When it comes to the performing arts, New York City may forever be synonymous with the Broadway musical, at least in the popular imagination.
However, while there’s a lot to be said for Broadway, New Yorkers and performing arts aficionados alike know that if you want to see the work of the most daring and innovative artists working in music, dance, and theatre today, you need to venture far away from the lights of the Great White Way.
In fact, NYC’s quintessential institution for the contemporary performing arts is not even on the island of Manhattan, but across the East River in Brooklyn. The Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) has gained renown for continuously challenging and surprising audiences through its eclectic offering of groundbreaking music, dance, opera, and theatre performances featuring the work of artists who have consistently contested ideas of what the performing arts can and should be. Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, for instance, BAM provided a platform for new work by such artists as John Adams, Laurie Anderson, Pina Bausch, Peter Brook, Trisha Brown, Merce Cunningham, Philip Glass, Jerzy Grotowski, the Kronos Quartet, Pearl Lang, Mark Morris, Steve Reich, Peter Sellars, and Robert Wilson, to name only a few.
Founded in 1861, BAM has been celebrating its 150th anniversary this past year through a wealth of exciting programs, one of which has been the BAM 150 Exhibition in the main lobby of BAM’s Peter Jay Sharp Building. The 150 exhibition documents BAM’s rich history through the presentation of documents, photographs, video, and other material from BAM’s Hamm Archives. In recognition of the remarkable depth of this exhibition, the Archivists Round Table of Metropolitan New York (ART) recently interviewed Sharon Lehner, Director of the BAM Hamm Archives, who was happy to shed some light on the Hamm Archives and the particulars of putting the exhibition together.
ART: Before we get into discussing the wonderful 150th Anniversary exhibition, can you briefly explain your responsibilities as Director of the BAM Hamm Archives?
SL: My main responsibilities are to represent BAM’s collections to the general public and to the scholarly community at large, and to support the day-to-day operations of the institution.
ART: The 150th Anniversary exhibition must have been quite an undertaking! Was it something BAM had planned for a long time? When did the actual setup process begin?
SL: The 150 exhibition was planned as part of a sixteen-month celebration of BAM’s 150th that included landmark performances and films, iconic artist talks, a commemorative book, a documentary film, and the 150 exhibit. We began working on the exhibit about a year before it opened.
ART: As co-curator, can you describe the role you played in the planning and implementation of the exhibit?
SL: I have worked with David Harper, BAM art curator, on a number of exhibits. We both like to do everything, so our roles were not clearly defined. Like many projects at BAM, we had a lot of creative collaborators, including people from press, marketing, design, digital media, and general management to name only a few. We even worked together with the special events team to create the décor for the BAM 150 Gala.
ART: What types of material have visitors been able to see in the exhibition? Are there any items that you are particularly excited to have seen make the cut?
SL: Because of the highly visual nature of BAM’s contemporary work, we featured many photographs, video, slideshows, posters, and contact sheets. We felt it fitting to display SWAG because of BAM’s strong brand identity. We also included lighting plots and other performance elements. For a look “inside” the institution, we included some correspondence such as a funny exchange between Polish theatre director Jerzy Grotowski and BAM President Emeritus Harvey Lichtenstein.
ART: Most visitors to the exhibit are surely aware of the important role BAM has played throughout the history of the performing arts in America. But BAM has served other purposes as well throughout its long history as a center of Brooklyn’s cultural life. Are there any aspects of BAM’s history featured in the exhibit that have likely come as a surprise to visitors?
SL: In part 1 of the exhibit, 1861-1967, we featured way too many dance cards. I just love dance cards. They are beautifully designed for festive events and they document what a diverse community Brooklyn has been since 1861.
ART: It was recently announced that the BAM Hamm Archives have received a $1 million grant from the Leon Levy Foundation to create the Leon Levy BAM Digital Archive. What will be the scope and extent of this exciting project?
SL: We are so grateful to the Levy Foundation for their support. The grant will be used to catalogue, selectively digitize, and make available many gems from the oldest performing arts center in the country for the first time.
There’s still time to see the BAM 150 Exhibition before it closes on August 31st! More information about BAM’s 150th Anniversary can be found at http://www.bam.org/about/150-years.
Photos, from top: Program for performance featuring Isadora Duncan Dancers and pianist George Copeland; poster for BAM debut of Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal, 1984; Amaranth dance card, 1875.