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Strange Bedfellows: BAM And The Barclay Center

The Barclay Center under construction in downtown Brooklyn, via The New York Times

What else will the Atlantic Yards development plan swallow up in downtown Brooklyn? The project, which will deliver over 8 million square feet of new apartments, stores, and offices, now looks to the Brooklyn Academy of Music to serve as its cultural consultant. BAM will suggest artists to perform at the 18,000- seat Barclay Center arena, Atlantic Yard’s most ambitious structure that will host the New Jersey Nets, boxing, and family entertainment.

If screaming basketball fans and contemporary art sounds like an unlikely combination to you, you’re not alone. Bruce C. Ratner, chief executive of Forest City Ratner and chairmen of BAM’s board for ten years, explained to the New York Times, “I always like to put together things that are a little bit ironic.” Unfortunately irony may not draw in a crowd of 18,000 to Barclays the way a sporting event would. While the press release for the BAM-Barclays alliance promises to create “one of the most vibrant and unique cultural districts in the U.S.,” it is unclear what type of arts programming would be suitable for such a huge arena. The collaboration may provide an excellent opportunity to introduce new audiences to contemporary art and culture, but how much will BAM have to sacrifice its own creative vision to suit the arena’s needs? My fear is that we will get a Disneyfied version of BAM’s programming—especially considering BAM president Karen Brook Hopkin’s use of the word “spectacle” to describe the prospective works

According to L Magazine, BAM is also aiming to only choose productions that would be making their New York debuts. This could present yet another hurtle to curating works that are both under the radar but still renowned enough to sell thousands of tickets. And the ironies continue!

While the verdict on BAM’s programming is not out yet, some Brooklynites are already less than optimistic about the collaboration. The billion-dollar Barclays Center is already an unpopular project among locals, including couple Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley whose documentary Battle for Brooklyn covers the six-year long war the community waged against Atlantic Yards. Many see BAM’s role at Barclays as a ploy to squash complaints from those who are not so eager to see a giant basketball arena bulldoze their home. Galinsky notes that the partnership is a “much greater benefit to Ratner from this P.R. perspective than to BAM.” The truth in his statement cannot be denied — while BAM will receive a curatorial fee, the institution will make no profit off of ticket sales for their performances.

All complaints aside, BAM at Barclays could be one of the better things to come out of Atlantic Yards. Every bit helps in an art world that is short on funds and can always use another platform to promote new artists. If Barclays truly wants to be a cultural champion, they might also look for arts consulting from the Brooklyn Museum who is suffering from severe financial difficulties. Money woes recently caused the museum to cancel their upcoming Art in the Streets exhibition, the first major retrospective in the US on the history of graffiti and street art that is now on view at MOCA. Three new trustees have joined the museum to deal with the budget cuts including Forest City Ratner executive David L. Berner, New York Law School Professor Tamara C. Belinfanti and Brooklyn artist Fred Tomaselli. And the New York Observer suggests that another season of Work of Art may be just what the museum needs to get out of debt. I predict one of the challenges will be to create a work for the Barclays Center — with ”artistic inspiration” drawn from one of the arena’s corporate sponsors of course.

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