The term “site-specific” is ubiquitous in contemporary visual art organizations. For art historian Miwon Kwon, the term encompasses projects that are linked not only to a physical location (like a sculpture installation designed for a particular gallery), but to a specific community and its cultural traditions and values.

Can we also apply the term “site-specific” to the work of a classical music organization that ventures out of the concert hall and into the “community”? The once critically acclaimed but recently cash-strapped Brooklyn Philharmonic is doing just that, after two years of hiatus, in a bold new program under new musical director Alan Pierson. Pierson is “shaping the orchestra’s season almost entirely around Brooklyn composers and Brooklyn communities,” with concerts in Brighton Beach (featuring music from Russian cartoons), Bedford Stuyvesant (featuring rapper Mos Def and a tribute to Lena Horne), and downtown Brooklyn (featuring Sufjan Stevens, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus), as well as a Beethoven remix contest. Each performance will also feature one “traditional” classical offering: a movement of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony.

This wholesale reinvention has come in for some praise. Yet what does “going site-specific” mean for the future of an orchestra—and for the communities it aims to engage and represent?

A common critique of site-specific community art is that artists and arts administrators, seeking to collaborate with communities in which they are considered outsiders, may treat these communities as fixed and homogenous.  In a New York Magazine interview, Pierson, who does not live in Brooklyn, describes how “going from one neighborhood to another is like traveling to a different world.”  Pierson’s extensive groundwork partnering with community groups to co-design the new programming is commendable.  Yet Brooklyn neighborhoods’ geographic, as well as socioeconomic and ethnic boundaries, are changing, and one neighborhood may encompass people of many different backgrounds and artistic tastes. Are these neighborhood-specific performances opening doors for cross-cultural appreciation and collaboration? Or is it dangerous to build a season around the premise that everyone in Brighton Beach will relate to Russian cartoons, or everyone in Bed Stuy enjoys rap music? And will ticket sales from these new programs, which are being offered free or at low cost, be enough to dig the orchestra out of its financial ditch?

I am curious to know whether there are other orchestras shaping their programming around specific communities to this extent—and how successful they have been selling tickets and reaching new audiences.  I am also reminded of another local institution’s struggle to re-package itself as uniquely “Brooklyn.” In 2010, the New York Times revealed that the Brooklyn Museum’s attempts at “populism” over six years—including expanding community programs, shaping exhibits around local and pop culture themes, and experimenting with open-call art competitions to generate exhibition content–haven’t boosted the Brooklyn Museum’s overall attendance, or necessarily made new people care more about fine art.  (One ex-trustee is quoted as saying, “Although I think First Saturdays are a very effective community outreach, I question whether people come to them to see art, or to enjoy music and drinks.”)

Will the Brooklyn Phil’s mixed programming actually instill an expanded appreciation for classical music—and is this the orchestra’s goal? Or, is the Philharmonic in fact departing permanently from its classical roots in favor of musical genres that are more popular, or hybrid? And will it, in turn, lose its (albeit small) base of Brooklyn classical music aficionados?

Another common critique of site-specific, community-based art is that “artistic” merit and vision may be compromised in favor of community and audience-building goals.  The Brooklyn Museum article describes wavering support among trustees and art critics after exhibits on hip hop and Star Wars threatened to undermine the institution’s artistic reputation. In a Brooklyn Rail interview, Pierson states:

Part of what I’m trying to do is make community concerts first-tier, and—not pops concerts—have them approaching the level of integrity and artistic seriousness that most orchestras reserve for their subscription season.

Critics seem to agree that if anyone is up for the challenge of elevating “populist” music events, it is Pierson, with his solid musical record directing acclaimed experimental contemporary musical ensemble Alarm Will Sound.  Pierson’s interview also mentions the strong backing of his board members.

If the overall outlook for the Brooklyn Philharmonic seems hopeful, it’s likely because the “site” for these performances, is, after all, Brooklyn, which in this day and age is practically synonymous with cutting-edge culture.

Indeed, the Brooklyn Philharmonic website’s home page, which features a close-up portrait of a stylishly-bespectacled Pierson in front of a row of iconic brownstones, might be pulled directly from a Brooklyn Industries catalog. Perhaps if Brooklyn can “sell” classical music the same way it can sell condos and clothing, the Brooklyn Philharmonic could really prosper. Hopefully, with Pierson’s musical credibility and sensibility at the helm, it will also retain a genuine artistic vision.

  • FCM

    It’s the smaller organizations that are fleet enough to take these sorts of risks. I wish them all the best – I think they bear the heaviest burden of advancing the roles of performing institutions in communities. The largest orchestras are just too big to do anything but maintain the status quo — if lucky!

  • What the author may not realize – is that Professional “Musical” Arts Organizations rely very little on ticket sales for sustainability. The key here is to show an impact in the community – then gain significant donors to support the organization. Even the largest most successful professional orchestras – may receive 20%-30% of their operational budget from ticket sales and sales of recorded music. Organizations like the Brooklyn Philharmonic should be considered icons of the community and supported in the same way that an art museum should be supported. BP represents a critical piece of Americana – the orchestra that springboards new composers and dares to do what other orchestras are afraid to try. We need to pump money into innovative art. Without innovation in classical music – where do we go from here? I commend Mr. Pierson and his colleagues for remaining pioneers. I also commend them for doing what they do best – paint a musical picture of one of the most amazing and diverse place on planet earth.

    • Katherine

      Thank you for the clarification about ticket sales, and for suggesting how we might measure the financial impact of the new programming. I do not mean to criticize the orchestra’s strategy–merely raise some questions that might come up. I too am excited to see where it goes.

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  • Hi Katherine,

    I’m not sure your analogy to the Brooklyn Museum is apt here. If the goal of the philharmonic (and of the museum) is to engage diverse audiences of Brooklyn, then any metrics of success should be anchored in that goal. It’s my understanding that while the Brooklyn Museum has been slammed by art critics for its populist shows, and attendance has indeed not skyrocketed, the museum enjoys more diverse and Brooklyn-representative attendance than many comparably organizations.

    “Artistic merit” is a culturally-loaded term, especially when you’re talking about traditionally white-dominated art forms. While I’m all for the “yes and” of inclusion and quality, I always have to remind myself to be as transparent as possible in defining what both mean.

    • Katherine Gressel

      Thank you so much Nina for this comment on my post from over a year ago, and sorry it’s taken me awhile to reply too. My intent here was mainly to raise common questions that come up when an arts organization makes this type of reinvention–I think I was actually more concerned at the time with the idea of too narrowly defining “communities” and making assumptions about what they want than sacrificing “artistic quality.” I agree that if the goal of an organization’s new programming is to increase local interest, diversity, and attendance, the success of these programs should not just be measured by traditional art critical judgements about their “quality”. However, I think it is important to also consider any risks of decrease in attendance and financial support from an institution’s existing fans (or of straying too far from mission). It seems the Brooklyn Phil has pretty successfully negotiated this balance.