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"Brooklyn Academy Thinks Big,
Despite All "

Muslim Voices

January 19, 2009

By ROBIN POGREBIN

Read this article on nytimes.com >

Even as cultural organizations across the city are contracting in a grim economic climate, the Brooklyn Academy of Music has embarked on a $300 million expansion effort that calls for a new theater, three or four spaces for screening films, new festivals for opera and Muslim culture and a shored-up endowment, officials say.

Karen Brooks Hopkins, president of the Academy, acknowledged that the move might seem surprising to donors and to struggling arts institutions.

“Announcing this campaign is not meant to be arrogant,” she said in an interview. “It’s meant to be thoughtful. We cut our budget by $1.4 million this year.” (Last year’s budget was $40 million.) “At the same time, we want to be forward-thinking.”

The five-year campaign, to be announced on Wednesday, actually started quietly last year, Ms. Hopkins said. More than half of the money — $160 million — has already been raised, including $22.5 million from the city and a $10 million gift from Jeanne Donovan Fisher, the widow of Richard B. Fisher, who served as chairman of the Academy’s endowment trust.

Ms. Hopkins acknowledged that the institution faced an enormous challenge, given the recent plunge in so many New Yorkers’ and corporations’ investment portfolios. “It’s going to be very hard; we have a huge job to do,” she said. “It’s a 5-year campaign, but it may take 10 years.”

But she added that the Academy had a list of potential donors that she had yet to approach. “Some of them will give, and some of them won’t,” she said, adding that the institution remained “committed and focused.”

The new 263-seat theater, planned for a former Salvation Army building next to the Academy, on Ashland Place in Fort Greene, will be named after Mr. Fisher and designed by the architect Hugh Hardy. Construction is to begin in the fall, with performances starting in 2012, the Academy said.

The plan reflects the Academy’s recognition of how essential the organization, founded in 1861, has become in recent years as an economic and cultural anchor for Brooklyn, and for Fort Greene in particular.

“BAM is so important to the success of the whole community,” Ms. Hopkins said. “When we are dark, the whole block starves.”

Ms. Hopkins said the institution was already one of the borough’s leading employers. The new building project would use 125 construction workers daily and involve more than 800 tradesmen. “That’s one of the reasons we’re doing this now,” she said. “The other reason is that history demands it in a certain way.”

For nearly a decade the city has been working to create a BAM Cultural District by converting vacant and underused properties in the area into spaces for arts organizations. The Theater for a New Audience, for example, is completing plans for a new home in the district, also designed by Mr. Hardy. A new building adjacent to the BAM Harvey Theater is to house UrbanGlass, a nonprofit center devoted to glass blowing, and BRIC, another nonprofit arts organization, which provides public access television and arts programming for the borough, including the Celebrate Brooklyn! summer concert series. That project is also to begin construction this year.

Joe Chan, president of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, which is overseeing the arts district’s development, said he thought the Academy’s new theater would play a critical role in advancing the district’s growth. “It will add a new type of venue which is smaller, less costly to operate and more accessible,” he said.

The Academy currently operates two stages, the Howard Gilman Opera House, which has about 2,000 seats, and BAM Harvey, which has 874.

“BAM needs a new, small, intimate, completely flexible theater that can respond to the art-making of the 21st century,” said Joseph V. Melillo, the institution’s executive producer. In addition to the theater auditorium, whose seats will be removable, the building is to include a large rehearsal space, classrooms, offices and a green roof. Much of the new complex has already been named after donors: the Peter Jay Sharp Lobby, the Judith R. and Alan H. Fishman Space, the Samuel H. Scripps Stage.

“The roof is not named yet, but hopefully it will be,” Ms. Hopkins said.

The Academy will use the theater for half the year. It will be available for rental to local organizations the rest of the year at subsidized rates, a policy made possible by a $2 million grant from the Independence Community Foundation, which supports development, education and the arts in Brooklyn. The Academy has organized a community council to develop a business plan to address neighborhood needs and provide technical assistance and training in areas like marketing.

The new film-screening spaces will be in another building in the district that has yet to be identified, Academy officials said. That space will also include room for exhibitions and events.

The broader plan also includes upgrading the BAM Harvey Theater — new seats, a reconfigured lobby and improved food service — and bolstering the Academy’s endowment to $110 million from the current $67 million.

The Academy seems to be starting on more solid ground than it has for past ventures. In its last fiscal year the organization had no deficit for the first time in decades, after a shortfall that peaked at $4 million in the late 1980s.

On the programming front, the Academy plans to introduce a biennial opera festival in March 2010, with William Christie as curator. The first program will include Henry Purcell’s “Fairy Queen,” directed by Jonathan Kent; Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s “Actéon”; and Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas.”

Plans also call for a 2011 revival of Mr. Christie’s production of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s “Atys,” previously presented at the Academy in 1989 and 1992 and jointly produced this time with Opéra Comique of France. “This Baroque music was lost for 200 years, and Christie rediscovered and reinvented it,” Ms. Hopkins said.

The Academy will also continue its Bridge Project, a three-year collaboration with the Old Vic in London, in which two new plays directed by Sam Mendes are to be presented each year. The first of the plays, “The Cherry Orchard,” adapted by Tom Stoppard, opened this month.

With Asia Society and the New York University Center for Dialogues as partners, the Academy will take part this year in “Muslim Voices: Arts & Ideas,” which seeks to celebrate the range of artistic expression in the Muslim world. The festival and conference will unfold across the city from June 5 to 19, with performances, films, exhibitions, lectures and an outdoor souk.

The Academy has an advantage envied by some other venerable performing arts institutions: its audiences are getting younger. The proportion of spectators under 35 increased to 37 percent in 2008 from 30 percent in 2004. Last year, for the first time, the Academy also saw a tipping of its so-called borough balance: more audience members from Brooklyn than from Manhattan.

Still, even as it proceeds with these ambitious plans, the Academy will have to grapple with the day-to-day exigencies of the economic downturn. Despite the one-time city gift, its annual city financing has been trimmed by $800,000, Ms. Hopkins said. Should hard times worsen, the Academy will probably have to make additional cuts in its operating budget.

But Ms. Hopkins emphasized that the institution had weathered adversity in the past. “BAM has been around since 1861 and endured fire, flood, the Great Depression,” she said. “We are not in this for the short haul.”

 

 

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