Moving Culture Forward in Brooklyn

Exterior view of Bric Arts Media House BRIC Arts Media, UrbanGlass, and the BAM Harvey Theater on Fulton Street in Downtown Brooklyn. Photo courtesy of LEESER Architecture.

Senior Fellow in Residence Karen Brooks Hopkins on how the Brooklyn Cultural District plans to build and sustain a healthy ecosystem for the arts.

Downtown Brooklyn includes more than 60 nonprofit arts organizations, including Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grantees such as BAM, Theater for a New Audience, Mark Morris Dance Group, and the Alliance of Resident Theaters/ New York. In July, the New York Times reported on “Culture Forward”, an initiative put forth by Downtown Brooklyn Partnership and Downtown Brooklyn Arts Alliance to ensure that cultural activity remains central and distinct throughout the area’s future development.

Karen Brooks Hopkins, a senior fellow in residence at the Mellon Foundation and former president of BAM, is a longtime advocate for the initiative.

What is “Culture Forward”, and how does it ensure that Downtown Brooklyn will grow as a hub for the next generation of artists and creators?
“Culture Forward” is rooted in our values as an arts community within a cultural district: design, joint programming, animated public space, opportunities for artists and arts groups, and inclusiveness. Ten years after forming the Downtown Brooklyn partnership, this report consolidates thinking, articulates ideas in a more specific way, and allows stakeholders to pursue their own missions while simultaneously engaging us as a community to work together and create the most impact.

This is a generational opportunity for groups to join forces to present truly groundbreaking offerings, both within and outside their halls. The initiative calls for activation of plazas and public spaces with outdoor films, music, youth programs, and open studio nights presented by local organizations. Additionally, the development of artist live/work space on underutilized city-owned land through private development will ultimately add to the vitality and overall success of the Brooklyn Cultural District.

The Cultural District's organizations are interested in the success of the overall community, not just their own institutions. They realize the two are intertwined. By the time the core Brooklyn Cultural District development is complete, it will be home to nine cultural groups, nearly 2,000 housing units (including 600 affordable units), over 300,000 square feet of new office space, tens of thousands of square feet of public space, and countless retail and restaurant options.

How long has this been in the works? Did real estate developers, public officials, and other stakeholders immediately coalesce around “Culture Forward”, or did it take some time for all to embrace the effort? 
This is really a 40 year-long story. The Brooklyn Cultural District progressed from a desolate neighborhood that few were invested in—unless they came in on the BAMBus to see a show—to one of the hippest neighborhoods in the world. Part of what happened in Downtown Brooklyn was ignited by BAM’s work and its unique aesthetic—experimental, edgy and international. People seeking a connection circled around BAM and became involved, and other organizations who felt simpatico came to the neighborhood. It wasn’t only the arts, but BAM and the other cultural institutions that followed that drove the concept of  “brand” Brooklyn—and, again, it’s clear that they want everything to work throughout the entire community, not just within their own institutions.

The strategy we initiated at BAM focused on making everyone involved a stakeholder, and, in some cases, amplified other organizations' adoption of the same approach. We articulated to developers that cultural institutions spurred neighborhood revitalization and we got them to join boards and give their support, as well as spoke to the developers about how supporting the city’s vision for affordable housing is central to a creative and diverse community. With community members and activists, we tried to steer focus away from battling “in the air”—disputes over height and density—and instead encouraged them to take it to the ground by advocating for affordable housing, additive retail and amenities, and strong stewardship of arts and culture.

In the Times, you stated “We don’t want [Downtown Brooklyn] to feel like Anywhere USA. We want it to be chaotic.” Are there key lessons or takeaways from past culture-driven redevelopment projects?
Today there is a new paradigm for cultural districts that acknowledges the edifices and suburban plazas of the 20th century were imperfect. Large, classically-based, monolithic-looking institutions built off the street aren’t the way of the world anymore. Lincoln Center—once a total epitome of this old model—has since reimagined its campus to be more in line with today. The Brooklyn Cultural District is in sync with the 21st century, which calls for authenticity and diversity.

We’ve looked at examples of creative ways that neighborhoods have revived and reinvented themselves, and it’s a lot about understanding where you are, who’s around you, and what’s around you. Cultural districts are developed as unique destinations in their own way; they aren’t Anywhere, USA. We have to be mindful of the way development happens. There must be a diverse population, a variety of activities in motion, an animated streetscape, unique shops—and everything has to support the artistic character of the neighborhood.

The decision to have a district that speaks in one voice—that of culture—and how it aids development, programming and design decisions among constituent institutions—all of these became principles to live by. People finally understand that culture is a community-builder, and that it drives interesting and energetic neighborhoods. As cities have revived, culture is regaining stature—it is considered at the beginning of the process, not simply after the fact.











For over forty years, the Mellon Foundation has supported the creative accomplishment, diversity, and sustainability of arts and cultural heritage in Brooklyn. Grant-supported cultural institutions that are or will soon be located in the Downtown Brooklyn Cultural District include:

Alliance of Resident Theaters/ New York


Bang on a Can, Inc.    



Brooklyn Public Library

King’s Majestic Corporation    

Mark Morris Dance Group      

Theater for a New Audience   

Urban Bush Women