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By MARK BLANKENSHIP
It's like a curtain being lifted. In the last few weeks, several major cultural institutions in downtown Brooklyn have opened new facilities that replace stone and concrete with enormous glass walls. Suddenly, we see art and artists everywhere.
And the walls are a reflection of everything else that's happening in the area: As it expands its role as an artistic hub in New York, the downtown Brooklyn cultural district is ready to be seen in a new way.
Granted, it was hardly a wasteland before. BAM is a major presence in the area around Fulton and Lafayette, for instance, and organizations like Mark Morris Dance Group, Urban Glass (a center for glass-based art) and BRIC (a home for live performance, art installations, and community-created television) have been nearby for years. However, many of their buildings were imposing piles of cinder blocks, and their entrances were tucked away on side streets. Unless you were looking for them, you might never have known there were cultural institutions on every corner.
Now, however, when you turn down Fulton, you see directly from the street into BRIC's main gallery. You might spot an electronic art installation or a slam poetry event, or you might get enticed by the massive mural behind the counter of the coffee shop.
Meanwhile, a few feet down the block, you'll see the work on display at Urban Glass, and just like at BRIC, you'll be free to go inside, roam around, and study the art that beckons through the windows.
And if you turn around, you'll spot the newly opened Polonksy Shakespeare Center, the permanent home of Theatre for a New Audience. Sitting in the nearby park, you can gaze into the theatre's lobby, where fascinating images of Shakespeare suggest a fresh take on the Bard. (Currently, TFANA is inaugurating its new space with Julie Taymor's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.)
Leslie G. Schultz, BRIC's president, has already experienced the district's new energy. "People can walk into our place and say, 'Oh, I get this. This is a welcoming arts and media organization,'" she says. "One night, we were about to close our gallery, and we realized that a show over at BAM was about to let out, so we stayed open an extra 45 minutes. We had an extra 75 people come to the show at our gallery space. A few nights later, I went to see a preview of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and I was able to pop over after to an evening of jazz that was happening here."
Ideally, audiences will keep hopping from event to event. BRIC, for instance, constantly presents theatre and live music, and the hope is that after people browse the gallery, they'll stay for a show. Or perhaps they'll wander to Mark Morris Dance Group or MoCADA, the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts.
"Our job has to be to connect all those dots and give the sense of a true cultural district," Schultz says. She notes that the Bloomberg administration is working on streetscape elements---signage, for instance---that will make it clear the cultural district exists, and the Downtown Brooklyn Arts Alliance was recently created to advocate for all 30 of the cultural organizations in the area.
TDF is contributing to the effort, too: The Brooklyn TKTS booth---at 1 MetroTech Center on the corner of Jay Street and the Myrtle Avenue Promenade---has been offering more and more Brooklyn-based shows, and there are plans to feature even more in the near future.
Along with audiences, the neighborhood may impact how artists see things as well. At a ribbon-cutting for TFANA's building, artistic director Jeffrey Horowitz considered why the space reflects the company's artistic goals. "We talked a lot about transparency, about people wanting to see in, about the theatre not being like a citadel," he said. "We talked about there being a space in Brooklyn---psychological as well as physical---for challenging work."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor