Exclusive: The Guggenheim Celebrates the Brooklyn Renaissance

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Remember when Williamsburg was just a collection of warehouses? Longtime Brooklyn dwellers Sam Brumbaugh and Bronwyn Keenan sure do. Brumbaugh, writer of Goodbye, Goodness, and Keenan, the Guggenheim’s Director of Special Events, recognize how far Brooklyn has come in its artistic development in the past decade, going so far as to dub it a “renaissance.” To commemorate the borough’s achievements and celebrate the museum’s 50th anniversary, they’ve co-produced a new concert series called “It Came From Brooklyn,” to take place in Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous rotunda.

The monthly series — which launches this Friday night — is designed to be something of a variety show, hosting the likes of Bed-Stuy-based experimental pop duo High Places, the Brooklyn Steppers Marching Band, author Colson Whitehead, alternative act The Walkmen and comedian Leo Allen, all on one bill. Flavorpill sat down with Brumbaugh and Keenan to learn more about the series, and ended up discussing what ’90s Williamsburg was like for artists, how being a Brooklyn writer isn’t as different as people like to think, and why you can’t really compare Brooklyn’s art scene to the one in Baltimore.

Flavorpill: Tell me about It Came From Brooklyn’s creation.

Sam Brumbaugh: Bronwyn and I were talking about getting a music series underway in the Guggenheim’s iconic rotunda, as a means of activating the space in the spirit of recent performances by artists like Marina Abramovic (“Seven Easy Pieces”) and Meredith Monk (“Ascension Variations”). The series is named after Peter Guralnick’s book about Elvis, It Came From Memphis. It’s about the birth of a scene in the ’50s — so long ago now. Brooklyn, over the last decade, has had a scene of astonishing invention and quality, both in music and literature. Brooklyn has been swinging, to use a kind of pre-rock and roll word. Brooklyn and Manhattan are all part of the same city. This great scene is all right here, right where the museum is.

FP: The Guggenheim’s website cites the “recent Brooklyn Renaissance” that inspired your curated concert series. When did you first begin to take interest in Brooklyn’s art scene and how do you think it sets itself apart from other burgeoning art scenes across the nation?

SB: I first lived in Williamsburg in the early ’90s. There was no place to play, no place to read, hardly any galleries. You’d haul your wares, your guitar or canvases on the L train to the Village. I remember being in some freezing loft on N. 11th, watching Cibo Matto play. They wore these huge coats and you could see their breath. All that’s changed since the mid-nineties. Galleries started opening up, then clubs, bookstores. It’s downtown now. For the last decade, kids coming to New York wanting to be artists or musicians, have gone straight to Brooklyn. More specifically Williamsburg and Greenpoint (and Park Slope environs for writers). Now we have these intense and amazingly productive scenes that have also developed into new layers of communities.

FP: Writers have been living and writing in and about Brooklyn for decades. What made you choose Colson Whitehead to read for the series?

SB: Well the answer is partly the first line of your question. Colson wrote that funny essay in the New York Times last year about living in Brooklyn and being a writer. You know, get over it. It has always been this way. But also, yes, things are happening here now. “You have to be a bit dense to confuse a geographical and economic accident with an aesthetic movement,” he said. Writers, like he suggests, don’t sit around in cafés parsing each other’s manuscripts and discussing essays in Harper’s and then heading off for an absinthe aperitif and some jazz. Writing in Brooklyn is the same as anywhere else, solitary and difficult. There’s just happens to be a lot of really good writers there right now.

FP: You also chose the Walkmen to play though the members originally formed in Manhattan in the ’90s. What is it then, about the Walkmen that represents the “Brooklyn Renaissance”?

SB: We aren’t too literal about the Brooklyn connection. Brooklyn is, obviously, a lot of things. The art and music scene is busy and buoyant but also in flux. People come and go. So we were careful, when considering the people we wanted to approach, not to be too literal about the Brooklyn connection. Paul Banks from Interpol, who has a new solo record out as Julian Plenti, is headlining the September show. Paul, with Interpol, has had a practice space in Brooklyn since Interpol started a decade ago. He’s lived there some too. Not right now, but I mean, we’re not checking proof of residence — a Con Ed bill or Brookyn citizenship papers. There just has to be some kind of real relation to the borough, past or present. I lived there on and off for ten years. I don’t anymore, but feel very connected to specific parts of Williamsburg, no matter how much those places have changed.

FP: Tell me about the artist Mike Paré. Why did you decide to use his artwork, which depicts a lion resting, to help represent the series?

Bronwyn Keenan: I met Mike soon after he moved to New York — Brooklyn specifically, where he lived since the mid-90s until a month ago when he left to pursue an MFA in New Mexico. He was mining the ’60s and ’70s counterculture as subject matter early on his work back in the mid-90s, especially his drawings depicting scenes from the Altamont free concert in 1969. Mike captured the spirit of the idea — of representing the borough of Brooklyn as a lion, the King, the County of Kings — almost immediately. It’s poetic, lo-fi and has a quasi-spiritual vibe about it. Seems just about perfect to us.

FP: What other city art scenes can we expect to hear more from in the coming years? Some would argue that Baltimore is the new Brooklyn.

SB: Baltimore has a lively scene right now, and of course, a professional baseball team. But Brooklyn seems to be a lot of other things. The Brooklyn Steppers represent that in Bed-Stuy. So does Leo Allen. He helps run the Park Slope literacy project, 826 NYC, and has a great bar in Greenpoint — which is different kind of good deed. I grew up in D.C. and my father worked in Baltimore for years. My aunt lives there. Baltimore is having a tough time in regards to crime and people wanting to stay in the city and work. All that makes for cheap rent in nice old townhouses, but there are hardly any crabs left in the Chesapeake and most of the city’s great old crab houses are long gone. And the disused factories… There’s just a sense of an old industrial port city. Brooklyn, as a city, has had a pretty good decade, and is still going pretty good. I love Baltimore, but Brooklyn is a little more hopeful place right now.

BK: Personally, I’d love to see a Texas-oriented music series of cross-generational shows — some of the legends like Guy Clark and Terry Allen, paired with newer bands, like Midlake and Theater Fire. Sam titled it “It Came from…” to keep the series open-ended. If there’s a demand, we’d love to continue the series for sure.