Earlier this spring, Harvey Lichtenstein’s impending departure from the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which he had presided over for 32 years, prompted a festive series of affairs in his honor, including the rechristening of BAM’s Majestic Theater as the Harvey Lichtenstein Theater and a farewell concert by BAM stalwarts like Philip Glass, Mark Morris, and Lou Reed (who nearly blew the roof off the venerable BAM opera house). June 30 was the feverishly energetic 70-year-old Brooklyn native’s final day on the job (“My last day on earth …”), and just before saying good-bye to his executive staff with a lunch at the River Café, Lichtenstein mused with New York’s Ethan Smith about his three decades as an avant-garde impresario – with some asides on the state of the challenging work he has devoted his career to presenting – and looked ahead to his new, even more ambitious assignment: remaking an entire neighborhood in BAM’s image.
Ethan Smith: When you first took over BAM, being in Brooklyn must have seemed quite a hurdle.
H.L.: Brooklyn is outside the central core of the performing arts in New York City. So in order to develop our audience and our reputation, it was necessary to go outside the mainstream, do new work, take unconventional approaches. Just getting our audience to the theater was more difficult than if we had been either in midtown or downtown. But at the same time, we could take chances that maybe others in Manhattan, because of their boards or their constituencies, might have been afraid to take.
But now BAM has become an establishment itself.
H.L.:We’re never going to get the absolute newest artists because they usually start off in the studios and small spaces, then they maybe perform at Dance Theater Workshop, or the Kitchen, or P.S. 122. And the next step for them, and really the biggest, is BAM. That’s what we’ve always done.
How much of your audience actually lives in Brooklyn?
H.L.: I’d say about 35 to 40 percent.
As places like Lincoln Center became more adventurous, did you find yourself pushing against the uptown Establishment?
H.L.: I was at a dinner once where a very good friend, who was involved with Lincoln Center, was sitting on the other side of Bill Christie after he had just done a concert here with Les Arts Florissants and was trying to convince Bill to do work at Lincoln Center. Bill turned to me and said, “What do you think about that?” I said, “Come on! Stop trying to poach our artists!” Bill now does smaller work at Lincoln Center. But when he does his concert operas, he does them here.
Have you ever had trouble staying out in front?
H.L.: One of the things about new work is that sometimes it takes you a while to catch up. You don’t get it. The first time I saw Pina Bausch, in 1981 in Cologne, I didn’t know what the hell I was seeing. But life is like that: It doesn’t necessarily hit you all at once. And sometimes you never get it.
Is the arts scene as vital as it was in 1967?
H.L.: I think in a way there’s less of an avant-garde. I’m not sure if that kind of radicalism is there. When we did Bob Wilson’s epic The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin, in 1973, we had 400 people in the audience, and by the time the twelve hours were up, there were maybe 50 to 100 left. One had to adapt oneself totally to another whole way of sitting in an auditorium.
Why do you suppose that radicalism no longer exists?
H.L.: Maybe there was more conflict then: the Vietnam War, Nixon … We’ve become so much more of a conformist society. Young people are less radical, less left-wing.
Is that our boom economy? Are people more interested in spending money on possessions than on supporting the arts?
H.L.: Not even spending it, but making it. I get the feeling that money has more significance to kids in college now. People are seeing how much can be made in a stock market that does nothing but go up, and maybe that has taken over the mentality of young people today. Money becomes the big thing, rather than ideas or passion or involvement or ideology or whatever.
Any advice for people trying to produce avant-garde art?
H.L.: You have to understand what’s going on. Not just in one particular slot but generally. When I was coming into the art market, I was very interested in poetry. But I also got involved in dance, and I got to know Merce Cunningham. Also in New York in the fifties you had de Kooning and Pollock and Gottlieb and Franz Kline. Rauschenberg was beginning, and so was Jasper Johns, and I was into that. It’s important for people who are in this business to get a sense of where the momentum is.
Do you have any regrets?
H.L.: Well, I made lots of mistakes. It would take all day to go through them all. The one thing that I really stubbed my toe on was the attempt to make a repertory theater company. We tried twice. Again, it was an attempt to establish something New York didn’t have. That was a terrible disappointment for me and also resulted in a terrific financial crisis for BAM. We recouped very quickly, but it was really scary for us.
H.L.: I’m staying in Brooklyn – not in this building, but I’ll be heading up a local development corporation, the BAM LDC. We’re looking to create a cultural district; we’re talking to urban planners, architects, designers, graphic people, artists – we should have a plan before the end of this year. We want the activity in the district to have a point of view similar to BAM in the sense that it has a unique character – to configure the area around us in a way that supports and supplements what we do. We need restaurants here. We need life in the evening; a jazz club would be great, something like the Knitting Factory. And even how the streets are lit – not just the amount of light but the way they’re lit.
The neighborhood has already been changing.
H.L.: The largest concentration of young artists is in Brooklyn today. Housing prices have stabilized and gone up in Fort Greene, creating a very strong residential community. Mark Morris is establishing a base for his company a block away from here. I think it’s a really good time for us to do this cultural district around BAM, and it’s got a really good chance of success.
Your wife once said she shuddered to think what you’d do if you ever retired from BAM. Are you going to take a vacation?
H.L.: Usually, I travel in the summer. But this year, I’m going to spend some time at our place up along the Hudson and really try and reflect and find out who the hell I am.