Brooklyn Academy of Music Lays Off 13 Percent of Its Staff

This post was originally published on NY Times - Theater

Written by: Matt Stevens

The organization, which made Brooklyn a destination for pathbreaking performances, is reducing programming next season as it seeks to rebound from the pandemic. The Brooklyn Academy of Music, one of the most important cultural organizations in New York, has laid off 13 percent of its staff members and reduced its programming as it seeks to plug a “sizable structural deficit” during a challenging time for the arts, officials confirmed on Monday.

BAM moved last week to eliminate 26 positions, according to a letter sent to staff members by the organization’s president, Gina Duncan.

In the letter, which was reviewed by The New York Times, Ms. Duncan said that the changes were necessary in part to help BAM to “weather the downturn in charitable giving for the arts, and address an outdated business model that heavily relies on a shrinking donor base.” She said that the organization faced a “sizable structural deficit” each year.

“This is us putting on our oxygen mask so that we can continue to fulfill our promise to be a home for adventurous artists, audiences, and ideas,” she wrote in the email.

Ms. Duncan noted that the academy had already pared down its Next Wave Festival scheduled for this fall and added that programming for next season as a whole would be reduced. (The festival, often a highlight of the city’s cultural year, will feature seven programs this year, down from 13 last year.)

“These difficult decisions were made after a rigorous organizational review process,” Ms. Duncan wrote in the memo.

“We cannot spend our way out of a deficit, and we cannot present programming beyond what we can afford,” she added.

The year before the pandemic, in April 2019, BAM obtained a $2.8 million loan from Bank of America, according to its financial papers. The papers said that the balance, more than $2.4 million, would come due next June.

Megan Grann, a union representative of Local 2110, which represents technical, office and professional workers, said that 17 of the people who lost jobs had been in the union. She said that at least three had been offered “possible new positions” within the arts institution.

“We are really just not happy with this development, to say the least,” she said. “Our primary goal right now is to try to mitigate the damage as much as possible.”

The layoffs come as BAM, which began presenting work in 1861, finds itself having to navigate the post-pandemic challenges that many arts organizations around the country are facing. Earlier this month the Center Theater Group, a flagship of the Los Angeles theater world, laid off 10 percent of its work force and halted productions at one of its three stages, the Mark Taper Forum.

But BAM is facing those difficulties while also experiencing significant leadership turnover after many years of relative stability.

David Binder, the institution’s artistic director, is expected to step down next month after roughly four years at the helm. His two predecessors, Joseph V. Melillo and Harvey Lichtenstein, each spent more than three decades at the institution.

On the executive side, Ms. Duncan took over as president in 2022, after the departure of Katy Clark, who held the job for five years (and was permitted to keep an apartment that BAM helped her purchase). Clark had succeeded Karen Brooks Hopkins, who spent 36 years at the institution, including 16 as president.

Nora Ann Wallace took over as chair of BAM’s board in 2020, after the death of its previous board chair, Adam Max.

Like other arts organizations, BAM has also had to contend with headwinds generated by the pandemic, which shuttered live performance for months. While many organizations survived the shutdown with the help of federal aid, once they reopened many found that it had become more difficult to attract audiences and donors alike.

When Mr. Binder announced this year that he was leaving, the institution had 222 full-time staff positions, down from 256 before the pandemic. Most recently, the number of such positions had dwindled to around 200, and the latest round of cuts are expected to move the number below that threshold.

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