Brooklyn, Borderless Art and The Legacy of BAM
October 5, 2018
Holly Shen is the newly appointed Deputy Director of San Jose Museum of Art, and is a 2018 92Y Catherine Hannah Begrend Women inPower Fellow. This interview was conducted when Holly was the Director and Curator of Visual Arts at BAM.
This interview was conducted and condensed by frank news.
frank: You're a curator at Brooklyn Academy of Music. A place known for its programming, and also for being situated in a place with a complex legacy. Tell me more about that.
Holly: I could talk for hours about this. Where do I even start? BAM started making a name for itself in the late 60s, early 70s, and then in 1983 launched the Next Wave Festival. Actually, up until 2014 we used to run a bus from Manhattan to bring audiences out to the borough because it was considered this thing where you would never go to Brooklyn.
The area around BAM at that time was completely raw, derelict. And really since the early eighties, it's been a slow build of culture. Our former president, Karen Hopkins, pioneered the way and launched a campaign to develop a cultural district in downtown Brooklyn. For a long time, it was called the BAM cultural district. And in 2014 we stopped running the bus because at that point, Brooklyn had arrived as its own destination.
BAM has always had a longstanding relationship with visual artists, too, either through their collaborations with theater artists or choreographers on the main stage, but also in more organic ways. We had a program in the late nineties where we commissioned visual artists to create original works of art in collaboration with other cultural organizations, that would then premier during the season.
We were also the home for presenting original collaborations between iconic artists like Merce Cunningham, John Cage, and Robert Rauschenberg. And we've been trying to carry that legacy through. Our audience is coming here to see new, experimental theater work. They're interested in opera, dance, film, and they're open to new experiences. That was the impetus for a public presence of art. The minute you walk through the door, you see these installations and you're primed for that creative experience.
And in the early years of the program, there was definitely a focus on Brooklyn-based artists because at that time, in the early 2000s, Brooklyn was still not a destination the way it is today.
When I started in 2013, I wanted to expand that focus to mirror the art that we bring in in all of our spaces. International contemporary artists, artists that are dealing with themes that are relevant to Brooklyn as a borough, and as a community, but not necessarily based here. I've really tried to broaden it, and also strengthen the interdisciplinary approach.
Can you tell me more about how BAM addresses access and inclusion within the museum?
Holly: That's something that we’ve been focusing a lot on in the last 2-3 years. We have begun a new initiative – starting internally first which we refer to as DEI - Diversity Equity and Inclusion, and that inclusion part is directly related to access.
This idea of making sure that all of the exhibition spaces that we program are open to the public because to see a show you have to purchase a ticket. We wanted to make the art accessible. The gallery that's adjacent to the lobby is open whenever the building's open, and it's interesting to see the types of people that come through the door.
We have a robust, amazing education program, there's school age children that are coming through as well to see matinees or afternoon performances, or pieces that are modified for education context. I also try to keep that in mind in terms of the shows that I program.
This is not a white box space in Chelsea. It's not that same audience.
Are there programs at BAM that are drawn directly from the diversity of Downtown Brooklyn?
Holly: We have a program called Dance Africa, which is the longest running public program at BAM. We just finished our 41st year. It's the nation's largest festival of African dance, and it's a celebration of the African diaspora.
Each year we select a country to focus on within the African diaspora, and we bring a dance company from that country over, premier the work, and then they work with Bed-Stuy Restoration a nonprofit based in Brooklyn. that does a lot of arts education. The visiting company works with high school students to develop a main stage dance.
To pivot a bit, how do you think younger generations interfacing with art online is changing the way that they interface with it in public?
Holly: I think my perspective on social media and the way that the digital experience is changing how people interact with and understand art. I try to focus on the positives of it. Generally you can look at it as a way that more and more people are being introduced to art. The big positive is that it’s a way to get them interested and curious..
When you're programming an exhibition, it's hard to not think about the Instagrammable moment. You know? But if it gets somebody in the door to come to something that they wouldn't have otherwise been interested in, then I think that's a positive.
It gets more challenging for people that are more squarely in the contemporary art space because, yeah, you do feel this dilution of content. The fact that when you're looking at your Instagram feed, you're seeing all of the openings and all of the shows, and it also creates that fear of missing out moment. There's so much to do and see in New York, and when you're flipping through your social media feed, it can be overwhelming. Content overload.
Do you see museums and public art institutions as a service? How would you categorize museums?
Holly: It's interesting because the old, traditional model of a museum was sort of this space to care for a collection. And I think the word curate, cura, also comes from that word to care for. And I think the contemporary interpretation of that is how do you care for concepts or ideas that are relevant to a public?
I definitely think that there is accountability. That's another theme that we think a lot about here at BAM. How do you hold institutions accountable? BAM is part of what's called the cultural institutions group in New York. It's an elite group of cultural nonprofits that includes Bronx Zoo, Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, the Met Museum; it was a program to preserve the cultural institutions and keep them public.
I think in that sense public institutions are 100% accountable to their communities and their public. It's about programming around the needs or the desires of those communities instead of a backwards approach.
The idea of institutional accountability is important when you're thinking about access too. I mean, if you're talking about a private museum like The Whitney, I think one could try to make the argument that because it's a private institution, there's a different set of standards. But when your reputation and influence is at that level, you are still accountable. It’s a fascinating idea to think about.
Audience development is another concept that's new in the last 10 or 20 years. The idea that you don't just have this static collection, and whoever's interested in it comes to see it, but you really have this responsibility to develop and cultivate an audience. And to do that, you have to think a little bit more strategically about the types of experiences that you're offering.
Even adding a position of curator of performance art is something that is new in the last 20 or 30 years. There's a big ground shift underway with the way that people think about museums and public cultural institutions more broadly.
Do you think at museums there's room or tolerance anymore for curating without a social mission attached?
Holly: You mean like very scholarly work? Yeah. I do. I think that a lot of the more elite university museums, where you're really focusing on scholarship, or academic work, more historic. If we're talking about contemporary art, you're really talking about 1960 onward. Things that fall more squarely into modern art, yes, I still think that there's a place for that and in certain contexts it's definitely appropriate.
You've touched a lot on creating art for the community, and I come here really cognizant of the fact that New York is so museum rich and art rich. Does New York, does Brooklyn, does BAM, do these rich cultural centers have an obligation and a service and a responsibility to America as a whole?
Holly: I do think that there's a huge responsibility, and there are several initiatives at some museums underway to take things off sight. San Jose Museum of Art is a great example. They are working on a whole initiative called the borderless museum. They're in Silicon Valley. They're the center of the tech world, and they're really focusing on creating programs that can be applicable or accessible to audiences beyond your brick and mortar space.
Another great example of that is 92Y’sBelfer Center for Social Impact. They work on programs that act like a movement in that it can be picked up and scaled globally; the idea of a meme, and then it can be implemented on a national, or even on a global level.
More and more contemporary cultural institutions are thinking about that issue because they do feel a responsibility to bring arts and arts education to a wide public not necessarily concentrated within their geographic region.
I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and even from a young age, my parents always took me to the Cleveland Museum of Art, which has an amazing collection. They have one of the best medieval collections in the country, and I credit my interest in art to being exposed at a very young age.
Nobody thinks of Cleveland as a thriving metropolis, but they do have the bones. Cultural organizations are there, and now they have a contemporary art museum as well.
When you're in New York, it's easy to think that everything is focused on this region, or that the programs that we're developing are only for this constituent group, but more and more, especially with the rise of digital platforms, I think that's shifting, and people are feeling energized or excited about the idea of developing programs that can really be scaled up on a national level and don't require a direct connection to a physical space.
That's so great.
Holly: One other thing that I've been interested in in the last two years is the idea of art and social justice. How art can be a transformative platform for that.
A great example is Hank Wills Thomas's For Freedoms. They're launching this 50 state campaign to commission artists to create works that are unabashedly political in nature, which is something I think for a long time artists shied away from, or was very naval gazing kind of work, and now it's being embraced as sort of like, "No, art is really this conduit for understanding, for exploration of themes, of issues that affect all Americans."
And the idea is that they want billboards in all 50 states. I think that also goes back to your question of are we only focused on the urban centers? And, no, I think artists are interested in perpetuating their message or their art in a really broad, public context, and not necessarily just in these urban centers. Because as we've seen, the rest of America matters. It really does. We have to bring that education and access to everyone.
Yeah. Art and activism is very much alive and well as it turns out.
Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. Thanks so much Holly.