After Waterfront Dinner, Warm Greetings, FOK (Friends of Karen) Bussed To Mother Ship
By Kathryn Cardin and Sam Howe
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
For the Brooklyn Academy of Music, led by Executive Producer Joseph Melillo, the gala honoring Karen Brooks Hopkins Tuesday night was an “all hands on deck” affair. Every department, from Development and Marketing to Stage Crew and Production, worked to make it happen. “The Karen Gala” paid tribute to a 36-year run of inspired leadership. Hopkins is set to retire in June, but Tuesday night her co-workers lived up to the institution’s acronym: BAM!
Most of the 900 guests who made their way to the waterfront Duggal Greenhouse building Tuesday night entered Brooklyn Navy Yard at the south end, just down the hill from the grand 1806 Commandant’s Mansion, which sits on three acres and is privately owned. Winding through old, restored Navy Yard buildings, they followed a well-planned carpeted pathway.
Before emerging onto the landscaped waterfront garden in front of Duggal — complete with an ancient cannon that was part of a World War II vessel repaired in the Yard — they had a red carpet opportunity. There, a smiling Karen Brooks Hopkins graciously posed for photographers with any and all guests who wished to do so; it was Hopkins’ chance to thank them again, hand-to-hand, shoulder-to-shoulder, for supporting BAM. Energetic, time-consuming and joyous, that gesture was a good example of Hopkins’ brilliant bonding instincts.
Many years ago, soon after hiring Hopkins, the legendary former BAM President and Executive Producer Harvey Lichtenstein said, “In Karen, I found as fearless a dreamer and as brave a leader as I could have ever imagined.”
Taking advantage of the Navy Yard site, some guests arrived by water taxi, coming right up to the waterside garden before entering Duggal’s massive open space inside. The Metropolis Ensemble played chamber music as guests entered to enjoy their meal.
Melillo spoke first at the podium, making it clear, in so many words, that the celebrations “have only just begun.” Indeed, they had.
Dinner was efficiently served and guests were given take-out coffee and babka (a gift Hopkins has traditionally offered guests) on their way to the dozen or so luxurious coaches, which headed to BAM’s Opera House for what was possibly one of the most sumptuous and heartfelt tributes ever given for a cultural icon.
Guests arrived outside the Peter Jay Sharp building, which was splotched with blue, white and yellow lights, illuminating the otherwise dark surrounding Brooklyn streets. The Sugartone Brass Band played on the steps leading into the auditorium while BAM supporters danced on the street, waiting for the program to begin.
Hosts of the evening — Alan Fishman, BAM’s chairman of the board; William Campbell and Adam Max, vice chairmen of the board; and Melillo — offered introductory remarks as guests filed into the historic auditorium.
Despite their kind words, it was clear Hopkins needed no introduction. She received tremendous applause as she walked on stage wearing a white structured dress by Kate Spade, smiling and waving personably at the audience, as if it were an old friend.
Hopkins thanked those who assisted in her styling for the evening, including Tiffany & Co. for the jewelry and MAC for the makeup.
She delivered a humorous, endearing speech, reflecting upon her journey at BAM, citing a few instances that made for especially memorable moments. She recalled a night in 1991 when not even a Nor’easter could stop BAM’s loyal patrons from coming to see the opening night of Mark Morris’ rendition of “The Nutcracker” titled “The Hard Nut.” A special subway was commissioned that night and the audience rode it straight from the theatre to Grand Central Terminal for the gala dinner. The deserted station was decorated with thousands of candles and the Gay Men’s Christmas Chorus serenaded the audience, making it a truly unforgettable night for those who attended.
Hopkins also addressed those who helped make her career so successful, including her family, dear friends, and coworkers Melillo, who produced the program, director of the program Anne Bogart, writer of the program Charles Mee, and Hopkins’ predecessor, Lichtenstein.
Hopkins concluded by speaking about art as the one thing that has remained in culture over time, and something that receives too little credit for all of the good it does. She quoted her somewhat trademarked saying, “BAM is not a job; it’s a crusade,” and gave heartfelt thanks to everyone who made her experience at BAM so unforgettable. She said that although she is excited for her retirement, she will miss BAM dearly.
Throughout the program and in between the star-studded performances, a video was projected featuring Hopkins’ friends, family, artists and coworkers, all of whom spoke about Hopkins as a leader, companion and character of inspiration. The compilation included Hopkins’ son Matthew and his family, her mother Paula Brooks, Artistic Director of DanceAfrica Baba Chuck Davis, artist Laurie Anderson, and several BAM chairpersons, among others.
Narrating the event and presenting facts and figures comparing the year when Hopkins first took her position as president in 1999 with figures from 2015 were actors John Turturro and Alan Rickman. The facts were outstanding but not surprising, pointing to the incredible financial and artistic upswing since Hopkins’ appointment.
“When Karen first arrived, BAM’s budget was $21 million. Now it is $54 million,” Rickman read from a card on stage. “When Karen first arrived, the marquee for BAM was lit 119 days a year. Now it is lit 365 days a year,” he added.
The stage was continuously filled with Hopkins’ favorite artists, beginning with acclaimed composer and personal friend of Hopkins’ Steve Reich, as well as percussionist Gary Kvistad, who performed an eclectic hand-clapping piece.
A few artists who could not attend the gala paid tribute to Hopkins by recording video performances, including Laurie Anderson, an innovative and multidisciplinary artist, and brilliant musician Paul Simon. They both thanked Hopkins for all she has done for art and BAM.
The live performances were equally awe-inspiring. A presentation by a dance company Hopkins toured with in Russia and Siberia known as IllStyle & Peace Productions filled the stage with acrobatics and hip-hop dance routines. Solo and duet pieces by famed siblings Rufus and Martha Wainwright invoked several clear “wows” from the audience. R&B legend Mavis Staples and her band transported everyone back to the ’70s with a memorable performance of “I’ll Take You There” and more. The program ended with the booming sound of the Institutional Radio Choir and balloons falling from the ceiling onto the audience.
There were several standing ovations for the artists and the love from the audience was clear as Hopkins took to the stage with all of the night’s performers and narrators. She took a shy bow with her hands covering her face in humble appreciation.
After the program, guests were encouraged to stay, eat and “drink up” as an open bar and several free food stations were available both in and outside the building. Guests simultaneously danced to the DJ’s music, ate pizza with one hand and drank a cocktail with the other.
Photo slideshows of Hopkins decorated the walls, and depicted her receiving the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama and hitchhiking her way through Europe in her twenties.
As Hopkins is particularly recognized for her accomplishments in bringing immense financial success to BAM during her time as president, it was also announced that she recently closed the largest donation deal in BAM’s history. After the Karen Gala, BAM’s endowment far exceeds $100 million, setting it up for further success with Hopkins’ successor, Katy Clark.