This year, Brooklyn Academy of Music celebrates a milestone birthday, and all of New York City is invited to its yearlong party. Its ideal guest list might include Gertrude Stein, Isadora Duncan, and Sufjan Stevens—just a few of the acclaimed performers to grace its stage over the past 150 years.
BAM, which proudly holds the title of America’s oldest performing arts center, has served as a haven for avant-garde performances that draw diverse crowds since opening its doors in the 1861-62 season. Today, it continues to lead the way in artistic innovation, and extends its reach both internationally and within the neighborhood.
In its own literature, BAM defines its role as a “home for adventurous artists, audiences, and ideas.” Adventurous today, indeed, but in the 1860s this fearlessness was far from BAM’s reality.
In the late 1800s, when BAM was born, the theater world in New York at large was becoming more controversial, with members of different social classes clashing in riots in downtown Manhattan.
According to Lehner, BAM was the “conservative backlash” to those events, and steered away from topical pieces.
This is “just after a time when we’re having prostitution in the balcony of theaters, so there a lot of associations that theaters are low brow,” Lehner said. “For the first year at BAM, the trustees said, ‘We are having no theater whatsoever, this is just going to be for music.’”
At the same time, BAM has always played into “Brooklyn pride,” demonstrating the borough’s independent identity. One of the founders said in archival documents, “We want to keep Brooklyn dollars in Brooklyn.”
Fast-forward to the 1960s, when BAM had started engaging in more experimental programming in an effort to attract people to Brooklyn, while staying true to its community-based roots.
As Lehner said, “This institution grew organically out of a consciousness about what it means to be Brooklyn, what it means to not be in Manhattan, and what it is to attract people to here.”
Having worked at BAM for over a decade, Lehner has watched the institution blossom and sees the upcoming season as an opportunity to prove BAM’s relevance, along with celebrating 21st century Brooklyn’s unique culture beyond the shadow of Manhattan.
In the upcoming months, BAM is reaching inside its vault of abundant archival materials, welcoming art mavens and newcomers alike to interact with its rich past. “From Caruso to Cunningham,” the first installment of a two-part exhibition, will run through August 2012 in the Peter Jay Sharp Building Lobby. It will take visitors on a journey from its early days on Montague Street to its current state as a 21st century home for legendary art, music, dance, film, theatre, and opera offerings.
But it was Lehner who dug deep to find and chronicle BAM’s long and storied history—no easy feat, considering that the original BAM opera house on Montague burned to the ground, taking all its treasures with it in November 1930.
Later on, in 1977, BAM was hit with another natural disaster: A 30-inch city water main burst nearby, which caused severe flooding in its two main stages on Lafayette.
Finding these lost archival materials has been akin to putting a gigantic puzzle back together again, with employees going so far as to dig through old newspaper clippings and toiling through the Library of Congress archives. The silver lining lies in how much of its fascinating history they have rediscovered as a result.
Despite the curatorial struggles, a wealth of materials—lectures from nineteenth-century intellectuals such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and thousands of photographs, among others—is now available to everyone from students to scholars to historians to the artists themselves.
But throughout its history, BAM has worked to move beyond the limitations of the creative and artistic world, opening its doors to intellectual and political discourse.
Before BAM became a city-owned not-for-profit organization, it invited everyone from local politicians to the president to speak on its stage.
In 1940, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt came to speak at BAM on the campaign trail, there were over 2,000 people seated in the opera house, more than 6,000 on the street outside, and still more packed on the stage.
Reflecting back on BAM’s origins, this is hardly surprising.
In the early 1820s, according to Lehner, there were different trade unions popping up all over the city and in Brooklyn that demanded more of a public place in art and culture.
“Something that really doesn’t exist anymore is the idea of the free university,” she said. “It’s a new idea in 1820 that people should have access to culture. This is not something that people thought working people needed to have.”
Come February 15, BAM will revive this tradition with its Iconic Artist Talk program, featuring influential artists who will explore the evolution of their work at the Academy. Attendees can expect to glimpse exclusive original performance footage and images straight from the BAM Hamm Archives. Guests will include Meredith Monk, Steve Reich, Bill T. Jones, and Chuck Davis.
BAM’s outreach efforts have proven one of the most enduring aspects of its legacy. Its education program interacts annually with up to 24,000 students and 200 NYC schools. “It’s not a ‘center,’ it’s a home, so it should be comfortable and accessible, and warm, and where people can feel like they belong and have a stake in it,” Lehner said.
It’s this willingness to welcome all that has accounted for a large part of BAM’s success.
“One absolutely stellar aspect of BAM is its ticket pricing—so many levels create honest to goodness possibilities for someone to have live performance art in their lives in a way that won’t send them to the poorhouse,” said Barnard’s dance department’s assistant chair Katie Glasner,
While BAM is taking every opportunity to look back into its inspiring past, it has spent equal time looking ahead to the future. In September 2012, the Richard B. Fisher Building is scheduled to open.
Designed by Hugh Hardy, it will marry sustainable features with community interaction: use of day-lighting and sun shades, storm water collection, and a green roof will facilitate a whole new host of performances and programs for the decades to come.
Additionally, BAM is extending its international reach, recently collaborating with the U.S. State Department on DanceMotion USA, a program that promotes cultural exchange through dance, according to Paul Scolieri, assistant professor of dance at Barnard, and former manager of education and humanities at BAM. Said Glasner, “BAM became a mini United Nations of art.”
A borough away, BAM still remains relevant to Columbia students. Last fall, Glasner started off the semester by having students from her Dance in NYC class venture to BAM to see Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Baroque opera “Atys.”
Meanwhile, Scolieri, who is currently teaching a seminar called Performing the Political, is “delighted” that artists working with this year’s tour will come to discuss their preparations with his class later this semester.
Over its lifetime, BAM has stayed true to itself as a rare New York cultural gem, and more importantly, a gathering place. As Lehner said, “For 150 years we’ve been a place that thought about itself as more than a performance venue for art with a capital ‘A.’”