Cultural nonprofits

BAM: A model for nurturing sustainable arts and surviving COVID

Mike Benigno

Retired Brooklyn Academy of Music President Karen Brooks Hopkins has been promoting her recently published book, “BAM … And Then It Hit Me,” a memoir of her 36 years with the nonprofit, cultural arts institution. The more than 300-page book is filled with stories of memorable productions, her encounters with iconic performers, arts figures and dignitaries. The book also serves as a guide to BAM’s nonprofit fundraising efforts and offers insights into maintaining sustainable arts, nonprofit leadership and management. 

As Brooks Hopkins continues a book tour this month, including a return to BAM’s Harvey Theater on Feb. 17 for a special program introduced by singer Laurie Anderson, BAM itself continues – as many venues have – to emerge from the difficult times of the coronavirus pandemic. The institution was forced to cancel live performances, cut its expenses, lay off some employees and furloughed others and tapped its $100 million endowment for special distributions. Last week, in a signal of BAM’s continued recovery from COVID-19, Gina Duncan, a past BAM vice president of film and strategic programming, was named as its new president. 

Brooks Hopkins spoke with City & State about BAM’s resilience, the impact of sustainable arts on communities and how she was able to assemble more than a quarter century of memories from her newly published book. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did the pandemic affect BAM and its ability to return and serve the public?

Well first of all, I retired in 2015. So I luckily avoided having to be the CEO during the pandemic time. But clearly, I'm close to people there and follow the fortunes of the institution. And like every theater, it's just been horrible, it's been so difficult. First of all, your business is just shuttered and shattered. And it's a very complicated situation to close it down and then to ramp it back up again. And then to ramp it back up again and not have any certainty of whether you're going to be able to stay ramped is another situation. So, there was a lot of expense cutting and layoffs and difficulties. Of course when you don't have programs, you don't have fundraising. Luckily, the government came in and made some of these special grants, and that helped everybody get through. And now, I think that it's a question of probably next season before we see things completely, fully restored. And even then, I think everybody is very cautious because of the complications of an expense; not knowing whether people will be able to come, not knowing whether you can bring artists from far away, not knowing how you're going to be able to operate everything. It's a complicated situation. It’s been really terrible for the field. I think that Broadway has reopened, but I think they've lost a lot of money. A lot of shows haven't reopened, a lot of shows have reopened and closed, a lot of shows reopened with less attendance. I mean, the whole thing is kind of a giant mess.

Have you been back to the theater since the pandemic began to subside?

I have been, yes. I mean, I've gone to several shows, masked up. It's a funny thing I was saying to someone today, two years ago, we never could imagine that people would go and sit through a play like 2 1/2 hours long wearing a mask. And now, no one thinks twice about it. Everybody's adapted. Everybody's adapted to carrying the vaccine cards to going through all the protocols that you have to go through, because people love live theater, and New York is a very resilient town as far as that is concerned.

Looking ahead, what kind of changes and tweaks do you imagine will become permanent so that we have greater sustainability?

Well, I think that the digital realm is here to stay one way or another. So I think that more things will find themselves not only in the live space, but in the digital space. I think that obviously these theaters are now going to be better ventilated than they were historically. Certain remote work behavior is gonna need to be accommodated to some extent. I don't think our field can do that completely because theater is a live thing. But I think that we will see some change in the workplace in terms of how people work and the way that they work. And that the world itself, I think, will be much more cautious than it was before. And I think it's going to take a while for the city to bounce back. It's a question of whether Manhattan offices will rebound, and how will tourists come back? I mean, there's a lot of different things that are still unknown as we navigate this whole terrain.

How has BAM’s model been replicated elsewhere? 

People replicate it, actually, all over the world. Cultural districts of all different kinds are now everywhere, and they are finally getting more respect as economic development strategies that are worthy of support and investment. Cultural institutions don't leave, they stay for the long term, they're very connected to the communities that they serve. They mostly offer education programs, family programs, many different kinds of things that service residents, plus, they appeal to visitors. So, in my view, I'm amazed that it's taken this long for culture to be seen as a force in economic development that it is and can be. But you have to show respect for the program, that's the thing. But cultural districts, and now cultural corridors, and then there are other things that are developing, are demonstrating the full power of what the field has to offer in terms of community revitalization and empowering neighborhoods.

Would you say the pandemic might be the trigger for an increase in cultural districts around the world?

The pandemic may, particularly because a lot of other businesses may not be ready to come back so fast and arts and culture will. If you give artists space, they're happy. But then you can't just push them out the minute that the neighborhood has more assets. The key is to retain culture in neighborhoods and to make sure that the cultural organizations represent the community. And then new things can come in, but old things also need to be maintained. So it's an interesting juggling act, but it's one that's very possible to achieve success with.

What would you say to others in the nonprofit space and in the cultural space as they now struggle to bounce back?

First of all, your board of trustees is a critical relationship for the survival of the institution. Keep close to your donors, watch expenses and plan your program for (its) return to be as spectacular as it can be. That doesn't mean it necessarily has to be expensive, it just has to be exciting. People are ready to get involved, and it's important that we have programs and ideas that will engage them. It's already starting to happen, it's gotten slowed down by the omicron. But we're already seeing shows being created, artists working, people coming back into the city, exhibitions coming forward, I mean, there's a lot happening. So it's important that donors step up, that the city continues to make a very strong investment in its artistic community and in the cultural life. I believe that arts and culture is the city's competitive edge, it's what we have. Any investment in it is going to offer a solid return in many different ways.

How can policymakers step in to support?

Every time there's been cuts, historically, the arts always get the chop first. But that would be a big mistake at this moment when we're trying to revive this city. In my view, the city needs to do a good job making sure that there is diversity, equity and inclusion, that people have opportunities, that we can emerge from cycles of poverty where there are deep pockets of low income situations in certain neighborhoods. But I also believe that the city needs to be great. In terms of its cultural life, it needs to be exciting. It needs to welcome tourists, it needs to be the most dynamic place in the world. I think New York is the most dynamic place, so you have to balance and do both. And a great mayor will see that, and I have high hopes for Eric Adams.

You spent 36 years with BAM. How were you able to hold on to so much history, and were you keeping notes while you were trying to write the book?

You know, the BAM archive is quite remarkable. When I came to BAM, the archive was like shoved in garbage bags in closets. And then we raised some money, and we made a full on effort to gather historic material that was all over the place, and then to keep collecting it to shore up where we had lost years and then to really build an amazing collection. So the archive was incredibly helpful to my process here writing the book. And mostly, I did not have any notes, but I remembered so many things by looking at the shows that we did by the people who we were involved with. And these stories are just a touch of the millions of things that happened over such a long period of time. But I've tried to chronicle it in a way that tells the story of how it thrived both artistically and as a business.

Is there a story that sticks out in your mind from the years you invested at BAM that provides you a lesson for today?

I would say it's probably 911. That was a time when we took a hard blow in New York; planes driving into the World Trade Center, people dying, terrorism in the city. And a few things happened that were quite amazing. BAM was bringing a group of Australians, we were doing a mini festival within the next wave called Next Wave Down Under, and we had 100 Australians coming to New York. And obviously, the first week, everything was just shattered and shut down, and everybody was in shock. And then people slowly started to open, and many events were canceled. Many cultural institutions were not able to reopen right away. But we spoke to the Australians, and they were ready to roll. They came, and they were 100 strong, I think one person didn’t come, and we felt this incredible bond with Australia because they all came and showed solidarity. And the first performances were a little slow, but by the end of the second week, we were completely sold out. It was thrilling. Everybody was united in the revival and in bringing the energy back when everyone had felt so depressed and depleted. And also, during the time, I was chair of the Cultural Institutions Group, these are the 33 cultural organizations whose buildings are owned by the city of New York. And we were challenged by the city to come up with ways to reopen, welcome people, do free programs. And that ran through that entire year. It was intense. I would say that the culture was really pulled together and worked hard. And then at the end of the first year, the first anniversary, every cultural institution was asked to come up with a special program to commemorate the loss and the anniversary of the tragedy. And at BAM, we actually screened free in our movie theaters all day long, Woody Allen's “Manhattan.” And you remember the opening, you hear the “Rhapsody in Blue,” the camera pans black and white, it's the World Trade Center. And as soon as people saw it, in the audience, everyone stood and bowed their heads. And this happened not once, for every screening. And it was a powerful way that we as New Yorkers were mourning our broken city. And I write about that in the book. It was another time when a crazy thing happened, and we had to bounce back from it, and we did.