’s the subject that’s come up every single day since you’ve been at BAM, other than perhaps the challenges of finding the money, which I’m sure we’ll talk about also, is really this challenge. I think this is a central challenge. It’s one of the most… as you referenced it… one of the most important and deep and complicated challenges that we face. I find that BAM naturally leans into this issue in really good ways because I think it sits very consciously in a very diverse community.
One of the things that we’ve been working on internally and with the board is finding the right language and knowledge to talk about these issues with authority. I think diversity is complicated. You’re talking about ethnicity and gender and sexuality and people with disabilities, the LGBTQ community, socioeconomic diversity. It’s an enormously complicated subject.
I think it’s incumbent on all of us to continually be educating ourselves about that, and I think if you are a learning organization in that space, and again, you’re following the artist and where they lead you, you will come to naturally embrace an awful lot of this. I believe that if you do not fully embrace all of those underrepresented narratives, those by people of color, and also by women who are leaving huge artistic riches off the table, you’re leaving things to the side that you should not be leaving to the side. I believe that it enriches organizations to take into account as big a number of perspectives as you possibly can. We work on that every single day.
Denver: You’re never going to get there. It’s always going to be a work-in-progress. Despite the challenges you have, it just seems that BAM has it a little bit more in their DNA than many other arts organizations, just based on your history, where you’re located, and the kind of work you’ve done for 150 years.
Katy: I think it’s also important that you can be flexible in your partnerships, and also that there’s longevity in this. We’re not going away. We are here by the grace of our community in some ways. We are here to serve, and I think if you keep those things in mind as well, you never get far away from wanting to make people feel like this is their home. This is a place that anybody can come.
Denver: One of the things that keeps you from going away is money. Before I get to BAM, let me just talk about the nonprofit arts sector in America, and it surely is struggling. Public arts funding is probably down 15% or so in the last 20 years, and then we think of private philanthropy. But with all the private philanthropy, less than 5% of it goes to the arts. Despite the best efforts and despite all the evidence, people still sometimes consider the arts as nice to have, but really not critical or needed. How severe is this problem, and what can be done to successfully address it?
Katy: I always talk about this thing if you don’t mind… in the kind of glass half full and the glass half empty way of looking at this. The glass half empty… just the challenges for a minute for me, and I think my colleagues in the field… are that…. the two things that really box you in, I think, are the lack of a national conversation around the importance of the arts. I feel that especially when I go to other countries, I feel like there are not champions of the arts at the highest levels of the national conversation.
With the huge struggles for comprehensive arts education, you have it at both ends of the spectrum. So the people that are running the big arts organizations in the country I think have become stewards and advocates for the importance of the arts in really critical ways, and I see my role as much is to do all the things that we’ve just been talking about, but also to advocate for the huge importance of the arts the way arts…I heard this phrase last week… bind people to each other and to community. I feel like that’s a mission that I have to espouse every day and talk about every day because it’s not getting talked about in other very critical parts of our society. When that happens, it’s not surprising that you don’t see the philanthropy following. I think that’s the glass half empty.
The city has been and continues to be incredible supporters of BAM. I think they put in more than $100 million into the cultural district.
The glass half full for me is that I’ve had the fortune I think of having most of my professional career as a fundraiser being in New York City. This is a city of incredible resources, of incredible generosity. I couldn’t do what I do if I wasn’t inspired daily by acts of philanthropy and generosity by this community. I remain as a fundraiser eternally optimistic about our ability to make the cases that we’ve been talking about today to philanthropists in this city because I think there are people who desperately care about the importance of the arts here for all kinds of reasons. Somebody once told me to go away and make a list of all the reasons that somebody gives to an organization. They said, “And let me give you a clue. It’s not necessarily because they love your programming.” It’s such a wide range of things. I think if you embrace all of the reasons why people give: this city is actually a wonderful place to be a fundraiser. There are the two. I keep those two things in my mind every day; the challenge and also the opportunity.
Denver: The reasons for giving are just as eclectic as BAM is. Tell us a little bit about your business model. I know Bloomberg Philanthropies has just underwritten and sponsored your Winter/ Spring season, but what are those different streams of revenue that allow you to do what you do? And is there any one of them that you think hold particular promise in fueling the growth of BAM going forward?
Katy: I like to think that we do have a diversified portfolio; that helps me to sleep at night. We’re a 60/40 organization in terms of contributed/earned: 60 contributed; 40 earned. In that contributed mix, you’ll find the regular mix. We’re not heavily dependent on any one stream, except that I would say individual philanthropy is the growing trend. I want to do a shout out for something that is also the privilege of being in the city, which is the public-private partnership that we have with the city. The city has been and continues to be incredible supporters of BAM. I think they put in more than $100 million into the cultural district. I think that private-public partnership has been an incredibly powerful one in this particular case and continues to be so. We’re very proud of that. The city is very generous in terms of capital. It helps support the buildings it owns. They’re a great partner. Other than on the private philanthropy side, we see the regular mix of foundation/ corporate, but again, individual philanthropy being the growing trend.
It is a very special place to work. I think the staff are extraordinary. I think they embrace the mission with great fervor, incredible curiosity. They are not afraid of challenge. They are not afraid to ask questions. I hire for that, and I also hire for a multiplicity of perspectives.
Denver: How would you describe the workplace culture at BAM? What do you do, Katy, to help shape it, influence it, so that it is really a very special place to work?
Katy: It is a very special place to work. I think the staff are extraordinary. I think they embrace the mission with great fervor, incredible curiosity. They are not afraid of challenge. They are not afraid to ask questions. I hire for that, and I also hire for a multiplicity of perspectives. I think diversity in all things. I think that’s very, very important. I think one of the things that’s been interesting for the organization over the last few years is that they’ve had to embrace new leadership, completely new leadership for the first time in a very, very long time. Harvey hired Joe and Karen, so the board had not looked for an executive in 50 years. Me being hired was a moment for the organization. I had to learn the organization, and the people that taught that to me were the staff. I like to think that we have a learning culture. We’ve referenced that in relationship to diversity. I am a very transparent leader. I truly love my staff. I think they’re extraordinary.
This is an organization that never stops evolving. It never sits on its laurels. I think the challenges of diversity sits at the heart.
Denver: You’ve been the president now for three years or so, three years in August. You’ve got a new executive producer coming in. Time of great change. What are some of the new elements you’re bringing or are planning to bring still for the Brooklyn Academy of Music?
Katy: The answer to that question happily lies in a lot of the things that we’ve talked about. This is an organization that never stops evolving. It never sits on its laurels. I think the challenges of diversity sit at the heart. The continual balancing of all of those competing narratives going forward will be a big challenge. I think we’re interested in exploring what happens when the BAM brand goes walkabout a little bit. So, you might expect to see us a little bit off campus, which will be a very big thing for us. That would be interesting.
I think the curatorial structure of the organization will broaden out naturally from Joe’s vision to the vision of multiple curators we’ll have. We now exist in three very, very big buckets; education and community programming and performing arts and the movies. I think if I can allude to one big area of growth, it would be in film because the next space that we’re going to bring online, the fourth part of our campus, will be the BAM Karen. That will be a home for our archive for educational immersive technology space, but also more movie theaters.
I think we’re developing a really strong point of view of what it means to be a very large, independent movie center at the heart of a very complex community, and we just opened our film festival last night with a fantastic movie called Sorry to Bother You by Boots Riley. I think those three big programming areas will all develop and grow in their own way over the next few years. I would expect to see a larger imprint. Again, BAM off campus, a wider curatorial vision, and otherwise, again, enduring things like hybridity and experimentation, and huge diversity in the programming.
Denver: Interesting times, and you’re an interesting leader. Katy Clark, the President of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. Tell us about your website and all that visitors can find on it.
Katy: Bam.org, the first thing you will see is really how to buy a movie ticket and then how to buy tickets to everything that’s coming up. You will also find information about free programs, community programming, how to become a member of BAM; we love our members; how to donate to BAM, how to become a BAM fan.
Denver: Thanks, Katy. It was a real pleasure to have you on the program.
Katy: You’re welcome. Thank you so much for having me.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
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