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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

BAM’s Prehistory, Part 2: Brooklyn BIAS

Between 1825 (the year the Apprentices Library was founded) and 1861 (the year the Brooklyn Academy of Music was founded) Brooklyn’s population jumped from 15,000 to 267,000, making it the third largest US city (after Philadelphia and New York City). As industry grew throughout Brooklyn, so did the demand for cultural institutions to serve its population. Until BAM was founded, the concert- and theatergoing public of Brooklyn had to take the ferry into New York City’s theater district, then centered in the area of lower Manhattan around City Hall. Between 1825 and 1861 there was a proliferation of ever-expanding cultural institutions, out of which the Brooklyn Academy of Music arose.

In the early 1840s, as Augustus Graham renewed the charter for the Apprentices Library, it merged with another local institution, the Brooklyn Lyceum. Founded in 1833, the Brooklyn Lyceum was located among the homes of Brooklyn’s wealthiest residents, at Washington and Concord streets. Catering to the business class, the Lyceum sought to “stimulate intelligent discussion of science and the arts.” The Apprentices Library moved into the Lyceum’s Washington Street location, and for a short time the two institutions offered their separate programming designed, on the whole, for separate classes of citizens. In 1843 the Apprentices Library changed its name to the Brooklyn Institute, and the Lyceum donated its library to the Institute. This combined library, renamed the Youths’ Free Library, became one component among many other cultural resources the Brooklyn Institute offered, which included lectures on arts and sciences, concerts, art and natural history exhibitions, and nighttime classes for women.

After a decline lasting several decades, the Brooklyn Institute was revitalized in 1890 and renamed the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences (BIAS). By the mid 1890s, after its own building burned down, BIAS was using the Academy of Music halls for its programs, and the activities of the two institutions became increasingly intertwined—so much so that BIAS bought BAM outright in 1936 to save it from financial ruin. Also during the closing decades of the 19th century, BIAS established a museum of art and science (the Brooklyn Museum), the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and the Brooklyn Children's Museum.

Here is an only slightly confusing graphic charting the relationships between Brooklyn's cultural institutions in the 19th century:

It is remarkable that two of today’s most dominant Brooklyn cultural institutions—the Brooklyn Public Library and BAM—had their beginnings in the same Brooklyn Heights building in 1857: the Athenaeum. In the late 1850s, the center of the Heights’ cultural life could be found at this building on Atlantic Avenue and Clinton Street. The Athenaeum included a reading room, a museum, a lecture and concert hall, and was frequented by “young men of comfortable means,” according to historian Carol Lopate. There the Mercantile Library was established with the intent of catering to the intellectual needs of working men and women, though the Library’s steep membership fees meant that in practice only people of means could access its offerings. After changing its name to Brooklyn Library in 1878—which according to Lopate was in “recognition that its name did not accurately reflect its users”—it was absorbed into the Brooklyn Public Library system in 1903 (coincidentally the same year the original BAM building burned to the ground). This in effect returned it to the Mercantile Library’s original mission: to be a library for the people.

The Athenaeum in the early 20th century 
While in the late 1850s the Athenaeum gained the Mercantile Library, a wealthy and influential group of businessmen formed to address the lack of world-class musical performances in Brooklyn, founding the Philharmonic Society of Brooklyn. After three years of holding popular concerts, by 1860 the 700 seats in the Athenaeum had become too few, and the Philharmonic Society obtained a charter for a new organization, the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The Philharmonic Society—which in 1952 was renamed Brooklyn Philharmonia, and renamed again the Brooklyn Philharmonic in 1982—has had a tightly interwoven relationship with BAM throughout its history.

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