When I started my career at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in 1979 and all through the next decade and beyond, a visit to the National Endowment of Arts (NEA) to meet the program directors, deputy chair, and if we were lucky, the chairman, was a real pilgrimage. What made it exciting was not only the opportunity to talk to the various departments about BAM programs, but in every room and hallway you would meet and connect with another colleague who had also arrived from somewhere else in America. It was so energizing and exciting in those days to feel comradery, exchange ideas, forge partnerships, and collectively bond as a group of creative organizations who were open for business all across America. There was a moment in those days when government embraced the arts, as America’s creative life was considered part of what made our country great, unique, and promising.
Every important new programming initiative BAM launched over the first 20 years of my time at the institution was helped along by a major NEA grant. The Next Wave Festival, BAM Opera, and important capacity-building campaigns were all supported by essential funding—especially through the now-defunct NEA challenge grant program. The original challenge grants were laudable, highly effective models for public-private fundraising. Challenge grants provided real support—large amounts of money that required very specific matching terms that pushed the institution to find and build important new donor networks.
For example, receiving a Challenge grant led BAM to create the Producer s Council—the Next Wave Festival individual donor group—in 1983. Since its inception, the Producers Council has generated a veritable legion of supporters for new work at BAM that still exists today. The great visual artist, Roy Lichtenstein, was chair of the inaugural Producers Council and took immense pride in efforts to help match the NEA Challenge through his service. With the funds raised through the challenge grant and the Producers Council, BAM was able to build The Next Wave series into a festival that has defined BAM and shaped a generation of artists. Next Wave is now America’s largest and most enduring festival of contemporary performance work in all disciplines. Its launch during the Reagan Administration illustrated a bipartisan support for a strong NEA that supported innovation and risk-taking.
Part of BAM’s innovation has been in finding interesting productions from all over the world and bringing them to its Brooklyn audience. Through the BAM Opera program, also launched with an NEA Challenge grant, the institution has been able to bring a complex and expensive art form to communities who might otherwise not have access to it. Seeking to educate and engage, BAM has sought out operas that reintroduce “old” music in new ways, such as a baroque revival led by the French ensemble Les Arts Florissants that showcases emerging singers and an unusual repertory. Young audiences have flocked to BAM Opera and the work of many great directors, composers, librettists and conductors such as Jonathan Miller, John Adams, Peter Sellars, Alice Goodman, Valery Gergiev and William Christie has been regularly featured. While many opera presenters are facing declines in audience and funding, BAM Opera has turned challenges surrounding the art form into opportunities for opening doors, elevating new voices, and stimulating imaginations.
By allowing BAM to develop and deliver these programs—plus magazines and journals, talks, videos, and permanent archives for such output—NEA grants helped transform BAM; which in turn helped transform downtown Brooklyn. Seeing firsthand the impact that the NEA can have on a cultural institution, and therefore on a broader community, we must remain proactive and vigilant against future threats to defund the NEA. Artists address tough issues in their work and bring them to their audiences in the most relevant and thoughtful ways; providing hope and understanding in the process. If we really want to “make America great again” we must allow Americans to be imaginative and creative.