Friday, July 1, 2011

Cultural Circus? Mr. Ratner’s Attempt to Rechristen His Arena A “Cultural Center”

(Story on the above arena billboard here.)

It’s the balcony scene (Act 2, Scene 2) of Romeo and Juliet . . . . Let’s make sure your cultural references are firmly in place and you have buckled your cultural seat belts for a ride.

This is the Shakespeare scene famous for asking us "what's in name?" Does it make any difference what we name things? Does calling something by another name actually change what it is?

“Deny thy father and refuse thy name,” Juliet tells Romeo.
Like Shakespeare let's ask "what is in a name?" When is an arena“different from every arena” or the not just the arena it would otherwise be? Answer: When, with the magic of your press release, you can get the New York Times to dub it, with happy headline-grabbing prominence, “a cultural center.” (See: In Alliance, Nets Arena to Offer Arts, By Melena Ryzik, June 29, 2011.)

How do you get the “paper of record” to do that? By announcing that there are vague, inchoate plans being talked about between Bruce Ratner, the developer arena owner (owning it together with the infamous oligarch Prokhorov) and the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s president, Karen Brooks Hopkins, that maybe three, maybe four times a year the arena “host performances by artists” that the staff of BAM, as part of a “consulting team” will suggest to Ratner in exchange for a “a curatorial fee” (no share of ticket sales). The Academy’s executive producer, Joseph V. Melillo, is tasked with coming up with the suggestions. Ratner will choose.

Developer’s Expression of Hopes to Hopkins

Mr. Ratner who called Ms. Hopkins “hoping” to make the arena “different” from what he apparently concedes “every arena” is understood to be, is central to the creation of this PR maelstrom in more ways than one. Ratner “was chairman of the board at the Brooklyn Academy for a decade” and as the Times article also warns, as it should, “Mr. Ratner’s company also helped develop the headquarters for The New York Times.”

Large Scale Vagueness Pertaining to an "Effort to Fill Seats"

Despite the no-basketball-hoops hoopla of the announcement, not much is known about what this soupçon of promised possible “culture” might entail. Mr. Melillo is supposed to be considering possibilities from “around the globe” which sounds like, for whatever the PR generators know, programs could come from anywhere in the world. One thing that is likely is that the programs will need to be very large scale events. We are reminded that BAM has its own 2,000-seat theater and the arena is 18,000 seats.

The only clue as to what BAM might suggest is that Asia could be the source. Ms. Hopkins says there are a number of large-scale works in Asia” Mr. Melillo “is very enthusiastic about” as she inartfully lets the cat out of the bag that this will not so much an effort to bring culture to the arena as “an effort to fill seats.” In that regard we get additional doses of vagueness about the actual plans, buffed up with assertions of enormous flexibility: “we’re not married to one aesthetic or one point of view or even one audience demographic.”

The goal is probably also about filling those seats as cheaply as possible, which is why going to Asia where wages are low and you can get a big complement of performers for “large scale work” inexpensively, making that an attractive way of filling an arena. Note that truly “large scale” seat-filling operations generally have to organized corporately from the top down. That’s not necessarily conducive to the best examples of “culture.”

Pardon Our French - Circus Clowns Have Arrived

One respect in which Ms. Hopkins and Mr. Ratner have not coordinated to get their act together (about what they are “coordinating”) is whether we are talking circuses here. Mr. Ratner is saying NO, Ms. Hopkins is saying YES.

In contradistinction to the “cultural institution” camouflage Ratner says he is interested in gaining with his wham-BAM press release, Ratner describes circuses as part of the commonplace perception people generally have of arenas from which he wants to move away:
“. . . . . then you have an arena, which, people think about sports and circus and so on”
But Ms. Hopkins contradicts Mr. Ratner by apparently envisioning that recommending circuses (pardon her French) may be exactly what BAM will do:
She said she expects the performances to be “on a very large scale, large nouvelle cirque kind of work, big dance kind of things, music.”
For those who might need it translated “cirque” is simply French for “circus,” whether “nouvelle” or not. How much coordination can there have been about this Times headline grabbing “alliance” if by the day of the big announcement Hopkins and Ratner could not even be on the same page about such basics?

Speaking of Circuses-
(B&B poster above)

Circuses may indeed be in store as the Forest City press release sounds as if it was all cribbed from a 19th Century Barnum & Bailey “Greatest Show of Earth” “never-before-seen” circus poster:
• unique shows from throughout the world

• spectacular and interesting events

• a dynamic cultural experience in the heart of Brooklyn

• a remarkable array of arts and entertainment venues

• spectacular large scale, artistically-driven events

• never been seen in New York City

• work on a giant canvas

• unique programming well beyond the traditional arena fare

• a global destination

• the most exciting and varied programming among entertainment and sports venues worldwide
Huzzah! Huzzah! Huzzah! shouts the carnival barker. No specifics, no facts about what you actually might see but the Times bought it, conveying essentially the same tone for a full article notwithstanding what we have been able to cull by reading carefully between the lines of that article.

(B&B poster above)

From “Cultural Center” to Creator of a “Cultural District”

Well, maybe the Times stopped just short of buying everything in the Ratner press release. The Times was induced to proclaim in its opening paragraph that the arena will now by virtue of these conspicuous antics “be a cultural center.” As Norman Oder’s Atlantic Yards Report points out the Ratner press release was reaching even further. It wanted to proclaim that the coordination, (what may just be three Asian circus visits), will actually be creating, domino-style, last-man-in-line-gets-the-credit, a whole “cultural district,” one of the most “vibrant and unique” in the whole dad-blamed Unite States: “Set to open on September 28, 2012, the Barclays Center will be located two blocks from BAM, creating one of the most vibrant and unique cultural districts in the U.S.”

Not surprisingly, Mr. Oder finds this disingenuous as BAM has long been recognized as anchoring a Brooklyn “cultural district.” Furthermore, separating BAM and the Ratner/Prokoroff/Barclays basketball arena and providing an impediment for any pedestrian who might want to travel between them, are two of Ratner’s soul- and culture-deadening shopping malls (replete with interior parking). (See: Thursday, June 30, 2011, The official press release on the BAM-Barclays alliance, the imaginary new "cultural district," and reflections on Bruce Ratner's gift for irony.)

The “Times Effect”

Is it a problem that the New York Times fills its pages as the passive conduit for Ratner hype? In reviewing the documentary “Page One: Inside the New York Times” Noticing New York noted the film’s reporting of “The New York Times Effect,” which is to say that which the New York Times deigns to include in its pages “sets the agenda” virtually defining reality to a large extent for the rest of the press and that what gets reported in the Times thereafter almost invariably passes down the media food chain.

We are told:
The Times still does to a remarkable degree set the agenda. You really can trace almost any major story these days back to something that originally appeared in the Times. The problem is that once it reaches the public they may not even know that it came from the Times.
No wonder then that Mr. Ratner unveiled his PR go-round with an exclusive to his all-too-friendly partner, the Times.

Did we get see the “Times Effect” in play with respect to this arena-rechristening story?

Yesterday, one day after the Times story, WNYC, the city’s public radio station, normally a reliable and astute provider of news to the city, throughout the day was playing a retread of the Times story written by its “Culture Producer.” There is an on-line version of what WNYC was repeatedly broadcasting that gives a flavor for the broadcasts though not perfectly matching them- - In addition to using one of Ratner’s schmaltzy architectural drawings, it makes a very strange and incorrect use of the verb “demurred.” By the time the story was boiled down to the short squibs broadcast by WNYC virtually any detectable warning of the PR bogusness of the whole affair had been eliminated. (See: BAM and Barclays Center Strike Up Arts Partnership, Thursday, June 30, 2011, by Julia Furlan : WNYC Culture Producer.)

The Real Story the Times Should Have Reported

What should the Times have reported when approached with Mr. Ratner’s press release? Like in the staged event-withdrawal of troops from Iraq story reporters consider in “Page One,” discussed in NNY’s review, the story was press manipulation in the first place, its timing and the motivations of those staging the PR.

Why was the press release timed just when it was? It may have been a “good news” piece to counter a impending story due out last night concerning what might have happened if construction workers had walked off the arena site in a labor dispute. That would have been bad for Ratner financially. (A collective bargaining breakdown with basketball players is also something that could adversely affect Ratner finances.)

The inverse emphasis with which the Times story was written also disguises another underlying story upon which the Times could have focused: the fact that Ratner’s desperate need to fill seats at the arena any way he can is because there are currently so few events expected to be booked at the arena that there is some question about the arena’s financial strength. As Mr. Oder points out, in 2009 the Moody’s rating service just-above-junk rating for the arena PILOT bonds (the obligations involving the most secured arena investors) depends upon the booking of 225 events a year. But Ratner has only booked 150 events. While the cultural programing ploy reported on by the Time might theoretically add three or four shows to the schedule they are (per the Times article) being self-financed by the developer with their costs being “underwritten by the arena.”

Ratner’s Insincerity

What could the really big story reported on by the Times have been? Ratner’s insincerity. To be fair, the Times reporter, Melena Ryzik contacted and included near the end of her article comments from “Michael Galinsky, the director with his wife, Suki Hawley, of the new documentary `Battle For Brooklyn,’ which chronicles the years-long fight against the project.” The good thing about that it is that it might remind people to see the “Battle For Brooklyn” film, still in the theaters, which provides a counter-narrative to all the Ratner hype that the New York Times has so dutifully been reporting.

Galinsky, at least as he is quoted in the article, sounds like he was caught a trifle off-guard:
Any time the arts has more of a venue that’s a wonderful thing . . But the question then becomes at what cost to public process. . . . . this is a much greater benefit to Ratner from this P.R. perspective than it is to BAM.
I don’t know what Galinsky was actually told about the arts having “more of a venue” when he was asked to respond. It seems to me that the proper response when you have listened to Ratner’s narratives about theoretical benefits and ostensible good things he is delivering, be it housing, jobs, hoops, private investment, or whatever, is that the reality mostly doesn’t correspond to Ratner’s tricked-up PR. The bottom line is that you have to be suspicious of anything Ratner might be telling you. In the end it is more likely that Ratner's "good news" is bad news because underlying it all is the fact that he doesn’t care about the community.

Buried by the overall circus gestalt of the New York Times story is a quote where this bit of truth seeps out when Bruce Ratner begins to say exactly as much before correcting himself:
Mr. Ratner said the partnership with the Brooklyn Academy was not meant to appease critics. “I don’t care,” he said, then corrected himself. “We care a tremendous amount about the community, but we don’t do it to get credit,”
Comments Eric McClure in No Land Grab’s coverage:
Go with your first answer, Bruce. You don't care.
And if Ratner doesn’t care, that’s the story, not all this carnival barker hype about the vaguest of possible benefits.

Nothing More Rosey Said

Back to Romeo and Juliet just so a few genuine cultural edifications can actually be provided. The balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet is the one where the meaninglessness of mere names is discussed with respect to what is, and is not in fact “rosy”:
What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
But if Mr. Ratner has caught on to the public perception that his “arena” doesn’t smell too “rosy” and thinks that he can change that by simply renaming it a “cultural center” because, “'Tis but thy name that is my enemy” . . . . He has another think coming. Here is another quote from the balcony scene that applies nicely to the Ratner press release that attempts to redefine reality:
She speaks yet she says nothing: what of that?

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