There are few curators of prestigious art institutions who’d dare venture outside the holy city of Manhattan and come see what’s brewing in the borough across the bridge. But to David Harper, the Visual Arts Curator at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn is not just his home and office, it is a place where art happens. The WILD met with Harper at BAM’s new Fisher Theater, a convertible 200 seat space that will house arts education programs, visual art and performances highlighting Brooklyn-based artists, to talk about his connection with the art and community of the neighborhood.
You’ve expanded the art program at BAM greatly since you started in 2006. What were some of your goals in taking this position?
A month after I got my Masters at Pratt in Brooklyn I got this great job and I don’t think I even understood at that time what the potential of an art program meant here. I was just happy to be employed! Soon after, I realized the potential for building a program that expands the institution’s commitment to art making and presenting visual art instead of just performance art.
Visual artists were always in the audience at BAM; they were supporting the most difficult, avant garde productions, even in the 60’s. They were here when no one else was. We’ve used visual art for fundraising since the 1980’s and in 2002 started a series called Next Wave Art, which is still around, to go with the Next Wave Festival. There was always a community of artists around the institution here, but never a real home for them, so the potential that I saw was that exhibitions should be year-round, with a focus on this emerging practice happening in the borough. It could complement the programming but didn’t necessarily need to be associated with it; it could be stand-alone, solo, thematic, mono-graphic, anything.
Another thing I wanted to do was bring the art out on the streets, so this year we displayed four public art pieces around the neighborhood. We had an open call and had a hundred plus applicants from all over the world, with a focus on the artists in Brooklyn. We wanted to have community involvement but it was important to me to not force my aesthetic choices on to a neighborhood, and instead let it come more naturally. It was an ambitious big project that affected not only the people coming to these theaters, but people not necessarily looking for anything artistic in this neighborhood, those who are going to the DMV or Social Security offices. I didn’t want to bombard them with things that might be my taste and not their taste, so we had a jury made of people from the neighborhood, curators working in Brooklyn, board members and funders get together to choose the artists. By putting the visual art face forward, putting it outside the building, it announced that the area around BAM is a place where art happens. There are dozens of artist institutions in this three-block radius and now it seems like people know that.
How is the work at BAM different from art in Manhattan?
BAM was made for the affluent people of Brooklyn heights 150 years ago (back when Brooklyn was a completely different city than Manhattan) to have a place to go see things and not have to go to the city. It was like competition with Manhattan. Brooklyn has changed dramatically in the last 150 years and BAM has been here. The 60’s was when BAM was made into what it is now. That’s when Harvey Lichtenstein became president and had a true vision to bring interesting, international, strange things to this building. It allowed us to reinvent ourselves. They pushed the boundaries of what art is, bringing international presenters of dance, theater, opera, and music to Brooklyn. It could have been done in Manhattan but it wasn’t, Brooklyn just presented a little more freedom. In Manhattan you expect to find something, and now that almost no artists actually live there (they live and work in Brooklyn neighborhoods much closer to us) we have a responsibility to provide access and opportunities to artists that live and work here. We owe it to this community around us to provide access to exhibitions, to a new audience, give them opportunities to commission new work, to allow them to be able to create new work outside of their studios (like in the public works); it’s our responsibility to support the endless amount of artists that live and work in our borough.
What is your process for choosing the artists and pieces you display?
For choosing the visual arts I try to pick interesting, new things that work with what’s happening on the stages. There’s no theme, it’s not theoretical, we aren’t trying to tell a story; we just want to complement what’s happening. I look for things that can change the strange spaces where we show art, add a layer of experience when you’re coming to see dance or film. This new space, the Fisher building, is going to allow us to let visual art integrate with performance and highlight the places where they overlap, to give artists opportunities to do something different. Where intersections happen, things can get really interesting.
I love finding new artists and I find a lot of work actually through Tumblr. It’s a really rapid way to see a wide variety of art. I also really enjoy going to certain galleries which I know have their fingertips in new work, and what I can say is that none of these galleries are in Chelsea. They are in Bushwick or other parts of Brooklyn, but the stuff in Manhattan is rarely new. Brooklyn galleries are mostly artist run and can take more risks than an institution in Manhattan. It’s less expensive and you can be a little more risky with your decisions here. Chelsea spaces need to be broad, choose what others will like, while in Brooklyn people just choose what they like. It’s not about the art world sensibility; it’s more individual.
What is your WILD Wish?
I want a big exhibition space I can fill with really interesting art for the rest of my life. It would be amazing to continue to do what I’m doing and give Brooklyn a real space that could be a home for all the artists that live and work here. That would be my wildest wish.