Exit Interviews: Karen Brooks Hopkins and Arnold Lehman

Photo by Daniel Dorsa
All photos by Daniel Dorsa

Over the last two decades, no two institutions have been more influential in Brooklyn culture than the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Brooklyn Museum. Their audacious programming and connective growth have defined, fostered, buoyed and created the local arts scene. This summer, the directors of each institution will step down.

We spoke with Karen Brooks Hopkins, who’s worked at BAM since 1979 and been President since 1999, and Arnold Lehman, the Director of the Brooklyn Museum since 1997, about their careers, retirement, and the changed landscape they’re leaving behind.

So, why leave now?
Hopkins: You never finish the great things you’re trying to do, but I wanted more personal time, more creative time, more time. And you can’t have it with these kinds of jobs.

Lehman: And time is running short. Between the museum, BAM, and Brooklyn itself, we’re all at a peak at this moment, and that’s the moment to turn it over to someone else who can get to the next peak.

You are leaving behind not only two changed institutions, but a changed Brooklyn. To be an arts institution based in Brooklyn means something much different now than it did in the late 90s.
Hopkins: Try the late 70s! People would say, “Where is such and such an event playing?” “Oh, it’s at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and then it’s in London.” And the person would say “OK, I’ll see it in London.” That’s what we had to deal with. The neighborhoods were deserted, people felt afraid to come to Brooklyn. It was a completely different time as far as the city was concerned, as far as the borough was concerned, as far as the arts were concerned.

And then along came [former BAM president] Harvey Lichtenstein, who made a determination—because of his own taste, and because he didn’t have much money—that BAM wasn’t going to be a second-rate Lincoln Center; it would be a first-rate BAM. He looked at more international and avant-garde work in all disciplines, and that proved to be the basis upon which the BAM brand has been built.

When he retired and Joe Melillo and I jointly took over his duties, the goal was to take what he did and blow it out. We created a brand that not only stood for BAM but stood for Brooklyn. And the Brooklyn Museum has been a radical partner: Both of these institutions are large, and neither has followed the traditional, straight-laced path that you’d expect from a big museum or a large performing arts center. In doing so, brand Brooklyn has emerged. I think you have to credit the great cultural institutions of Brooklyn for blazing the trail.

Photo by Daniel Dorsa
Photo by Daniel Dorsa

When did you first have a sense that there was a larger cultural renaissance happening here that you’d be able to influence?
Lehman: A year or so after I arrived, I had a sense that, all of a sudden, there were a lot of young people around. And we were doing projects that encouraged more diverse audiences to come to the museum. Then, in 1999, there was Sensation.1 That show immediately focused a huge amount of attention on Brooklyn, and it didn’t stop.

Just as Karen said they couldn’t be a smaller, poorer version of Lincoln Center, the museum had spent years being a smaller, less affluent version of the Metropolitan Museum. It was clear we had to stop doing that. The Brooklyn Museum always did great exhibitions, but outside of a core following, we were sort of alone. So my role was to make sure the institution was no longer focused on doing what people in Manhattan wanted us to do. We had a borough of 2.5 million-plus people, and that had to be our focus. If we did that correctly, then we’d attract all those people.

Our position has always been try and let people in. I think that has succeeded with younger people, and with people of color. Also, the staff now looks more like what our visitors look like. Then you start looking at all the programs: from Hip-Hop Nation to Crossing Brooklyn to Basquiat to First Saturdays—one Saturday a couple of years ago, we had 25,000 people come for First Saturday.

Hopkins: When you open the door to the transcendent power of art, people will embrace it. I really believe there is a trend in this country to sort of dumb down, glorify mediocrity, not give people an opportunity to embrace something they don’t know. This in fact was the way we built the audience at BAM. We would say to the people who came to BAM, “Your friends don’t need you to take them to the Lincoln Center, but they need you to bring them to BAM.” Bring everybody!

If you asked anyone for a list of their ten most exciting experiences in the arts over the last five years, I guarantee that one of them was at BAM. Who else could sell out a five-hour experimental show and have Cate Blanchett doing A Streetcar Named Desire? Blockbusters and discoveries—that drives the energy of BAM.

Lehman: Don’t be afraid—that’s what people in Brooklyn want. They don’t want to have the same menu that could be seen in every museum or performing arts center in the country. If you replace the word “authority,” which museums have tried to develop for years, with words like “honesty” and “transparency” and “relevance,” that is better and more important and more lasting than being authoritative, because you become part of what’s happening rather than just the consumer taking what you’re giving.

Looking back, what are the three things you’re most proud of from your tenure?
Hopkins: I’m glad I cleaned up the budget deficit—that took ten years. Part of that was building the board and really working to make it a force. Any institution that tries to be great but doesn’t have a great board of trustees and a great leadership team on its staff is not going to really make it in the world today. There were internal things that I personally wanted to do, such as clean up the deficit, build the endowment, put the best leadership team possible together both on the board and on the staff.

[Second was] trying to move the district forward so that we could really galvanize the fact that, between the Barclays Center and BRIC, you have venues ranging from 18,000 seats to 200 within four blocks sitting on the third-largest transportation hub in the city. What an opportunity! There’s no place on the planet that has those kinds of assets in the 21st century. Maximizing that, being able to create a neighborhood whose heart and soul was grounded in culture of all different kinds—to me, that seemed like an amazing thing to do.

Third: The art itself. What we’ve tried to do is create many different entry points for people to connect to BAM. The depth of what we provide artistically is pretty impressive.

Lehman: I think the first—and what really did come first—was the way the museum stood firmly during Sensation, so that everyone, pro or con, knew that we stood for freedom of expression. That commitment sent a message to a lot of people, and particularly younger people and people of color, that here is a place that stood for something, no matter what. That, I think, is first.

Second is taking a magnificent 19th century building and making sure that it worked in the 21st century. I think that’s ninety percent of the way there. You may not know this, but this structure is one-sixth of the building that was supposed to be built. At the end of the 19th century, when Brooklyn was “It,” the trustees told McKim, Mead & White to build the largest museum in the world, but it never got done because 1898 was that fatal year when Brooklyn was forced to amalgamate with the city of New York. It took 100-plus years to recover. Getting this building into shape was one of my highest priorities.

Number three was to build a team of staff and a governing board who really want to be here. Now people come on board because it’s their primary interest, and that makes a world of difference.

Hopkins: Our education programs, also. They have a purpose.

Lehman: You’re only allowed three. You’re onto four.

Hopkins: I’m onto four. I think we have turned our relationship with the community around. BAM is seen in a completely different light than it historically has been. When Harvey came on, his job was just to get people to come see the shows. It was to create great show after great show after great show. Then the next step was to create a great institution. The idea was to stand on what he had done and not change it, but evolve from being Eurocentric to being global, to blowing out the advantages of being local and Brooklyn-connected; to looking at the education programs in a way that was organic to what was happening in the neighborhoods and what was happening in the school system and what was happening on the stage of BAM, how to tie it all together so it didn’t exist apart, that it existed in a way that was connected.

I think what has happened at BAM is that the institution speaks in one voice. What I mean is that the fundraising and the marketing and the programming speak in one voice, and that voice can be loud, clear, and very powerful. That attracts board members, donors, more audience, more prestige, and an endowment that allows you to be free and take bigger risks. Endowment is the key to freedom. The great institutions have the resources to be wrong.

Lehman: Did you know that originally we were all one institution? BAM, the Brooklyn Museum, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and the Brooklyn Children’s Museum were the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences. There was a great vision at the end of the 19th century to make sure that all of these areas were supported and were part of the fabric of Brooklyn, when Brooklyn was a great, independent city. That lasted until about 1974, when they decided that we’d all be better off as independent institutions. That actually made great sense. But for years afterward, the institutions not only were separate, but kept themselves separate. That was the low point of Brooklyn, and that all has come back together again, which I think speaks very much to what’s happening in this borough. •


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