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Harvey Lichtenstein, Brooklyn arts icon, dead at 87

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Harv in charge: Harvey Lichtenstein at his office inside the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
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At the mic: Lichtenstein led the BAM Cultural District when it was first formed.
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Beep beep: Harvey with former Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden.
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Driving forces: Developer Bruce Ratner with Lichtenstein back when we ran photos in black and white.

Harvey Lichtenstein, an arts administrator best known for revitalizing the Brooklyn Academy of Music during his 32-year tenure as its president and executive producer, died on Feb. 11. He was 87.

Lichtenstein suffered a stroke seven years ago and his health had declined over the past few months, according to his son John.

The National Medal of Arts recipient lived out his final days at his home in Manhattan, but he was a native son of Kings County who will be remembered for his pivotal role in making Brooklyn the world-class city it is today, according to a local leader.

“He was a powerhouse in Brooklyn,” said former Borough President Marty Markowitz. “If you had to point to handful of individuals who made the Brooklyn Renaissance, Harvey was up there at the top, no question.”

Born to a Polish immigrant hat-maker father and a Ukrainian mother in 1929, Lichetenstein attended Brooklyn Technical High School in the shadow of the venerable Lafayette Avenue theater, and was inspired to study dance after seeing a performance featuring the iconic Martha Graham while he was a student at Brooklyn College.

He later performed in several professional dance companies and worked as a fund-raiser for the New York City Ballet and the New York City Opera, but jetéd back across the river in 1967 to take over the Brooklyn Academy of Music — then a largely forgotten 106-year-old performing arts institution on the edge of economically-depressed Fort Greene.

Lichtenstein re-branded the facility as “BAM” and shepherded its rebirth as a preeminent venue for music, theater, and dance, bringing to its stages such iconic performers and choreographers as Graham, Alvin Ailey, Merce Cunningham, Philip Glass, Mark Morris, and Twyla Tharp.

But snobby Manhattan audiences didn’t necessarily come with them at first — a critic once said he’d rather wait to see Graham perform in London instead of crossing the East River for her show in Fort Greene, Lichtenstein recalled in the 2001 book “Brooklyn: A State of Mind.”

“I started here in 1967 and the place didn’t really come together until about 1980,” he told the authors. “It was hard, it was discouraging. Merce Cunningham was here with a wonderful program and drew just 400 people to the 2,000-seat theater.”

Lichtenstein said he eventually made his mark by creating the theater’s famed Next Wave Festival — still a vital annual showcase for avant-garde drama and dance.

There were more concrete changes, too. Under Lichtenstein’s leadership, the Academy revitalized the old Majestic Theater on Fulton Street — later renamed the BAM Harvey Theater in his honor — and added the four-screen BAM Rose Cinemas and the BAMcafe performance space to the main building in the ’90s.

One of Lichtenstein’s fondest dreams was to create an entire cultural district around the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and after retiring in 1999, he immersed himself in developing Brooklyn’s very own Great White Way, ushering in the Mark Morris Dance Center in 2001, the BAM Fisher Building in 2012, and most recently the Theater for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center in 2013.

“His vision created the BAM Cultural District and changed that landscape for the better,” said Markowitz. “What more can I say? What a life.”

Reach James Harney at (718) 260-2529 or e-mail him at jharney@cnglocal.com.
Updated 10:17 pm, July 9, 2018
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