Why Did BAM Hire David Binder?

He will lead the most important and successful American not-for-profit contemporary performing arts institution of the last 40 years.

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Presenting his TED talk, "The Arts Festival Revolution," in 2012.

One advantage of reaching a certain age and no longer aspiring to the highest positions in one’s field is the return of the fearlessness of our youth — to speak or write the truth as one sees it, informed by years of experience, observation and, very fortunately, hundreds of treasured professional relationships. One has less to lose than in earlier stages of life; one can contribute to an honest public dialogue that will help the field. I believe the not-for-profit arts in America are endangered, perhaps even near a negative tipping point. I hope I’m wrong, or that, collectively, we can do what’s necessary to prevent further damage. The point of this essay, and the occasional ones that follow it, is to provoke my colleagues in the field — as well as funders, board members, audiences, critics and politicians — to consider where we are in the not-for-profit arts right now, and then take constructive action.

What’s at stake for me, personally? Three major categories: employment, support from donors (who, in the arts, are often conservative), and valued collegial friendships. I want to be fearless but not stupid. Hence my pseudonym. I am pleased and honored to be given the opportunity by Leonard Jacobs and The Clyde Fitch Report to write truth to power and stir up dissent. I look forward to a spirited dialogue with you and others who are reading this. Onward to the first subject.

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Last July, an essay appeared on the CFR about the coming searches for artistic leadership at Lincoln Center and Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). Wiley Hausam used the searches for these positions as a frame for thinking about American artistic leadership in the world of not-for-profit, large-scale, international, multi-disciplinary performing arts.

According to my reading, he made at least four observations in his piece. First, that several of the most important positions in American organizations have recently gone to curators from abroad, such Pierre Audi at The Park Avenue Armory and Alex Poots at The Shed (opening July 2019).

Second, Hausam observed that current Baby-Boomer-era artistic directors have held their positions for too long, and they have not offered the two generations behind them enough, or sometimes any, opportunities to grow. That’s unhealthy for the field.

I especially agree with his second point: one doesn’t move successfully from running a $3M arts organization to running a $30M arts corporation. You grow into these positions. And the best, least risky way to do that is for those above you to give you increasing responsibility over the years. To succeed in a big job, one has to be groomed. That used to happen in our field. For three generations, the General Director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago came from within the organization. For 50 years, it was one of the most successful and healthy opera companies in the world. That is not happening now. And it is not happening at BAM or at Lincoln Center or at many other large festivals around the world.

Third, Hausam indicated that younger generations of Americans were not likely to be appointed to those positions because they simply don’t have enough top-level experience in large institutions. Fourth, he encouraged boards to open up their thinking as they began their searches — particularly to women, persons of color and to non-Western aesthetic traditions.

I’d like to push back on his third point. I believe there is a lot of talented younger American curatorial talent out there, With mentoring and grooming, they will be ready to run major international organizations. More important, especially in this time of #MeToo, is that qualified women are being ignored. Hausam received some justifiable criticism in social media for not seeing and articulating this.

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Since last July, we have had two related developments. In November, Lincoln Center announced the end of the Lincoln Center Festival (a major cultural loss), and that Jane Moss — its Boomer-era, American curator for 25 years — would assume control of all Lincoln Center programming not produced by its constituent organizations (New York City Ballet, Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center Theater, New York Philharmonic, Film Society of Lincoln Center). Bafflingly, The New York Times trumpeted Moss’ apparent political triumph and expressed no disappointment about the loss of the festival. Nothing against Moss, who has done excellent work, including the creation of the White Light Festival, but it is clearly time to move on from her vision. If we want younger generations in our theaters and concert halls, then we need younger curatorial visions.

On Feb. 7, BAM announced the results of its search to find a successor to its executive producer, Joe Melillo, in his job since 1999. A co-founder of the BAM Next Wave Festival, he is in his 34th year there. I admire Melillo enormously. He has been a generous mentor to dozens of excellent curators and producers in our field, including myself.

His successor is David Binder, a 50-year-old white, American, occasional Broadway producer. More recently he curated of a couple of international festivals abroad. So far as I know, he has never run an institution, certainly not one nearly the size of BAM. Binder’s title will be artistic director. To me, to put it kindly, this is a choice from left field. It indicates that BAM may be moving in a more commercial direction — it has been since about 2000 (board pressure, I suspect), and perhaps BAM needs more muscle in the fundraising area. This is the responsibility of BAM’s president, Katy Clark. She was appointed in 2015 and is British. From all reports, fundraising at BAM has declined since the previous president, Karen Brooks Hopkins, retired in June 2015.

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I do not know the final candidates for the BAM position, although there were rumors in the field that I followed with interest. When the search was announced last April, for my own amusement, I made a list of individuals that I thought should be considered for the position. My list included 21 experienced curators, including three from abroad, four women, and one trans male. Later, I added another name to my list — an Australian director now living and working in Germany whose work I have never seen but who, early in his career, programmed a major festival in Australia with great success. Why did I put his name on the list? Because I was looking for more interesting choices. (Just to be clear, I am not a recruiter.)

Meantime, The Shed is commissioning and producing a series of large-scale world premieres for its mammoth new performance space on West 34th Street in Manhattan at Hudson Yards, next to the High Line. It is scheduled to debut its first major production in Spring 2019. The Shed seems to be developing an extremely ambitious and expensive program that aims to span live performance, visual arts and popular culture. Poots is perhaps the most exciting curator in the world. He certainly has the most heat.

What all of this portends for the NYC artistic landscape is unclear. BAM is, to my mind, the most important and successful American not-for-profit contemporary performing arts institution of the last 40 years. Unfortunately, in recent years it has diluted its brilliantly successful Next Wave brand to become basically the Lincoln Center of Brooklyn, swallowed up by the massive and unappealing towers built around it during the past 15 years. It’s not a coincidence that former BAM board chair Bruce Ratner is executive chairman of his real-estate development company, Forest City Ratner. He masterminded the Barclay’s Arena, a singularly ugly structure, a few blocks away. Inadvertently, has the leading light of American contemporary performing arts sold its soul to corporate capitalism? Probably.

But I love BAM. My formative adult artistic experiences took place in their theaters, and I wish Clark and Binder the best of luck. But The Shed has captured my imagination. I’m hopeful that Clark and Binder will make the trek back to Ft. Greene irresistible.

Why, though, wasn’t a woman or a person of color appointed? Or at least a very serious contender? I hope to explore this question in my next post.