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.