Skyscrapers can be cold and out of scale. But it turns out there’s a way to offset that — with fabulous art of all kinds in building plazas, lobbies, atriums and even escalators.
That’s the work of Debra Simon, who presides over Arts Brookfield, the cultural wing of Brookfield Office Properties, a real estate company with several large office buildings in downtown New York, Denver, L.A. and Washington, D.C. She and her group orchestrate events for more than 20 buildings nationally and others beyond, engaging theater groups, dance companies, musicians and artists from around the country and international companies from all over the world.
Some of the spaces they plan for are widely expansive, like the Winter Garden Atrium, a 45,000 square feet, glass-domed pavilion at Brookfield Place near the Freedom Tower in the Wall Street area. Home to dozens of high-end shops and restaurants, it was recently filled with a temporary exhibit of birds.
Sometimes, though, the spaces are small. Like the lobby at One Liberty Street, which is better suited to just having a visual art show, as there’s not room for a large audience.
“We see it very much as a cultural enhancement for our communities,” says Simon, 58, who has been with the company for 15 years. “We’re presenting world-class performance and exhibitions to people who may not have access by virtue of accessibility or cost.”
Simon also sees a dual value, since these initiatives help the artists who are usually from the communities in which they are working. They get to develop new audiences. Across their many locations, Arts Brookfield produces as many as 400 shows a year.
Simon, a dance major in college, worked as an administrator for a dance company and later in marketing for a downtown improvement district. She had a real estate and arts programming background, experiences she took into her current job.
The programming is completely funded by Brookfield Properties. “Arts Brookfield is really a part of the DNA of the company,” says Simon.
In July, Arts Brookfield staged a concert of The Roots, the house band for the “Tonight Show,” right in Brookfield Place. Simon calls it a career highlight, and one that drew 15,000 people.
“It was a solid two and a half hours of music, of musical tributes to Prince and David Bowie,” she says. “It was a magical night at the waterfront with a very large and diverse audience.”
Other annual programs include: a Chinese New Year’s production, a Halloween festival and a “Nutcracker” production that brings “wall to wall people.” The range is varied, from purely joyful entertainment to thought-provoking and challenging work.
Raising consciousness can be part of the mission too. A recent visitor at Arts Brookfield was “Charity: Water,” a virtual reality tour of a village in Ethiopia. With each “tour,” $30 was released with a final donation totaling $300,000 to a non-profit providing safe drinking water to people in developing nations.
Coming soon, in October, Arts Brookfield will host a Canstruction event. It’s a charity art competition and exhibit held at different places around the world, the largest one being at the Brookfield Place in the Winter Garden. Architects and engineers team up to build wildly creative sculptures made entirely of cans of healthy food. After the event, the food is then donated to City Harvest.
After 9/11, while most buildings were still casting people away, Brookfield Properties worked hard to re-open Brookfield Place, which was when Simon was hired. The Winter Garden was the first building damaged from 9/11 to be rebuilt and re-opened to the public. The re-construction and re-opening of the building was a symbol that things were changing, according to Simon. “It was a very important message that resiliency was everything,” she says.