Karen Brooks Hopkins, President, Brooklyn Academy of Music

Karen Brooks Hopkins, President, Brooklyn Academy of Music

Founded in 1861, the Brooklyn Academy of Music is the oldest continually operating performing arts center in the country. PND spoke with its president, Karen Hopkins, about BAM's approach to audience development and fundraising.

Philanthropy News Digest: How has BAM's audience changed since you joined the staff in 1979?

Karen Brooks Hopkins: Today BAM has over 450,000 people a year coming to events, which certainly wasn't the case when I arrived as a development officer. But BAM has always had a younger, edgier, more diverse audience than many large performing arts centers. And I think that has been driven by our programming and our location outside of Manhattan. Our Brooklyn audience has grown substantially over the years, as many people who moved to the borough became interested in what we do. Our audience also is very diverse ethnically, and we intend to strengthen that diversity in the future through programming and outreach.

PND: You have said that in order to grow their audiences, cultural institutions must create multiple entry points. How has BAM done this?

KBH: We believe that people are attracted by what really interests them and then cross over into other areas, fully participating in the life of the institution. For instance, our arts education program has elements that appeal to many different groups. It offers a kids' film festival, main-stage shows for high school and junior high school students, "Generation BAM" for teenagers, "KaBAM" for little kids, BAM Family, and a program for senior citizens. We also work with youth offenders through visual art and theater programs, and with kids in the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, partnering on Dance Africa.

In addition, our four cinemas run every night year-round and draw 200,000 people annually; the cinemas have the youngest audience and the cheapest tickets. We also partner with other community film organizations like the African Film Festival, the African Diaspora Festival, the Korean Film Festival, and the New Festival, which is a gay and lesbian film festival, as well as with the Sundance Institute, so that we can be a home for all kinds of different constituencies.

PND: You've also said that fundraising forces an institution to forge a deep connection with the public. How does BAM make that connection initially? And what kinds of things do you do to deepen it over time?

KBH: Private philanthropy grows out of a "culture of need." An institution needs to be supported by the public; the public, in turn, benefits from the programming the institution provides. That connection constantly pushes the institution to engage the public, and fundraising drives that connection, building a sense of ownership in those who support the institution. Hopefully, once people feel a sense of ownership, they will move onto the cradle-to-grave fundraising path, giving a little money initially, then more and more, and finally leaving the institution a gift in their will.

Unfortunately, getting underserved members of the community to feel the same sense of ownership is more difficult. The institution has to find ways to reach out to the whole community, not just the donor community. This can be accomplished through strong education and community programs — finding ways to be a home for various constituents and engaging the whole community, beyond the audience. For large institutions, this is a particular challenge. We constantly ask ourselves how we, as a large, globally based, multi-faceted institution, can provide meaningful service to the community. To accomplish this, our goal is to integrate the concept of community into every aspect of our work.

PND: In competing for funding and audiences with large performing arts groups in Manhattan, do you sometimes feel like David going up against Goliath?

KBH:  First, we will never be as rich or as strong as many of those institutions. While we're an old institution with a great and important history, we're not a legacy institution. People have supported us over the years because of what we do, and that has given us artistic freedom. We're not looking to be a second-rate Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall. We're looking to be a first-rate BAM, and doing so requires total focus on our mission, our programs, and what we want to be as an institution.

Second, we have to create the broadest possible base of funders. We hope people will feel driven by their positive BAM experience to bring their friends and colleagues to experience what we have to offer as well. And third, we provide programming at BAM that you can't really see anywhere else. Over the past several years we've noticed that some of our competitors are doing more BAM-like things. That puts pressure on us to go further to stay ahead of the crowd.

PND: You have said that BAM employs "SWAT team fundraising." What do you mean?

KBH: In order to support our annual $35 million budget, we conduct a no-holds-barred, leave-no-stone-unturned campaign every year. We start by raising money for the institution. Then we raise money for initiatives within the institution like the Next Wave Festival, BAM Theater, or BAM Opera. Next we raise money for specific productions within the initiatives. And finally we raise money for elements of the productions, like the opening-night party. In addition, we raise money for all the international productions, all the dance and theater productions, all the opera house productions, and more. Essentially, we take the same package and look at all the different ways it might connect to donors.

When I started at BAM, most of our support was foundation-based, but now it comes mainly from both individuals and foundations. I hope corporate support will grow. Brooklyn is on the upswing, which should result in more borough sponsorship for us. In many ways, BAM has driven the identity of downtown Brooklyn, and I believe we are based in one of the most dynamic, diverse, hip arts neighborhoods in the world — a neighborhood in which small and large organizations work side by side. For the future, we envision a cultural district that will reflect the urban energy of New York in the twenty-first century, and BAM will be at the center of it.

— Alice Garrard