Bill Bragin is the Executive Artistic Director of The Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi. He talks to FACT about the burgeoning arts and culture scene in Abu Dhabi and what we can expect from the upcoming season at The Arts Center.

In many arts organizations, there will be an Artistic Director, responsible for setting the programmatic vision of the organization and serving as its public face, and an Executive Director, who oversees the staff management, finances, and so on. In my case, this is a combined role, which encompasses curating the artists, setting the priorities for academic and community based collaborations, overseeing the budget, and leading the staff. 

I’m blessed that we have a very strong, close-knit team, and I believe in a very non-hierarchical, collaborative approach. So this means the job involves lots of meetings - formerly in person, and now on zoom! And in more normal times, it means that I’m regularly attending performances, conferences, and festivals, watching lots of videos, and consulting with other artistic directors, as well as meeting with artists, agents and managers, to discover new works that are appropriate for The Arts Center. I’m also working closely with colleagues on the NYUAD faculty as well as student life, as well as colleagues at other arts organizations in the UAE, to make sure our programming is relevant to our particular needs and context.

What was your career trajectory to becoming the Executive Artistic Director of The Arts Center at New York University Abu Dhabi and have you always had a keen interest in the arts?

I’m the son of a trumpet player/music teacher and an amateur pianist, and the arts have always been a big part of my life. It started with making my friends listen to my favourite records when I was in middle school. I then joined the concert series and campus radio station when I was at Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges and my career path was set. I worked on all kinds of music and culturally specific festivals, ran Central Park Summer Stage, Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater, and most immediately before coming to NYU Abu Dhabi, was the director of public programming at Lincoln Center in New York. What links all of these is a belief in the importance of sharing adventurous programming from a broad range of cultural backgrounds and disciplines as a way to inspire, entertain, open minds, and build community. Coming to Abu Dhabi offered a great opportunity to extend these activities.

Please tell us about the upcoming season at The Arts Center at NYUAD?
Amidst uncertainty and change, The Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi has sought to make one thing constant – making the arts even more accessible. As “a bridge” from the arts to the community, reimagining how events work when not presented in-person allows The Arts Center to bring audiences, artists and the UAE arts community closer together. The sixth season of The Arts Center is going to be the best one yet, unlike any other.

We have been inspired creatively by what people might see as a constraint - the difficulties gathering audiences together to experience artistry from around the world. So technology will also be our bridge. We will present large-scale online celebrations like turntablist Kid Koala’s two-part Robot House Party, and intimate microtheater events like Tania elKhoury’s As Far As My Isolation Goes (Online) and 600 Highwaymen’s A Thousand Ways Part 1. And we’ll continue to provide a platform for the vibrant local arts scene through Rooftop Rhythms and our UAE National Day celebration, Hekayah | The Story.

How do you feel that The Arts Center’s has impacted the arts and culture scene in Abu Dhabi and the UAE over the past five years?

I am really proud to have been part of the growth of the arts and cultural sector. We’ve tried to introduce ambitious world-class artists and adventurous forms to the UAE as a means to spark local creativity. And what we’re seeing now is that increasingly, individuals who were in our audiences are coming to us with proposals for bold new work that takes this inspiration and applies it to more local stories. We hope that we’ve opened up a sense of possibility for what is possible through the arts, and for the kinds of conversations that art can inspire.

We also have a big emphasis on training local artists - both to develop their creative and technical skills through workshops and master classes, as well as learning about the professional aspects of being a working artist through our career development arts chats. We’re especially excited that some local artists, like filmmaker Philip Rachid aka Soultrotter, who attended a filmmaking workshop with live documentary maker Sam Green, has been commissioned by The Arts Center to create a new piece about the UAE’s underground Bboy and Bgirl scene, and that both he and Sam are both commissioned artists in residence this season. It’s amazing to have these artists in dialogue.

Almost as soon as The Arts Center opened, we started hearing from audience members that what we did gave them a sense of home. More recently, as people spent weeks and months at home, we found that our online programming, through initiatives like the Reconnect series, also gave people a sense of connection with the world and with one another.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your programming for this upcoming sixth season? How have you had to adapt and what changes can guests expect going forward?

For the fall, we had to make a decision to create a completely online, distanced season, which meant that we worked closely with artists to find new ways to create and share their work. At the centre, it was important that this wasn’t perceived as “second best”. In fact, we are working with many of the same world class artists who have been previously on our physical stages, with the same goals - to open hearts and minds to new ideas, spark conversation, and build a sense of connectedness. We learned that when you remove the constraint of gathering together in person, we can actually reach an even wider global audience, and share all that Abu Dhabi has to offer. We’ve also continued to build partnerships with other presenters across the globe, from Singapore to Cairo to London to Los Angeles.

The Arts Center at NYUAD is ideally situated on Saadiyat Island, close to The Louvre Abu Dhabi, Manarat Al Saadiyat and the forthcoming Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and Zayed National Museum. Can you please tell us your thoughts on the burgeoning arts and culture scene in Abu Dhabi?

Quite personally, being a part of the cultural movement growing on Saadiyat was a main attraction for me to come. It’s a rare privilege to be able to work with the support of the highest levels of a nation’s government to prioritise the growth of an artistic sector. What I always say is that the cultural scene here is very porous and welcoming. Most of us know one another, and new arrivals are welcomed with open arms and introduced around in the spirit of Emirati hospitality. And we’re working across traditional lines - performing arts, visual arts and cinema people are all talking to one another regularly, attending each others’ events. I’m fascinated to see what might come as these roles are blended, and a uniquely transnational, transdisciplinary UAE voice continues to be defined.

You are also a co-founding co-director of the not-for-profit world music festival and service organisation globalFEST. Can you please tell us a little bit more about these organizations?

globalFEST was founded in NY in the wake of 9-11 as borders were closing, to help move global artists from the margins to the center of the performing arts field. My co-directors and I share a belief that by showcasing diverse artists from a variety of backgrounds and styles to other curators as well as the general public, you can catalyze more performances by more kinds of artists, contribute to empathetic cross-cultural dialogue, and more than anything, create an inspiring and celebratory nights of music. We’ve helped launch vital touring careers, provided opportunities for professional development and training through our Wavelengths convenings, and helped underwrite tours with the globalFEST Touring Fund.

You were called “one of the most influential figures in the New York live-music business” by The New York Times. How do you react to such a comment?

Mostly, you just blush and say thank you.” The ingrate in me thinks “but what about dance and theater and spoken word?” LOL. Certainly, it makes my parents proud to see their son in that prestigious paper. And it’s gratifying to know that all the tireless hours spent to support artists and build community through performance has been recognized. ✤

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