David Binder, the artistic director of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, will step down in July, as the venerable institution faces ongoing turnover and the challenge of pandemic-era rebuilding after decades of stability in its leadership team.
BAM, which began presenting work in 1861 and describes itself as the nation’s oldest performing arts center, long played a key role in New York’s cultural life, presenting adventurous theater, film, music and dance from artists around the world. But the institution was quieter than some at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, and Binder’s departure will follow the 2021 exit of the institution’s president, Katy Clark, and the 2020 death of its board chairman, Adam Max.
Binder joined BAM as artistic director in 2019, making his tenure significantly shorter than those of his two predecessors, Joseph V. Melillo, who spent 35 years at the institution, and Harvey Lichtenstein, who led BAM’s artistic work for 32 years.
Similarly, on the institution’s executive side, Clark left BAM after five years in the post (keeping an apartment the institution helped her purchase); she had succeeded Karen Brooks Hopkins, who had spent 36 years at the institution, including 16 as president. BAM’s current president is Gina Duncan, who started just last year, after a year in which that position was vacant.
Binder, who had been producing Broadway shows as well as arts festivals before joining the institution, said he was leaving voluntarily and is planning to return to commercial producing after leading the nonprofit’s artistic programming through the upheaval of the pandemic as well as the change in the organization’s executive staff.
BAM said Binder would continue to consult for the organization until next January as it searches for a new artistic leader. Binder began working with Melillo when his appointment was announced in early 2018.
“I feel like I’ve accomplished what I set out to do there, and I want to get back to making work and producing work,” Binder said in an interview. “I want to keep growing.”
Duncan characterized the transition similarly, saying, “David decided to move on, and I appreciate him letting me know now.” She added, “We have a strong team in place, and I have time to do a search and find someone to be my artistic partner.”
Binder’s departure comes as many performing arts institutions around the nation are seeing turnover at the top — New York’s theater leaders have tended to hang on longer than most, which is a source of criticism as well as stability, but there is wholesale change unfolding in San Francisco, Chicago and elsewhere.
Binder, who is 55, has drawn some buzzy work to BAM, which primarily presents shows developed by other companies.
Last year’s pandemic-delayed production of “Cyrano de Bergerac,” which starred James McAvoy and transferred from London, was both a critical and a popular success, becoming the best-selling show in the history of the BAM Harvey Theater. And this month, BAM was the only institution with two shows on The New York Times’s list of things critics are looking forward to this year: the theater critic Jesse Green wrote about anticipating a production of “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window,” with Oscar Isaac and Rachel Brosnahan in the starring roles, and the dance critic Gia Kourlas wrote hopefully about BAM’s U.S. premiere of Pina Bausch’s “Água,” a piece created two decades ago in Brazil.
Binder arrived at BAM saying he wanted to bring in new artists — his first New Wave festival there, in 2019, featured only artists who had not previously performed there. Over the course of his tenure, Binder said he will have presented more than 50 debuts of artistic companies as well as solo performers.
Ticket sales during his time have generally exceeded projections; BAM says it is attracting new audiences, and there have been multiple programming highlights: Simon Stone’s “Medea” adaptation, produced by BAM, starring Rose Byrne and Bobby Cannavale; a new spring music series, curated last year by Hanif Abdurraqib and this year by Solange; and an annual artist residency program.
“Through the pandemic and through the leadership changes, I feel that the team and I at BAM have stayed focused on putting fantastic work on our stages, and when we couldn’t do it on our stages, we did it outdoors or site-specific or virtually. And the work we’ve done has been really successful,” he said. “We always tried to mix it up: We had the National Theater of Korea’s opera of ‘Trojan Women,’ and ‘Kiki and Herb Sleigh’; we had the Lithuanian opera ‘Sun & Sea,’ which won the Golden Lion at Venice; and we also hosted the world premiere of Madonna’s ‘Madame X’ tour.”
In the commercial arena, Binder is best known as the lead producer of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” which won the Tony Award for best musical revival in 2014. Binder said that he would soon announce that “Hedwig” was “finally coming to the West End in a big way.”
Beyond “Hedwig,” Binder is among a handful of commercial producers who have continued to focus on the production of plays, which tend to be riskier than musicals. He says he plans to resume work on his longtime effort to bring the German director Thomas Ostermeier’s production of “An Enemy of the People” to Broadway. (Last fall, Binder brought Ostermeier’s “Hamlet” to BAM; that production was in German, but “An Enemy of the People” would be presented in English.)
Binder said he was also working with the innovative British director Jamie Lloyd, who helmed the “Cyrano” revival at BAM, to develop a new play that he was not yet ready to describe.
BAM, like other arts organizations, shrank during the height of the pandemic, but is now nearly back to where it was, according to a spokeswoman: Its current annual budget is $56 million, up from $55 million prepandemic; it has 222 full-time staff positions, down from 256; its most recent Next Wave festival had 13 shows, down from 16 prepandemic; and last spring, BAM presented 17 shows, up from 16 during the final prepandemic spring.
“I think we’re doing as well as one can, given the circumstances of the world,” Duncan said. “We’ve had some success in audience growth, and our membership numbers are starting to increase again. Everything is heading it the right direction, and now it’s a matter of time.”