Brooklyn's Cultural Ascendance

Pioneer_Works.jpgPioneer Works supports innovative artists and ideas in Red Hook. Photo by Jessica Sederquist / Mellon Foundation.

This past fall, following my retirement as president of the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), I became a Senior Fellow in Residence at the Mellon Foundation. After 36 years at BAM, it has been exhilarating to develop new projects of my own, investigating topics such as the state of large performing arts centers in today’s world and developing strategies to address their problems. It has also been enlightening to meet the Mellon program leaders, begin to understand their priorities, and provide, when possible, ideas and connections that pertain to their goals and add value to their work.

Since Brooklyn is now the hot artistic center of New York—not only in my mind, but in the opinion of many others—I thought it would be interesting for the Mellon staff to tour some of my favorite organizations in the borough. There are more artists living and working in Brooklyn today than in any other community in the United States. Given the surge in the creative population and the diversity of the arts organizations populating the downtown area, it seemed like the right moment to take a deeper look at the institutions and their impact on their communities.

A tour of these cultural organizations also seemed useful for thinking about the crossroads that downtown Brooklyn has reached, as it evolves from a grittier past, with a largely industrial economic base and a more ethnically diverse population, into a present of greater prosperity but overall a more homogeneous demographic compared to the borough overall. This process of gentrification arguably threatens the very factor that first enabled the success of downtown Brooklyn: the character of the neighborhood. Because the Mellon Foundation has been immersed in its Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities initiative, which is dedicated in part to examining the impact of segregation in urban areas, the transformation of Brooklyn has valuable lessons to offer.

Our group of 16 Mellon staffers began the tour early in the day at the spectacular Saint Ann’s Warehouse, whose new theater is located in an old Civil War-era tobacco warehouse on the waterfront in Dumbo. The space feels open and free: a box waiting to be filled with all manner of performance. The view of the Manhattan skyline from the theater’s front door makes the experience of visiting St Ann’s even more dramatic. It is humbling to see a historic “ruin” reinvented as a centerpiece of the new Brooklyn Bridge Park and rejuvenated as a 21st century theater.

The weather was sunny and warm, making our travel all the more enjoyable as we went from St. Ann’s to Red Hook, a strikingly different waterfront neighborhood filled with old factories, brownstones in various states of disrepair or revitalization, and tall cranes harkening back to the days when cargo ships frequented the docks.  At Pioneer Works we toured a fantastic hybrid space established by the organization’s founder, visual artist Dustin Yellin. In addition to housing a large studio where Yellin creates his own art, Pioneer Works has artist residency cubicles, an exhibition gallery, a radio station, a recording studio, a garden and outdoor space with public art projects, classrooms, science labs, dark rooms and an office for its magazine, Intercourse. The energy at Pioneer Works is explosive, with artists, scientists, visitors, and collectors all defining the vibe of the Brooklyn collaborative arts scene.  

Next, we made our way to the Fort Greene area and the Brooklyn Cultural District, where the venues range in size from 200-seat quasi-storefronts to the 18,000-seat Barclays Center.

Our first stop was the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA), which is a small jewel of a space. The curators of MoCADA have used every inch of it, including the windows and entryway, to showcase contemporary work by artists of color, many of them Brooklynites. MoCADA exemplifies the can-do spirit of the borough today.

As we left MoCADA, our route took us past the massive construction sites that now dot the Brooklyn Cultural District—evidence that developers have discovered the neighborhood en masse. It is exciting to see the fruits of 40 years of effort to build up the district, and at the same time challenging to consider how gentrification threatens to overwhelm the neighborhood’s authenticity. As we all know, growth and demographic change in a community are a double-edged sword. On the positive side is the fact that much of the evolution of this area of Brooklyn can be attributed to the proliferation and expansion of cultural organizations, rather than the “scorched earth” strategy by which entire neighborhoods are razed to make way for new construction. The explosion of high rises, however, does threaten small stores, flattens out a formerly diverse population, and generally diminishes the churn that define the community’s personality. It is going to be crucial for artists, old and new residents, and cultural organizations to join forces to maintain the vitality that thrives in a neighborhood when its community reflects a range of different backgrounds.

At the center of the Brooklyn Cultural District stands its anchor institution, BAM, which has been a focal point of the borough’s cultural life since 1861. The “new” BAM, located on Lafayette Avenue in Fort Greene, opened its doors in 1908. Its remarkable range of theatres, venues, and public spaces now serves more than 750,000 visitors annually. We were warmly greeted by Katy Clark, BAM’s new president, and her colleagues, who showed us the 2,000-seat Howard Gilman Opera House: one of our nation’s greatest historic theaters, where the artists who have graced its stage for more than 100 years have included legends such as Sarah Bernhardt, Martha Graham, and Rudolf Nureyev. However, today’s BAM complex is much more than the steward of an illustrious past. With its four cinemas, unique “state-of-the-art ruin” 800-seat Harvey Theater, and flexible 250-seat Fishman Space in the new Fisher building, BAM is the largest presenter of contemporary and international work in all performance disciplines in the United States..

After visiting all of the BAM buildings and stopping for a delicious lunch at Caffe e Vino, a restaurant on Fulton Street that thrives in the neighborhood because of its proximity to the cultural venues, we began our afternoon at BRIC. BRIC houses a performance space and open art gallery as well as a remarkable TV and media center that airs local programs and trains individuals to develop and edit their own shows. BRIC is also home to Urban Glass, the largest hot glass studio in the United States. Its ground floor shop is a testament to the artistry of these modern-day glass blowers.

Our next-to-last stop was Theater for a New Audience (TFANA), whose immersive horseshoe-shaped theater, with the audience seated on three sides of the stage, evokes the Elizabethan age.  It took a ten-year effort to bring the itinerant TFANA to the District, which has been rewarded by excellent productions of classics and full houses.

Mark Morris Dance.jpgMark Morris Dance Center in Fort Green. Photo courtesy of Mark Morris Dance Group.

As the grand finale, we toured the Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG) on Lafayette Avenue. We could barely get in the door, with so many students, parents, and dancers pouring out of the lobby. We visited a range of small and large dance studios, all filled to the brim with classes and rehearsals. Dance is the most underfunded of all the art forms, and very few dance companies in the U.S. have their own buildings. The vitality of MMDG has even more resonance because of its singular contribution to the community and the field.

It was an amazing day, and many members of the Mellon team remarked that the level of construction and mix of new residential and cultural spaces in the district has undoubtedly generated a large new cultural hub with its own personality. Creatives of all kinds are bringing their ideas to Brooklyn and realizing their dreams in its neighborhoods, in a way that defines a great city. If we can nurture their contributions, while actively working to contain excessive development and gentrification, New York City’s future will be much richer because of Brooklyn’s cultural ascendance.