A book about the Brooklyn Academy of Music was long overdue.
For an institution whose origins date to the beginning of the Civil War, making the academy, known as BAM, the oldest continually operating performing arts center in the country, there’s no doubt that there is a story to tell. Many stories to tell, in fact. So now, on the occasion of its 150th anniversary, BAM has just released its first-ever written history.
BAM: The Complete Works (Quantuck Lane Press) is a 384-page tome containing close to 400 photographs and essays by 31 writers, most of them artists who have graced BAM’s stage.
“The Complete Works” is an apt title. Looking through it, you quickly realize that it’s not just another coffee-table book. It’s a comprehensive reference on Brooklyn’s most enduring institution — we may have lost the Dodgers, the Navy Yard and the original Brooklyn Eagle, but we never lost BAM.
Included in the book is a history written by Phillip Lopate that covers BAM’s first 100 years – including the opening in 1861, its struggle between elitism and populism, its financial ups and downs, and of course, its amazing artistic legacy.
Considering BAM’s longevity, stature, and influence, the book also proves to be a history of the international performing arts scene.
The list of artists and thinkers to have spoken and performed at BAM is staggering, and a testament to just how deep its history goes. They include Mark Twain, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, Jacob Riis, Helen Keller, Isadora Duncan, Oscar Wilde, Sarah Bernhardt, Enrico Caruso, H. G. Wells, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Winston Churchill, Thomas Mann, Gertrude Stein, Aldous Huxley, Frank Lloyd Wright, Bertrand Russell, Eugene O’Neill, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Morgan Freeman, Cate Blanchett, and a string of U.S. Presidents, including both Roosevelts.
And this is a drop in the bucket.
Perhaps if BAM had rested on its laurels, it would have produced a history touting its impressive past long ago, but the institution has been too busy creating its equally impressive present.
“Performing arts institutions are so much about putting these ephemeral things on the stage. They are so much about the present,” says BAM Director of Archives Sharon Lehner. “[So] there aren’t a ton of performing arts archives out there.”
But beginning in the late 1990s, BAM started to take stock of its past, thanks largely to the efforts of Karen Brooks Hopkins, now BAM’s president, and Robert Boyd, BAM’s then-Director of Special Projects. Two part-time archivists were hired to go through the hoard of material that had accumulated over the decades — enough to take over a seven-room suite on the 16th floor of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank building.
“We have a lot of really beautiful ephemera – programs, posters and promotional materials, a ton of press clippings, amazing video and audio from the last 30 years, and thousands and thousands of photographs. We have a photo collection that rivals any that I can think of in the performing arts,” says Lehner, who was hired in 2005 as BAM’s first full-time archivist.
As illustrious as BAM’s history is, it was not without its low points. Its fortunes have risen and fallen with Brooklyn, and it was faced with hard times during the Depression and the de-industrialization that rocked the borough in the years after World War II.
Large portions of BAM’s archives were lost during two catastrophic events. The first was in 1903, when BAM’s original building, which was on Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights, burned down, taking practically all of the records from the institution’s first 40 years with it. And then a flood in 1977 at BAM’s current home in Fort Greene wiped out more material.
Finances were so tight in the 1950s, that BAM’s home at 30 Lafayette Ave. was very nearly sold to Long Island University, which would have converted it into classrooms and a gymnasium. By the time Harvey Lichtenstein took the reins of BAM in 1967, sections of the building were being rented out to a judo academy and a boy’s prep school.
It was Lichtenstein, president and executive producer of BAM until 1999, who is largely credited with bringing BAM back from the brink (and who rebranded the old academy as its acronym in 1973).
His partnering with artists such as Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham, Peter Brook and Philip Glass made BAM a center of avant-garde work, with the Next Wave Festival, held at BAM every fall since 1983, as the linchpin of BAM’s late 20th century “renaissance.”
This has been accompanied by an expansion of BAM’s facilities, with the renovation of the Majestic Theater, now known as the BAM Harvey Theater, in 1987 and the opening of the BAM Rose Cinemas in 1998. Ground was broken last year on a yet another building of the “BAM campus,” the Richard B. Fisher building, an arts and community center.
And with a grant from the Leon Levy Foundation, BAM now has a budget to acquire materials for its archives, allowing them to recover some of what was lost due to fire and flood. They are also making appeals to the public through their blog, bam.org/150, asking people to look in their attics, so to speak, for any BAM-relevant materials.
This process has enabled BAM to recover many 19th-century programs and press clippings, and some very unique ephemera, such as stamps that were sold at the Sanitary Fair, a huge fundraising effort held for Union soldiers at BAM in 1864.
“It’s amazing to see how far this collection has come along in a relatively short period of time,” says Lehner.
Now officially known as the BAM Hamm Archives, after donors Charles and Irene Hamm, whose funds will go toward building a state-of-the art facility for the archives, the collection is currently housed at 1 Metrotech Center, and is already attracting a variety of researchers.
“We’ve seen everyone from elementary school students working on a project to people writing books on contemporary performance theory,” says Lehner.
“BAM is so unique. There are probably zillions of books to be written about BAM. There are so many ways to look at this material.”
Lehner hopes to have an online database for the BAM Hamm Archives up and running soon. “It’s a very hidden collection. We have not cataloged it very extensively, but we generally know what we have. Are there still some big surprises in there? I’m sure there are.”
BAM: The Complete Works is available for purchase at Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene (686 Fulton St), at BAM (30 Lafayette Ave.), at bam.org/book, at Amazon.com, and various bookstores
throughout the country