2011-10-26 / Features

Panel Explores Ways To Make Queens Arts Visible

By Thomas Cogan

The Queens Arts Institutions breakfast on October19, sponsored by the Long Island City Partnership and held at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, began as Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer told the gathering that there is a striking difference between the Astoria of today and the late 1970s. In those days, he said, he and his sister could ride their bicycles through quiet streets, past buildings where the Army Signal Corps used to make training films. Anyone else familiar with that period and today could understand the contrast simply by looking at the huge production trailers now parked on 36th Street between 34th and 35th Avenues beside the old filmmaking facilities that have become Kaufman Astoria Studios and the MMI across the street. Where once there was a neighborhood bypassed by history, now there’s a place for partial production of what MMI Executive Director Carl Goodman called “a huge Hollywood film we’re not allowed to talk about” and a museum that celebrates the moviemaking art.

Van Bramer, a member of the City Council cultural affairs committee, said the committee’s funding has not been reduced from last year’s amount. He said that culture and arts are “driving the renaissance” in Astoria, and seem to be gaining ground in other parts of the borough.

Following Van Bramer’s appearance, a four-member panel took the stage at the MMI theater, with LICP Senior Vice President Dan Miner moderating the proceedings. The first panelist, Amy Hau, administrative director of the Isamu Noguchi Museum on Vernon Boulevard in Astoria, led off the commentary by parrying a question from Miner about fundraising to talk about the museum she administers. It was opened by Noguchi in 1985, about two decades after he had established his studio in Astoria and three years before his death. Hau has been with the museum from the start. She said it is currently in a collaborative exhibit with Socrates Sculpture Park, across the street. The second panelist, Tom Finkelpearl, executive director of the Queens Museum in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, said the biggest current event there is the expansion program that has hollowed out the back end of the building, preparatory to redesigning it in the next several years. The biggest problem is the effort to get noticed. He said an assistant commented that a quarter-million automobiles on the Grand Central Parkway pass the front side of the building daily but most of the drivers fail to realize it is the Queens Museum. A current publicity program in conjunction with the Queens Borough Public Library is trying to make the museum more recognizable by striving to reach a multi-ethnic population through four informational talks in the libraries and four in the museum. The third panelist was Peter Katz, chief operating officer of MoMA P.S. 1. He said his museum has changed greatly since the merger with the Museum of Modern Art, and that being part of MoMA is a great asset; but P.S. 1 is still its own place in Queens, where he believes it and other Queens cultural institutions should work together more.

 Goodman, the last panelist, said it would be ideal if visitors could be drawn to the neighborhood for the museum, of course, but also for other places—restaurants and stores, say. At the museum, they cater to big audiences and segmented ones, for instance putting on a festival of wide-screen movies for a wide audience and one of Greek movies targeting a specific ethnic group. He mentioned current collaboration with Kaufman Astoria Studios regarding the Hollywood movie being made there that he couldn’t talk about. He suggested that the city might have to permanently close the street where the gigantic vans sit, and that, he concluded, would be a good thing. He also spoke of “turning connections into relationships” so that local businesses might rent a museum for meetings and a greater volume of local sponsorship might alleviate reliance on big sponsors. That way, it’s “not just Sony and Bloomberg”, he said.

In Queens, “Museum Mile” might have a new and negative meaning. As Hau pointed out, one mile is about the distance from Noguchi to P.S. 1, but the difficulty in  accessing one museum from the other is vexing. Goodman said a solution could be found in one word:  “monorail”, though even that visionary expedient would apply only to the Astoria-Long Island City area. Humbler ones, buses and bike shares, are either unsuccessful or untried thus far, though all the panelists wished them well. Finkelpearl, situated several miles from Long Island City, said that one odd instance of success has come by way of buses that regularly pull up to the Queens Museum full of tourists from Spain, providing it with one of its most reliable audiences.

The panelists also agreed that better publicity strategies are needed. They hailed the fixed publicity provided by the Silvercup, Pepsi-Cola and Long Island signs on the East River, but the owner of one of them, Stuart Suna of Silvercup Studios, speaking from the audience, said that a constant publicity storm is needed to drive audiences to the institutions. Get out brochures publicizing every institution, he said, and leave them in private and public places, in restaurants and libraries and banks. Such brochures are fundable, he said. A woman in the audience brought up social media, saying that Tweets from appreciative patrons are bound to be helpful. Finkelpearl said that the Queens Museum has “one of the top 20 Twitter feeds in the world” so social media are making progress. Another woman spoke of mobile phone apps and Finkelpearl said that a general app is no great thing, while a constantly changing one, though certainly better, is currently expensive to maintain. He expressed hopes that such a price can be gradually driven down by competition.

The last person speaking from the audience was Marc Crawford Leavitt, a Sunnyside attorney who drew applause when he entreated institutions to be more receptive to local, non-institutional artists. As for publicity, he deplored as scandalous the utter lack of it at Kennedy Airport, a place evidently dedicated to shuttling traffic to Manhattan through the terra incognita that some call Queens. How much better it would be, he said, if there were banners at the airport and along the highways, proclaiming Queens as internationally sophisticated and essential to the life of the city. Queens--international, essential:  call it “Quintessential”, he said.

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