Performing arts

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Karen Brooks Hopkins, president, Brooklyn Academy of Music

What’s your sense of the financial crisis?
I think that cultural institutions, arts administrators, the board members are extremely concerned. Everyone in the country is concerned, but in our particular sector, we are concerned obviously about the chain reaction on this whole situation. Start off with the fact that we already took a very substantial cut in city funding in the June budget plan because the mayor was concerned about the tax revenues. Now you also see a second cut to city agencies, and we’re very concerned that there’s going to be an additional government cut. Then you see the corporate sector also with diminishing resources, and particularly so many of the companies that are headquartered here in New York. That will add another layer of misery to this whole situation for us. And then you have individuals, which are the heart of support for most of the arts organizations—and it’s not only that people will have less wealth, it’s that they will feel like they have less wealth, and that will also, in many cases, impact a lot of the end-of-the-year giving. You have many board members who are so focused on their corporate business that they’re not as able to put the time and attention into the problems of the organizations they serve on. But the foundation sector will probably see the fallout later. They make their grants based on earnings over a certain period so the impact of this is probably going to hit them later.

So they will pick up the slack?
No, I just think they won’t be cutting as much. There may be less direct impact from them, so maybe that’ll buy us a little time.

What kind of measures are you taking?
We have to try and look very hard at where we can make cuts, what programs are still flexible enough to make decisions about, whether to go forward or not, whether to reduce the scope. You look at programs, you look at administration and staff, and then you look at your facilities—what can you defer in terms of maintenance, what security costs can you off-load. It’s infrastructure that takes the hit.

BAM is adding a third venue. How’s that going?
At this point, we’ve been raising money for that way in advance, so we continue our plans for facilities expansion. Hopefully, the cost of construction is going to go down, and that’s going to offset some of the financial needs we have. You have to be very conservative and very smart. Our board has asked me to prepare a three-year plan that shows the most risky scenario, a midrange and a least risky. Meaning: Here’s every program we could do, here’s the infrastructure repairs we want to make, these are the ways we want our staff to grow—that’s the most risky. And the least risky is—these are the fewest number of programs we can do, this is the least amount of growth we can tolerate. We’re trying to figure out how to maintain the momentum and vitality of the institution and at the same time not go into a downward budget spiral. Those are the situations we are focusing on right now. But it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

You’ve been very outspoken in stating that the arts constitute an economic locomotive.
I believe that it is in the city’s best interests and in the interest of everyone who loves the city and wants to make sure that it thrives in this period to make the investment in cultural institutions. We bring a lot of bang for the buck: the tourism, the education programs, the stimulus that we provide for the local economy with restaurants, shops and so forth. Cultural institutions are very inexpensive and positive investments in a down time. And that is going to be our mantra: Invest in us, it’s a great deal for a minimal cost. I’m just saying for us, for every city dollar we get, we raise seven private dollars. And we also know how to do more with less. We’re a very crafty group. Therefore, I think you want to put your money on us in a down time because we deliver. That is the message that we’re going to try to get out there. But make no mistake: We’re also going to be contracting. What else can we do?

You’ve been at BAM for close to three decades, so you have a long view of this. How does this current crisis compare? I mean, the city was in really bad shape in the ’70s and early ’80s, and the cultural scene was thriving.
We’ve had economic downturns, we’ve had people driving planes into the World Trade Center, now we have this. This is our life; things just happen. I think our sector is very resilient and we’re tough. The difference now from then is that for the first time really, we have a thriving five-borough cultural sector working at a much different level than in the ’80s. In the ’80s, you had institutions obviously in all five boroughs, but it wasn’t as dynamic as it is now. And I think in this administration and with the enormous capital investment in cultural institutions and with the wealth that the city has experienced in the last eight, ten years, this has allowed a five-borough cultural system to come up, to emerge. And that is very fragile, but it’s so great, it’s so New York, it so cuts to the heart of what gives New York City the edge now as a competitive place for quality of life, for business, and that is the thing that we can’t let deteriorate. That’s the principal difference in my view.

I guess you’d say you’re cautiously optimistic then?
No, I don’t think I would say that. I would say that I’m realistic and cautious. But I’m a fund-raiser, so I know about delayed gratification.

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