Dena Beard was forever changed the day, in her late teens, when she rode three public buses from the small surf town where she grew up in Carpinteria, California, and wandered into the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.

There was an installation by the pioneering artist Nam June Paik, who is widely credited with founding video art.

“It philosophically changed the way I saw the world,” she says.

She tried the practical path her schoolteacher parents steered her down, getting a bachelor’s degree in critical theory with the intent of becoming a professor. But the tug of art never went away.

“When I finally discovered what curating allows you to do—to implement the philosophy and the theory behind the presentation of art as well as working with artists and trying to directly improve their living conditions—I found that to be much more important,” she says.

After earning a master’s degree in art history, theory, and criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she had turns as a curator at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum for nine years and then as director of The Lab, an experimental performance art space in San Francisco, which she saved from closing.

She came to Brooklyn College in February 2023 as the first director of the Leonard & Claire Tow Center for the Performing Arts.

We talked to her about her reasons for taking the position and her goals for the Tow Center’s future, including creating a sustainable and inclusive cultural space for the community.

What attracted you to Brooklyn College?

This job was really intriguing. I knew, or knew of through friends, artists like Jennifer McCoy, Derrick Adams, Marina Rosenfeld, David Grubbs—Grubbs had performed at The Lab—and a few other incredible people, and I couldn’t believe they were all here.

And for a while, I had been concerned that art schools were reserved for the privileged, since they’re very, very, very expensive to attend. I’ve always felt like this was untenable and unethical. I wanted to work for a pedagogical space that provided those services free or at a very low cost and allowed students to really experiment.

Brooklyn College is special in that regard. You would be hard-pressed to find another school offering this caliber of faculty talent, incredible facilities, resources, as well as the time and space for students to challenge and renegotiate how we perceive the world.

How are you settling into the position, and what’s a typical day like?

We hold almost 400 events a year at the Tow Center, most of which are for the Conservatory of Music, the Department of Theater, and other academic departments on campus.

And we only have a six-person staff!

We’re also trying to host about 30 to 50 graduations for Brooklyn public schools every June, which is intense. Still, it’s a great recruitment tool. On top of that, we produce 30 to 50 rentals. We get over 1,000 requests annually to rent the Tow Center. So, I can pick and choose people who will bring something to the campus and who treat the staff and community with respect. We can also offer something to our neighbors in Flatbush – that reciprocity is important.

A typical day involves a few meetings: with directors of other spaces around New York City, sometimes with artists, sometimes with staff and other Brooklyn College folks, and then mainly writing a lot of people back. I send about 150 e-mails a day.

Who are some of the artists you’ve been particularly proud to work with here?

We’re working with a few great artists on reviving our legacy Schooltime program for Brooklyn children. We’ve had a long-standing relationship with the Ukrainian National Ballet. They’re homeless and have been wandering the country. We just keep offering them our space whenever they’re back in town. These are the kinds of things that fit our mission and our priorities.

In September 2023, Wadada Leo Smith, a stunning jazz musician, created a 14-hour composition just for us that was performed over the course of four days in the Buchwald Theater. It was an extraordinary opportunity. Students and faculty performed with the professional musicians on stage. It was a very cool thing.

Poet Tongo Eisen-Martin performed with Jive Poetic last October. Jive is a Flatbush native, and both he and Tongo got their start at the legendary Nuyorican Poets Café. That was a phenomenal experience.

Brooklyn has a rich arts landscape, and we sit in the shadow of other bigger, more well-known performance spaces. We’ve got the recently refurbished Kings Theater right up the road. How do you see the Tow Center fitting in with the broader arts scene?

Kings Theater is competition in the sense that Bob Dylan’s manager came to us and said, “Hey, we’re looking for a space.” We offered our theater, but Kings has better facilities and a marketing machine behind them, so they snatch up a lot of the big-name talent.

Brooklyn College’s theater complex has been in the community since 1951, and our relevance is all about maintaining our link to Flatbush and wider New York. That’s very different than having Ticketmaster’s marketing machine behind you. We’re just six people plus a bunch of students trying to make everyone feel welcome when they come in, to make sure people feel like this is their art center. We’re a small but crazy chorus of voices who are trying to maintain this exciting resource, and to do that, we have to really show what culture can look like: at Brooklyn College, but also how small but imaginative collaborations can transform the city itself.

A big part of the difference between the Tow Center and more commercial theaters is that we put a lot of love into our projects. As a result, we attract artists who want to be a part of something more tangibly human than a corporation.

That’s where our strength is.