What’s an arts centre for? Well, there’s always a need to introduce the audience to new experiences and to show them connections that they might have missed, and maybe that testing of boundaries is a key role for them.
And specifically for on-campus performing arts centres, there’s an academic purpose too: as Bill Bragin put it back in 2015, “as an integral part of NYU Abu Dhabi, The Arts Center [which he opened in that year] will draw on the resources of the University to be a dynamic place for research, investigation, and the active pursuit of knowledge and wisdom”.
But equally important, those arts centres always have the opportunity for a broader mission – to serve the wider local community, to be a bridge between what sometimes looks like two separate worlds and to demonstrate that they can draw from each other.
If your experience of The Arts Center at NYUAD is the public schedule of performances, you might be surprised to learn how much is going on behind the scenes. We had an entertaining chat with Linsey Bostwick, Director of Artistic Planning at The Arts Center (right), on the subject.
It’s a job which gives her a central role in the The Arts Center’s community programming, a busy portfolio which comes under the umbrella title Off The Stage (it’s now sponsored by Mubadala, and so is formally called ‘Off The Stage presented by Mubadala’). Most of the artists who perform at The Arts Center also take part in talks, workshops, masterclasses and other Off The Stage events while they’re in town, and those welcome members of the UAE community as well as students.
Linsey says the artists’ contracts used to be pretty vague about this – “we used to say ‘could you maybe do three or four engagement or outreach events while you’re here’. But not all artists want to engage, or they weren’t clear about what they could do, or maybe they didn’t realise how important it was to us.
“So over the last few years we have become really specific in our planning. Before we even offer a contract to an artist we’d be thinking creatively about what the connections could be, what they could do beyond their performance that would provide a connection in our community.”
“For example, if we have a noted contemporary dance company here, let’s give those dancers an opportunity not only to teach masterclasses but maybe a chance to introducing their art in a way that is accessible to everyone – not just to dance enthusiasts.
“When Camille Brown came here a couple of years ago, she wanted to have a social dance workshop with no limit on capacity or age. So on stage we had around 50 people, from children as young as seven years old up to some in their 50s. It was an inclusive moment – and then all those people came to her show later.
More than performance
The Arts Center will host around a hundred performances in a typical year, and nearly as many public events given by the performers. The next one up (22 November) is an Arts Chat, an online discussion on Building a Life as an Artist in the UAE with spoken word poet and writer Rami AbuAmmuna, visual artist Shaikha Al Mazrou, singer/songwriter lama, and the poet and performer Farah Chamma (who features with AnuAmmuna among the performers in the upcoming 50th Anniversary Jubilee edition of Hekayah | The Story).
The open-ended discussion about being an artist in the Emirates is the second in what’s expected to be an ongoing series. It’s presented in partnership with two other NYUAD bodies, the Art Gallery and the Career Development Center, which illustrates how the university’s institutions can work together on a broader mission.
The Arts Chat is followed by another regular series, a Creators Workshop with performers exploring their craft and their art. Says Linsey: “Mahmoud Kaabour and Denise Holloway are presenting an ‘alternative storytelling’ session on how to present documentary research as spoken word; it’s an update of their work documented the fading gems of Dubai’s Al Satwa neighbourhood before its imminent gentrification, to be presented as a spoken word performance with live music and film. So our immediate questions were, how can the filmmaker work with our senior film students? What about Mahmoud Kaabour as a storyteller – how could we engage younger students off campus to maybe see how they could tell stories in public?
Linsey says it’s about finding points of engagement. “You go to see a show: it might have real impact and inspire you for the rest of your life. But say you’ve also met the artist, and you’ve been to a workshop that they taught, or you’ve taken part in a Q&A, or they visited your classroom – and then you see the show. That magnifies the opportunity for impact.”
How about the language issue, given that most of the artists don’t speak Arabic? Well, it seems the use of English can sometimes be a plus. Says Linsey: “One of our most successful collaboration within the school district is probably through the Creative Arts Academy, a Ministry of Education initiative that works with government schools across the country where students have identified an interest in the arts. Now, even though these students are native Arabic speakers, most of their arts-related teaching is in English.
“It’s really important to provide opportunities for both languages, though. We did a workshop last year with Ghazi Faisal Al-Mulaifi of Boom.Diwan on rhythms in the music of the Arabian Sea. He actually did two back to back, one in English and one in Arabic. It was really interesting for the bilingual speakers to see how the workshops differed in terms of nuance; and an artist who didn’t speak English was able to contribute more without having to be wait for translation.”
For engagement with visiting artists that directly feeds into NYUAD students’ course work, The Arts Center team shares its plans with relevant NYUAD department heads several times during the year.
Kaki King is an impressive example. “She actually had lots of exciting ideas about unique ways to connect. I worked with professors to think about how they might incorporate those ideas, and when she visited us eight months before the actual premiere and met with faculty and student groups to assess points of engagement.”
One was in a class with NYUAD Digital Humanities professor David Wrisley. King’s ideas dovetailed around some of his key academic interests about the way people are defined in the modern era by data, from Facebook to Fitbits, and they hit it off so well that he designed a whole new semester-long course called the Quantified Self where students created data sets based on her ideas and then we had music students interpret those from a musical perspective. When Kaki King was here, she gave them a crit session based on that collaboration, which in turn was based on the conversations we’d had that threaded through more than a year.”
The Kaki King collaborations are exactly what Linsey regards as “deep impact”, and it’s especially valuable when it produces something unexpected. “Like talking to an economics class about leadership: you can develop ideas on arts leadership and soft-power economics. Or in a law class you might use the idea of storytelling as a tool to communicate basic rights and freedoms.”
Sometimes it’s not possible to plan so far out when collaborating with local schools, though they can indicate what their students might want and what kind of engagement would be most exciting.
The Arts Center’s schools programme involves performances, talks and workshops specifically for them. Linsey’s team has been developing supporting resources, such as study guides about visiting artists to send out in advance to schools, or colouring sheets for primary schools that help to explain visual ideas.
A few years ago The Arts Center started an annual presentation for teachers to outline ideas and seek feedback; and that’s where The Arts Center’s youth focused career chats programme came from. “We were hearing from theatre teachers that it would be really helpful for students to know that there are careers in lighting designer, or stage management, or curation.” So they created a series of interviews with key Arts Center staff (moderated by NYUAD students) with audience questions to follow; it delivers an impressively sound overview of different jobs in the arts, from programming and producing to marketing and admin via technical and backstage work, with personal accounts and the perspective that comes from diverse pre-NYUAD experience. And as it happens they all come across as enthusiastic about their roles and the opportunities they have – these are people you’d want to work with.
All these conversations can be found on The Arts Center’s YouTube page (along with an archive of live performances) which means they’re accessible to students beyond the immediate Abu Dhabi catchment area. These online projects were started during lockdown but will continue after in-person communication is restored.
Another interesting initiative for school students is Rooftop Jr. This is a spin-off from Rooftop Rhythms, the long-running open mic poetry/spoken word event hosted by The Arts Center; classroom tutorials were produced for middle and high school students by Rooftop’s main man Dorian Paul D, and those interested took part in a virtual workshop at the end of October. “It was a small group,” says Linsey, “so we had to rethink the format, remove the performance framework and make it a performative workshop. That way all participants go through the exercises together.”
It was a successful event, says Linsey. “By the end of the hour they were all cheering each other on. This group will be the high school ambassadors for the project and will help to make it grow for the next Rooftop Jr – which we hope will be in the Spring, and in person.”
So does the Off the Stage programme work? How does The Arts Center measure success?
“In a Kaki King matinee we had more than a hundred Emirati high school girls, nearly all of whom had never been to a live show before. They were watching, they were engaged. That was huge on many levels.
“But sometimes only five students might show up to a show. Does that make it less valuable? How should we measure impact? Is it just from the numbers, or should it be the level of impact? A person’s life may have been changed a little by something they see here: how do we quantify that?
“I try to be open to that. When only one school shows up, let’s focus on that one. That’s challenging as a producer but it hasn’t stopped us trying different formats.
“And from thinking about what ‘success’ means.”
The Rooftop Rhythms junior and youth career chat are part of the youth engagement program supported by the US mission to the UAE.