One Year Later: CEC Artslink

Above, an Audio Postcard about the starting conditions for the project. 

CEC Artslink was founded to promote cultural exchange in order to shed the mantle of misunderstanding left over from the Cold War Era.  Now, 40 years later, they themselves are working to shed the mantle of their previous branding, which focused exclusively on exchange with Post-Soviet countries, to open up the public’s understanding of the organization as one that engages a full range of international artists.

Last year they launched “One Big City,” a program that facilitates collaboration around common issues between New York City and international artists and local immigrant communities, to help shift the organization even further, from an international broker to an active producer here in NYC. When I spoke with Fritzie Brown, the Executive Director of CEC Artslink, last year she described “One Big City” as still “floating in a cloud of conceptual possibility.”

A year later the program has paired two groups of artists, presented two-week exhibition and a sold-out performance and encouraged CEC Artslink to work to recreate their success with their upcoming programs.

The Innovation

With support from the Rockefeller NYC Cultural Innovation Fund, the One Big City’s goals are to bring greater knowledge of CEC Artslink’s work abroad to NYC audiences, raise awareness of the art being produced by immigrant communities, and draw audiences to performances from outside of normal “art” audiences. CEC Artslink is working with partner organizations in each borough to pair artists from Eastern Europe with a local NYC artist from an immigrant background to work together for three weeks to create and present a new, collaborative project.

Progress to Date

This summer CEC Artslink facilitated the first two pairings of artists, who presented two well attended events. At Museum of the Moving Image in Queens Manhattan-based artist Daniel Gallegos and St. Petersburg-based filmmaker Mikhail Zheleznikov presented a exhibition that was well received by the Russian-speaking community members. (Check out the project blog here.) At the Kitchen Brooklyn-based poet and singer Abena Koomson and Croatian filmmaker Kristina Leko performed along with members of the Croatian community. (Check out the project blog with participant reflections here.)

These community partners, along with BRIC Arts Media in Brooklyn and the Point CDC in the Bronx, worked with CEC Artslink to nominate artists to participate and review applications and suggest artist pairings through a panel process. “It was almost magical on how these pairs fit together. Everyone was very engaged and keen to see what would evolve from these pairings,” said Brown.

Brown and Program Director Tamlyn Miller saw immediate tangible results from the project’s success including:

  • Increased awareness of CEC Artslink on the Web: They found they got web and social media traffic increased around the time of the performances. They are now searching for ways to sustain such engagement with audiences online
  • Increased attendance of immigrant audiences at partner venues: From audiences surveys they found that the majority of audiences at the events considered themselves part of an immigrant community and that it was their first time visiting the venue
One participant, artist Karma Mayet Johnson, said of the event:
“I was reminded that the perspectives of African American artists on the history of migrations (forced and voluntary) to this hemisphere are a crucial ingredient to any discussion of what it means to become American.
I ate lots of cake and cookies. And met a number of amazing artists. And feel renewed in the clarity and number of purposes served by historically based art: making metaphor to document the unspeakable, making documentary work to detail the unbelievable… Thank you Cezjna project.”

Key Lessons

CEC Artslink knew they would learn much from the initial collaborations and “left room in the program to grow and change everything around midway if we needed to,” said Brown. The programs overall were a success that they will look to replicate, but they had to navigate several challenges to achieve it, including:

  • Defining partner relationships: They had to decide when to step in to facilitate the collaboration and when step back. “It was a natural progression for each project, as it moved towards the event it was more in the hands of the venue,” explained Brown
  • Communicating and managing the short timeline with artists: They found it was difficult to emphasize to the artists that three weeks was an intense, and challenging, time frame under which to work. As Abena Koomson remarked, “On the one hand, it kept the show spontaneous and raw, on the other, it would have been nice to have another week to polish the performance.”

Next Steps

For the next round of applications Brown and Miller will emphasize the short timeframe. For its upcoming collaborations, CEC is looking to replicate their success, while understanding the bar is set very high.

Through careful planning and relationship management with partnering organizations, artists and many communities CEC Artslink has laid the groundwork to runaway success. “I was so impressed by the level of artists that came to the project and the ties they were able to weave between themselves and their histories. It way surpassed my expectations and was really heartening,” said Brown.

Interview conducted by Karina Mangu-Ward.  Post written by Eleanor Whitney with Karina Mangu-Ward.  

Eleanor Whitney is a writer, educator, arts administrator and musician raised in Maine and living in Brooklyn, New York. Currently, she is the Program Officer for External Affairs and Fiscal Sponsorship at the New York Foundation for the Arts. Karina Mangu-Ward is the Director of Innovation at EmcArts.