Inside the engine room of The Arts Center at NYUAD: Linsey Bostwick talks to magpie

East African retro-pop from Alsarah & the Nubatones from the Barzakh Festival 2019

Right from the start, the programming at The Arts Center NYUAD has been exactly what you’d want from an arts centre – varied to the point of covering most artistic bases, often testing the boundaries and inviting audiences to question their own prejudices, mixing the cerebral with the popular.

The early days of The Arts Center reflected the tastes and the contacts of its Executive Artistic Director, Bill Bragin. He was also building a team in the first year, though, and Linsey Bostwick arrived as a Senior Producer in 2016. For the last two years she’s been Director of Artistic Planning, which gives her a central role in the The Arts Center’s programming and its wider roles in the community and the local arts ecosystem.

Before joining The Arts Center at NYUAD she had been for six years a part of the team at Pomegranate Arts, an independent creative producing company based in New York City. There she produced works by the likes of Laurie Anderson, Taylor Mac, and Phillip Glass – including Einstein on the Beach by Robert Wilson and Phillip Glass, winner of the 2013 Olivier Award for Best New Opera.

We like The Arts Center’s programming, and we were interested in Ms Bostwick’s approach to her job. Here’s our conversation:

magpie: You had a long stint at Pomegranate – what were you looking for when the time came for a change? What was the appeal of NYUAD?

Linsey Bostwick: Yes, I had an incredibly rich and extensive time with Pomegranate Arts. During the last few years of my work there, I started interacting with many university presenters and really enjoyed developing engagement between the artists I was working with and the university community. I became interested in working directly within a university environment, and I became interested in working directly within a university environment; and Mary McBride, a colleague and friend who had been the very first performer at The Arts Center at NYUAD (before the theatres were even ready) felt that I would be a perfect match for the Center and encouraged me to apply.

Bill Bragin had presented some of the artists that I worked with when he was at Lincoln Center, so I already knew his work and his deep commitment to artists which I connected with. The Art Center’s approach to programming, community engagement and diverse crossroads was an amazing fit for my interests and core values.

magpie: So how would you define the task of The Arts Center? Indeed, of any non-commercial performing arts centre?

LB: I would say The Arts Center has a multifaceted mission, but at root we like to think of it as a community space. As well as bringing exciting and talented artists to Saadiyat, our commitment also includes supporting the performances and research work of our students, faculty and local artists.

And we are firmly committed to cracking open the creative process and sharing it across the university and the country. That takes the form of bespoke events – everything from dinners and meetings to Zoom chats, workshops and classroom engagement.

magpie: I guess The Arts Center is a bit like the swan analogy – to the outsider like me it’s gliding along majestically, a couple of performances every month for three quarters of the year. But under the surface it’s all action, a busy engine room with a load of extra commitments and activities that we might not see.

LB: Yes, and this is really the heart of my role. We keep adding and refining these engagement programmes even adding additional moments while the artists are in residence. Listening to the needs and interests of both our community and the artists. Crafting a creative spark between artists and our community is extremely gratifying and means that I am doing my job.

Of course, all these elements of our mission have had to be reconceived during the pandemic in trying to keep the community intact and creativity in motion.

magpie: And what are the responsibilities there?

LB: As an arts centre and part of a university, we have an enormous responsibility to provide a voice and a platform for artists and for our community. We also have a responsibility to continue to innovate, to provide opportunities for students of all ages to experience unique performances. We have a responsibility to listen to our community and to be flexible to what’s important and relevant now. And more broadly, we are part of the continuing growth of culture and creativity here in the UAE.

magpie: How would you say you “listen to the community” – are there formal mechanisms for that? Do you have to do a lot of ongoing self-education? Do you spend a lot of time on your own research, going to performances elsewhere for instance?

LB: Yes, it’s a bit of all of those things. We lead formal focus groups with spaces for deep listening. We have monthly convening with others focused on education as well as arts leaders across the UAE. We listen to feedback from students, from audience members across social media. In pre-pandemic times we often created a post-show majlis hang with dates and tea and conversation.

From a research side, I’m involved in seeing other work, visiting (live or virtual) other arts centres, taking part in conference sessions to learn about the future of the field – all obligations that I take seriously. Last spring I guest-edited an issue of Electra Street, a journal published here at NYUAD, on the role of art as research. That is also relevant to The Arts Center’s approach to creative work as a mean of knowledge production. [Ed: Linsey’s introduction to the publication includes some telling points about “the reciprocal relationship between ‘art’ and ‘research’ – well worth reading.]

We are well aware of the possibilities and the responsibilities here – we’re focused on how our work can resonate within the creative ecosystem here in the UAE as well as how we can contribute to its expansion.

magpie: Do you take a view about where the cultural ecosystem should be going in the UAE? Is contributing to expansion simply a latter of putting on as rich and diverse a programme as you can? Or do you seek to promote specific types of culture that might not otherwise be seen here?

LB: Well, some of this is also encouraging the spontaneous creation of work that lives outside of art centres, work that is underground and bubbles up into the ecosystem.

And as for curating content in terms of cultural sensitivities here – yes, it’s a slippery line, but one that can be navigated with grace and creative expression.

At The Arts Center we have been thrilled to provide opportunities and an expansive platform for local artists to grow and further their work. In the wider context, we communicate with others to build the UAE’s cultural environment. So at the beginning of the pandemic, a few of us at The Arts Center and the NYUAD Art Gallery started a virtual gathering with arts programmers across the UAE to discuss important issues around virtual programming, policy shifts, supporting artists and communications systems. These meetings have continued and become an important method to help understand and evolve the ecosystem during this time.

magpie: What does the role of Director of Artistic Planning involve?

LB: It’s pretty broad: I sometimes feel like the octopus of the team, fostering innovation and holding all elements of the evolving programme so that everything micro to macro can move forward and develop. Basically, I am embedded in all aspects of The Arts Center’s programmes and how we can push them forward.

Once we are in the process of confirming an artist, my role is to map their needs on to The Arts Center’s structure and to help the artist to think through how their work could make the biggest impact here.

I sometimes feel like the octopus of the team…

So when we’re planning each artist residency, our team works directly with partners both on campus and elsewhere to craft opportunities for impact. That might mean masterclasses or workshops; or it could mean an artist guesting for a course on ‘What leaders do’.

Beyond programme-specific work, the role also involves developing and crafting initiatives that utilise The Arts Center’s scope more globally. For example last year I worked directly with Khawla Barley of the Special Olympics UAE to develop the first sensory-friendly performance series in the country; it was targeted at those on the autism spectrum or with sensory sensitivities and aimed to give them the opportunity to experience performance in a judgement free environment.

magpie: How proactive can you be? Presumably the Arts Center doesn’t have the budget to initiate many new performances or events from the ground up, though I guess the co-commissions might fall into that category. How many commissions can you initiate yourself? Or are you approached to contribute to something that’s already about to happen, without your direct involvement in the content?

LB: While we are primarily structured as a presenting (not producing) centre, the co-commissioned projects and our Off The Stage programmes are often developed from the ground up. We get creative how we can budget for these and what resources we can stretch and grow. Finding partners across the city and country to match our enthusiasm is key to the success of the programme and the participation.

magpie: How is the programming actually done?

LB: The whole team is integral to the programming and planning of our season. The process normally begins with Bill Bragin and myself researching artists that we might consider: how will their work will resonate in our community? Are they a good fit? Are they available?

From there our small but mighty team – 23 fulltime staff, nine on the management side, 14 on the technical team – discusses the programme from their specific perspectives (technical, marketing, administration) to ensure we all feel that we can present the artists.

The process, especially during the pandemic, is a constant state of flux – planning, unplanning, changing, evolving. Normally we plan six to 18 months ahead, often down to the minute. We approach it this way so that we can build in not only rehearsals and performances, but our broad range of outreach and community engagement that we call our Off the Stage programme. These essential parts of our programme often involve off site visits, workshops, class engagement and conversations.

The process is a constant state of flux – planning, unplanning, changing, evolving…

From there we communicate back and forth with the artists and/or their producer to translate their performance within the scope of our Arts Center and community.

magpie: On the occasion of International Women’s Day, how does the Arts Center approach female focused programming? Is this a particular remit for you personally and/or for The Arts Center more broadly? And to play Devil’s Advocate, how do you react to the suggestion that your programming should emphasise overall quality rather than gender?

LB: It’s an important question. At base, all of us at The Arts Center are focused on representing all the communities that make up NYUAD and the UAE generally. This includes female-led projects – along with other diverse voices and communities. An inspiring and highly creative performance is always the leading factor in the works that we bring to The Arts Center and it is our responsibility and mission to find these distinct voices and provide a platform for them to be shared and amplified.

A brief history of The Arts Center …

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