An Arts Org in Park Slope Tackles the Digital DivideCOVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | The Brooklyn Arts Exchange is making the digital shift. Published: July 21, 2020
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In writing this weekly #SmallBizSpotlight column, I’m continually humbled (in the true sense of the word, not how it’s used in acceptance speeches) by the Herculean feats small business owners make every day. It’s easy to get caught up in my own particular set of pandemic struggles. But then I talk to a small business owner who is forgoing fertility treatments to pay rent, another who’s making it work with sales down 80 percent, and another who had to close up shop altogether. Yet, overwhelmingly, they still have hope and joy. It reminds me of a joke-saying my mom and I made up years ago — “There are a lot of feelings” — which is to say, God damn, life is sad and wonderful and stupid and silly and meaningful and and and… It’s not the most eloquent, but it’s true.
This week, I spoke with Lucia Scheckner, Director of Programming at Brooklyn Arts Exchange (BAX) in Park Slope. Founded in 1991, the non-profit performing arts center offers programming for professional and non-professional artists, with a focus on centering marginalized voices and connecting artists of all ages and experience levels. As an arts venue committed to embodied performance — dance, theater, and other forms of bodily expression — BAX is now tasked with creating ways to move through a screen. Read on for my conversation with Scheckner about forging virtual community, opening BAX up as a refuge for protesters, and the je ne sais quoi of live performance art.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Is your community coming mostly from Park Slope?
It expands beyond [Park Slope]: we've had many artists who live in Upper Manhattan and Harlem, even in the Bronx and Queens. We’ve always had a robust financial aid program and are very committed to access vis-à-vis disability, thinking about how children develop differently and meeting families where they are. We have partnerships with various walkable local schools and bring kids to us, knowing that many parents and caregivers can't leave work at two o'clock, pick up their kid, and bring them somewhere for a program. In that way, we're very community-based.
How has BAX been impacted by the pandemic?
We're a smaller organization, and our budget consists of 60 to 65 percent earned income, largely from tuition. We have space rentals and productions, so our box office has been affected. One thing that's mitigated that impact is we moved quite a bit of education programming onto virtual platforms and saw an incredible display of loyalty from families who were already enrolled and who opted [to continue online], though they could have requested refunds. We had to furlough the front desk and part-time administrative staff, and many of our faculty we couldn't keep on, because our programming reduced so radically in size. But we did keep a core crew on.
Did you apply for any financial aid?
We were fortunate to receive a federal Payroll Protection Program loan, as well as some emergency funding from private foundations. That helped us know that we would be afloat this summer and started to alleviate some of the immediate impact. But it's one thing to look at the economic impact of this fiscal year; it's another thing to anticipate this upcoming year. And there are so many variables.
Talk more about those moving parts.
I’m a parent, I get from a front-row seat the fatigue of being on the screen with your children and wanting them to just get outside. And even though there's a lot of interesting ways to explore virtual programming, there's a saturation of content. It will be interesting [to see] how this may look differently come fall when programming is likely to be virtual again. I imagine families may approach virtual programming differently then, knowing that this is not a short-term change but a part of our new reality. There may be more appetite and opportunity to collaborate and customize programming to meet community and school partner needs.
As you shift to digital programming, what is being lost, or what is the most difficult thing to translate?
We're all about embodied work — that's what performance is. So it’s interesting to see what translates and what doesn't. On one hand, there are a lot of really innovative ways artists can express themselves virtually. And some artists are thriving in that way and are able to adjust their trajectory to different kinds of online releases. But there are artists for whom that's not true, and it's important to listen to those different needs. There's a lot to be said for the je ne sais quoi that happens when you're in a room with other bodies and you're affected by their energies. And virtual teaching presents its own myriad of barriers for various kinds of learners. Some people don't have good Wifi; some don't have space to move; some don't feel comfortable sharing what their bedroom looks like. There are all these questions of equity that come up.
How is your role in the larger community evolving to meet this moment?
This is an extraordinary moment of political unrest, and BAX is an anti-racist organization — that's literally written into the mission. We opened up our lobby as part of the Open Your Lobby effort, and we're providing first aid supplies, water, and snacks. We've used some of our emergency funding towards that, and in June we paused our own year-end fundraising to direct money toward black, queer-led organizations that were supporting protesters. We've been in conversation with other small businesses about developing an alliance of neighborhood partners that could be a support in whatever comes up now and in the future. This is a moment to support each other and if we don't, the landscape of small businesses in New York, which has already suffered tremendously, is going to look even more stark. And the only cultural institutions that survive will be the mammoths that do not have the same fundamental commitment [as us] to centering voices that have historically been underrepresented. This is an all-hands-on-deck moment for innovative partnerships.
Moving into the summer, how do you feel about the prospect of reopening?
We want to be really thoughtful about what our capacity is to reopen safely, so it'll be a scaffolded approach. We all agree that this summer, we will not be reopening in any full way. And then exploring what that first stage of public reopening will be this fall: Will it be for artists in residence and renters, but not yet families and students? We're sorting through it, and we’ve conducted surveys about what people need, but we've pretty much agreed that it will be a slow revving up.
On a more philosophical note, what is the role of art right now?
I've been thinking about that question a lot. Art has proven time and again to be an outlet for expression, and that includes reflecting on what is and imagining that which doesn't exist, which is hugely important in this moment. The arts are an incredible vehicle to imagine and make real shapes out of what we want this world to be, and for the community to come together and for stories to be told. We heal by sharing our struggles and dreams.
How to help:
- Follow on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter
- Donate directly to BAX
- Check out the virtual summer program running through July 30th (registration is flexible)
Until next time,