One Year Later: The Brooklyn Academy of Music

Above, an Audio Postcard about the starting conditions for the project. 

Last time I spoke with the leadership at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), they were one year away from opening a $50 million new venue in downtown Brooklyn, an ambitious capital project that survived the global economic meltdown seemingly intact.

When I caught back up with them, I’ll admit that I expected their update to be a familiar story of construction delays and cost overruns, of ambitions falling short of actuality, and last minute shuffles on staff to meet new demands. Instead, I found a team in sync with their organization, staff, and community, with a new facility set to open on schedule, on budget, and on mission.

According to the team, they credit their success with factors that have little to do with the reputation of BAM or its resources, and everything to do with extensive planning, tenacity, and clarity of purpose – something accessible to any organization.

The Innovation

The Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) is the oldest performing arts center in America. With support from the Rockefeller NYC Cultural Innovation Fund and a successful capital campaign, BAM has completed the BAM Richard B. Fisher Building, an intimate 250-seat theatre that also includes rehearsal and classroom space.

The brand new space enables BAM to offer a wider range of programs than its two older theaters. A smaller, more flexible space, it offers the organization the opportunity to take creative programming risks, support emerging artists, provide professional development opportunities, and respond to community needs more quickly. “It rejuvenates us,” says Karen Brooks Hopkins, President.

Progress to Date

“The advance work we’ve been able to do has brought us to a good place at this moment,” remarked Hopkins. The opening of the BAM Fisher Building was completed on schedule and on budget, a major accomplishment for a capital construction project, which are notorious for running over schedule and budget.

The opening of the building in September 2012 corresponds with the launch of new programs and services. The new facility has allowed BAM to increase the programming in the Next Wave Festival by 82% and include performances in the BAM Fisher building from Jonah Bokaer, Nora Chipaumire, The Civilians, and Miguel Gutierrez.  They have been able to offer subsidized performance space rental to six local groups for Spring 20123, including Brighton Ballet Company, Dusan Tynek Dance Theatre Foundation Inc, Gallim Dance, LAVA, CAVE, and The Tiffany Mills Company.  In it’s inaugural year, the BAM Professional Development Program (BAM PPD) will serve those six organizations and eight additional local participants.

Key Learning

In organizing the smooth construction, opening, and transition to a brand new space BAM site several key factors:

  • Extensive research and planning pays off: According to Hopkins, the completion of an ambitious, innovative project requires, “A lot of planning, thoughtfulness, board oversight, staff commitment, and community participation.” The new building is part of an exhaustive ten year planning process that began with a community survey supported by the Rockefeller Foundation and went into full gear in 2007 with planning and fundraising for the building. As a part of the planning process, BAM formed the Community Partnership Council, made up of 10 local leaders, helped to guide policies for the new building. Brooks Hopkins explained, “You have to work on every level to give yourself the greatest chance for success. Take the time to do the work properly even if it takes a little longer.”
  • Fully capitalize before beginning construction: BAM completed their capital campaign for the BAM Fisher Building before construction and three years before opening, which has allowed them to focus on raising money to support annual programming, staff development, and increasing community buy-in from local arts, education, and cultural groups.
  • Increase staff capacity to meet new demands: As the building neared completion, BAM noticed a shift they way they approached education and programming. Though they had originally envisioned hiring an administrative director for the department, they realized the programming and partnership needs of the education department were increasingly complex, and education so central to the mission of the new building, that they needed to add a new position, Vice President of Education. Brooks Hopkins explained, “Even though more resources would be needed for this position, it would give this aspect of our work, the education, family and humanities piece the gravitas it needed to have within the institution.”
  • Evaluate at every step: The BAM is team is continually working to implement evaluation strategies to fully assess the programs and capacities in the BAM Fisher Building and will use those to inform how they continue to develop the possibilities for the new space.

In response to a question about whether this kind of success is only available to organizations like BAM, Hopkins says she believes that successfully completing a major project is an attainable goal for any organization, no matter their size, disciplinary focus or location. “Any organization that is ambitious, has a commitment to certain principles for growth, is well managed and is thoughtful about its needs can take on any project it decides to do.”

Interview conducted by Karina Mangu-Ward.  Post written by Eleanor Whitney with Karina Mangu-Ward.  

Eleanor Whitney is a writer, educator, arts administrator and musician raised in Maine and living in Brooklyn, New York. Currently, she is the Program Officer for External Affairs and Fiscal Sponsorship at the New York Foundation for the Arts. Karina Mangu-Ward is the Director of Innovation at EmcArts.