Chapter Fifteen: Being a Good Neighbor: Queens Museum of Art’s Experiments in Community Engagement

Prerana Reddy, with Tom Finkelpearl and Naila Rosario

Opening the Doors, Listening to Needs

 

The Queens Museum of Art's community, the Borough of Queens in New York City, is one of the most diverse places in the country, and the world, in terms of the number of languages spoken and nations from which residents hail. However, though various ethnic groups may live in the same neighborhoods, Queens is not quite the proverbial “melting pot.” Rather it is divided among the paradigm of old and new Queens. Old Queens is the community characterized or caricatured in situation comedies like "All in the Family" and "The King of Queens"; it is a community of working and middle class–black and white–families and accounts for approximately 30% of the residents in the neighborhoods nearest to the museum: Flushing, Corona, Elmhurst and Jackson Heights. New Queens accounts for 7 out of 10 residents in the Museum’s tri-neighborhood community and includes mostly South and East Asian and Latino immigrants from countries such as India and Pakistan, South Korea, Taiwan, and China, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Ecuador and Mexico.1 There has been a wide range of social and economic integration amongst these groups, often dependent on their educational attainment and profession in their home country, as well as immigration status upon arrival here.

 

Just as individual families make a gradual transition to life here, institutions reflect a time lag. So it is not unusual to see a Polish monument in a Caribbean community–vestigial manifestation of the community’s sense of allegiance to its roots. Just so in civic associations. We have traveled through Queens and visited community boards (the most local and grassroots element of New York City government) and found that the staff and many of the Boards themselves reflect of the make-up of the community one or two generations ago. These are not bad people. In fact, Board members are generously volunteering their time to for the betterment of the neighborhood. But there is often a divide between the boards and the newcomers circulating outside their doors in terms of language, culture, religion, race and so on. New Queens has been creating its own groups–from community-specific associations like Mexicanos Unidos de Queens to issue-oriented groups like New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE).

 

When Tom Finkelpearl became director of QMA in the spring of 2002, the museum was firmly entrenched as an old Queens institution. It is illustrative that nobody on the administrative staff spoke Spanish fluently. The audience was generally much older and whiter than the surrounding community. So, the question at hand was how to embrace the energy and unique diversity of new Queens without abandoning old Queens. The founders of the museum were still on the Board of Trustees, and they were the same sort of civic- and community-minded people we saw on the Community Boards (though considerably more affluent and influential). The goal was to open the doors to the community without turning our back on the people who had created the museum. This was not simply out of gratitude, but because it seemed like a valuable idea for all involved –the hybrid new-and-old Queens institution that could ideally feel as comfortable to a Jewish family from Forest Hills as to a Taiwanese grandmother from Flushing or a Mexican teen from Corona.

 

The first two new employees hired under the new regime are emblematic of this approach. The first was Debra Wimpfheimer. She was born and bred in old Queens, but she had been working as a non-profit fundraiser in Boston for eight years. Though of a younger generation herself (she was around 30 at the time), she was an impeccable guide through the complexities of old Queens institutions, most particularly the halls of political power that she knew quite well. She also had enough distance from her roots in Queens that she could see clearly how the communities were changing, and it was her observations on old and new Queens that opened our eyes to a series of social dynamics that are still the basis of our vocabulary. As we were learning about our environment, the first shows put on the books reflected the arts and experiences of local immigrant communities such as: Nexus: Taiwain in Queens, QMA’s biennial of Queens-based artists entitled Queens International; Crossing the BLVD, Warren Lehrer and Judith Sloan’s multimedia project based on oral histories of new immigrants and refugees in Queens. Wendy Ewald’s traveling retrospective, Secret Games came to the museum and she created a new work with a group of Arabic students from a middle school in Jackson Heights. These projects were highly educational for the staff, but they did not differ in essence from the curatorial practice at the museum in previous years. Many shows had investigated cultural diversity.

 

The second new hire was long-time Queens resident and artist Jaishri Abichandani, herself an immigrant from India, to head a new Public Events department that would work to transform QMA into a nexus where old and new Queens would meet. Abichandani, a natural connector of communities, had recently honed her knowledge while working on the 2000 census in Queens. Under her tenure we hosted a wide range of activities–including South Asian events like the annual celebration, “Fatal Love” that remarkably combined Indian and Pakistani independence days into one, and the national Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, where caravans of immigrant rights advocates from nine cities converged on Flushing Meadows Corona Park in 2003. Simultaneously, the Museum began literally to open its doors by providing complimentary use of our space to numerous small non-profit community groups for their meetings, cultural celebrations, and fundraising events. Several nights a week our theater would be filled by Colombian, Ecuadorian, Korean, or Indian celebrations. Once a month we welcomed CINEMAROSA, a mostly Latino LGBT film organization. In so doing, QMA began to develop relationships with their members and leadership, allowing us to have frank conversations about their organizational challenges, which included lack of financial resources and space for their activities and greater visibility outside the communities they serve.

 

With multi-year funding from the Ford Foundation, QMA then launched its first long term initiative designed to bridge gaps between old and new Queens by initiating a Leadership Through the Arts (LTAP) program, which I was brought on board to coordinate. LTAP targeted young folks aged 16-23 that met every Saturday for a year. The reason we reached out to this age group was two fold: we knew new immigrant adults were working long hours and didn’t always have time to be involved in a year-long intensive program, and we would be able to access adults if we provided a service for their children. We also knew that a lot of immigrant youth are unable to pursue higher education as they need to contribute to family finances, and at the same time, they age out of most enrichment programs once they graduate high school. [Editor’s Note: QMA knew this because of its knowledge, based upon relationships in the community, of the community’s needs.]

 

Using the arts as a uniquely powerful communication device, the youth were equipped with the skills and tools needed to navigate American civic and educational power structures. The program combined an anti-oppression and political education curriculum developed by local activist groups with art-making workshops led by established artists and art educators to develop critical thinking skills. To these activities were added opportunities to coordinate concerts, performances, lectures, and workshops to be held at the Museum and at sites throughout the community. Each cohort of 25 young adults, who were paid a stipend to participate, addressed the tension points in their communities and interacted with community and political leaders, seniors, local businesses and entrepreneurs, and faith communities through exhibitions, photography, film and art projects.2 Finally they had funds with which to administer grants to community-based organizations, through a rigorous process guided by the North Star Fund. In the short term, the initiative sought to promote social integration through cross-cultural interaction amongst the participants. In the long term, it sought to create upwardly mobile engaged citizens of tomorrow trained to effect positive social change in Queens neighborhoods.

 

Focus on Corona

 

While Leadership Through the Arts produced many individual success stories in terms of youth development objectives and the museum’s ability to connect to families and neighborhoods and identify local tension points, it was difficult to realize community development goals with just this youth program model. Since the program did not target youth from any one neighborhood, it was difficult to focus on local situations that could be tackled over the long term–the geographic scope was too large to make a visible dent.

 

We realized that we needed to re-strategize to maximize our impact and focus our efforts on a single neighborhood adjacent to the museum. Equally as important, we needed hire a community organizer to be on the ground. While Jackson Heights and Flushing have emerged as thriving neighborhoods with strong identities, successful Business Improvement Districts, and services for immigrants, Corona, within which the museum resides, has encountered some challenges in its development. It is a “majority-minority neighborhood” with Latino immigrants, who comprise the largest part of the population, mixing with South and East Asian immigrants and the African American and white European homeowners who represent the heart of Corona’s recent past. Highways surround the area, and large thoroughfares like Roosevelt Avenue and Northern Boulevard cut through it creating isolated individuals and groups. Sections of Corona lack access to full public transportation service and, while some businesses are able to sustain themselves long-term, the residential immigrant populations tend to be transient. There tends to be a small-business orientation with a significant informal economy. In addition, many residents are undocumented or in mixed status families and live in fear of deportation, diminishing the likelihood of political and social engagement. Consequently, we felt that our efforts would make the most impact in Corona.3

 

In November of 2006 we hired Naila Rosario to play the important role of QMA’s community organizer, an unusual move for a fine arts museum. Rosario’s familiarity with elected officials and community groups in the area, long history of immigrant rights advocacy, and ability to speak Spanish (70% of Corona residents speak Spanish as their primary language) were all key in deepening the level of communication and trust between community members and the museum. The transformation of our project was quite dramatic, helping us listen more deeply to community voices. Language was not the only barrier that Rosario could cross. She could also translate socio-political and community back-stories. The local rivalries and coalitions became more apparent–almost the same role that Wimpfheimer had played in old Queens a couple of years earlier. This allowed us to begin to develop projects that connect to our core competencies as an arts institution yet still have clear development goals in mind. These included: improving cardiovascular health outcomes and healthcare access; cleaning up, beautifying, and programming Corona’s public spaces; marketing the businesses in the area, particularly the numerous ethnic eateries in the neighborhood, and generally bringing disparate segments of the community together to develop and achieve their goals. We put all these elements together under the rubric of the “Heart of Corona,” attempting to catalyze the transformation of Corona Plaza from simply a circulatory and commercial center into a site for neighborhood pride, cultural activity, and a space to access health and social services.

 

Historically, Corona had been an Italian immigrant stronghold with a long-standing and thriving business district in “Corona Heights”, complete with a bocce court, and numerous salumerias and Italian Ice stores. Beginning in the 1940s, Corona was also a haven for middle and upper-middle class African Americans who were shut out of the housing market in Manhattan. Local residents included Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, and Malcolm X. In the last twenty years, Corona has become home to the fastest-growing Latino community in New York City. At the center of Corona is a public space, a triangle known as “Corona Plaza.” Once the proud meeting center of the community, with a grand movie house, the plaza has now fallen into disrepair. While businesses surround the open space, it was seldom used for public events; it needed better maintenance, and lacked a clear sense of purpose or centrality to the community. Businesses come and go in Corona Plaza, while people stream through on foot, by car, and on the subway. QMA felt that the space could mean more and be more productive for the community, so along with Corona Community Action Network, an association of local businesses, we helped gather a broad coalition of Corona stakeholders to provide ongoing attention to the plaza. The initiative includes several projects, including Beautification and Clean-Up events, a Healthy Taste of Corona Cookbook, and a series of street celebrations and public art projects spearheaded by working groups that are collaborations among community-based organizations, health institutions, elected officials, and local businesses.4

 

For the next two years the initiative’s sustained programming aimed to beautify the space and populate it through a series of art projects entitled Corona Plaza: Center of Everywhere attracting local residents and cultural tourists alike. In 2007 and 2008, with additional funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), QMA commissioned four emerging artists each year to produce temporary site-specific art in Corona Plaza. Participating artists were asked to develop projects that would integrate with the specific conditions of the plaza and Corona, resulting in works that values audience participation, fun, generosity and community engagement. The community organizer played a key role in orienting the artist to the neighborhood, brokering partnerships and project locations, and facilitating public interaction. This process differed substantially from other public art initiatives in which artists are asked to find community partners. We already had a well-established coalition with scores of partners. [Emphasis added by Editor.] The artists were not assigned the difficult task of wading into unfamiliar territory but were given free rein to explore with the community organizer as an expert consultant. If they wanted to work in a beauty salon or Western Union, an introduction was made. Additionally, the museum hired a curator each year to manage the projects. An accompanying exhibition at the Museum described, documented, and centralized the public artworks on view and performed around the plaza. As part of the experience of the exhibition, visitors had access to a map that encouraged them to explore Corona’s diverse dining options, unique retail shops, historic sites, and recreational spaces.

 

During the project, QMA organized several street celebrations and bilingual tours so that community members could interact directly with the artists and in several cases participate in the production of an ongoing work. The street celebrations, which drew thousands of people, became a focal point for a number of the artists. The festivals themselves were organized by QMA in conjunction with more than 16 neighborhood partners, which included Elmhurst Hospital, the City’s MetroPlus Health Program, and the American Heart Association (AHA), with a mix of live entertainment, art-making opportunities, and health and social service provision. Local businesses donated refreshments for volunteers and performers, and performances featured a culturally diverse mix of local performers, along with more established touring artists. Established performers included Los Pleneros de la 21, a celebrated Puerto Rican bomba and plena ensemble; Latin Jazz impresario Pablo Mayor; and Curaçao-based vocalist Izaline Calister. These were interspersed with local Mexican, Colombian, Peruvian, and Ecuadorian folkloric dance troupes, spoken word artists, and singers. Each year through the fairs, over 1,200 people received health screenings, and over 600 attendees who were previously uninsured signed up for free or low-cost health insurance.

 

Another popular project that combined culture, health, and marketing of local business was our Healthy Taste of Corona Cookbook. The full-color, bi-lingual, 150-page cookbook features recipes for much of the tasty fare found in Corona with recipes contributed by more than 30 favorite local officials, community leaders and restaurateurs. Addressing the high rate of heart disease and diabetes in the local community, each recipe was analyzed by an Elmhurst Hospital nutritionist, and suggestions were made to make the dish healthier without losing the basic taste. The book showcases traditional foods from a variety of countries reflecting the diversity of cultures in the neighborhood. The process of creating the book involved a community photography and oral history project, creating a neighborhood portrait that residents could be proud to share with all New Yorkers. The print run was 7,500. All but a few archive copies of the cookbook (and accompanying flyer featuring discounts on heart-healthy menu items in participating restaurants) have been distributed free at local sites, at the museum, and through our health partners such as MetroHealth Plus. Aside from a W.W. Norton-published book on Robert Moses that accompanied a show at the museum, the cookbook is the most widely circulated publication that the museum has produced in the last decade–easily outstripping every art catalogue. The book has helped put Corona on the culinary map of New York while becoming a cornerstone in our local heart health educational campaign. According to Rosario, our partners were able to tailor the book to the needs of their organizations: some used it within their ESOL classes; others used it in their after school classes to teach kids how to make healthy substitutions to recipes; and another group asked members to pick recipes from the book and bring them for a potluck. The book proved to be a tool that others could use for their own purposes–a community-sourced initiative that made its way through numerous paths back into the community.

 

Institution-Wide Impacts

 

Our community engagement efforts in Corona allowed us to garner attention from new funders to widen our efforts. For example, the J.M. Kaplan Foundation chose the museum to participate in the NYC Immigrants & Parks collaborative and hire a Parks Outreach Fellow, Gabriel Roldós, who worked on such issues as addressing language and communication barriers to accessing parks facilities; navigating the special events, sports fields, and vending permitting process; and ensuring that culturally relevant programming takes place. Regardless of background, neighbors rely on parks for recreation, strengthening social ties, and improving physical and emotional well-being. QMA’s efforts in Corona’s local parks, including the flagship Flushing Meadows Corona Park where the Museum is located, as well as on a city-wide level through its participation in the Immigrants & Parks Collaborative, aims to ensure our city’s open spaces are democratic, are representative of neighbors’ wants and needs, and serve as relevant resources for all New Yorkers.

 

Furthermore, it was not just the Public Events department that was inspired to shift its focus toward working with the local community. With multi-year funding from the Altman Foundation and from IMLS, QMA’s Education Department embarked on an ambitious set of programs for New Queens to go with their well-established programs in primary school arts education and art therapy. This initiative called New New Yorkers Education Program centered on a long-term collaboration with the Queens Library system, an international model for immigrant programming. Again, dedicated individuals played a key role. The new Education Director, Lauren Schloss hired Sara Guerrero-Rippberger to manage the program which provides free bilingual multi-session workshops such as digital photography in Spanish or Web Design in Mandarin. Unlike traditional English literacy programs, New New Yorkers classes emphasize creative expression of complex, personal, aesthetic, and social ideas, rather than focus solely on practical situations. These communication skills help participants feel more confident in sharing their opinions and communicating with those outside their communities. Visual literacy skills learned through the classes also help participants engage more fully with exhibitions and cultural events at the QMA and other cultural institutions throughout the city. The program continues to be one of our most popular, with classes filling up almost immediately after they are announced. Alumni from the classes help decide on future classes offered and are currently developing a formal group to organize their own activities and programs to continue their educational journeys. In addition, the New New Yorkers Program has conducted surveys of museum attendees leading to the development of a Queens Museum Friends Committee comprised of ESOL learners whose voices had rarely been heard at the table because of language barriers. This group has specifically identified a need for enhanced life skills and language acquisition as key to their advancement. They also cited a sense of cultural isolation, saying they would welcome opportunities for social integration through work with other ethnicities on projects and to better understand their cultures. Plans are on the drawing board for even deeper collaborations with our Queens Library partners.

 

On the exhibitions side, our Curatorial Department was eager to build upon our successful track record of interactive, socially engaged art practice in Corona and to serve as a laboratory for the creation and presentation of socially collaborative art. They conceived of Launch Pad, an exhibition program exploring the novel use of our on- and off-site spaces to produce and present original, socially collaborative art projects. Launch Pad is built upon re-thinking the Museum as being more than an institution that collects and exhibits art objects, but also a location for interchange amongst museum staff, artists, and community members around particular socio-political phenomena. The Residency Program, supported by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Arts, offers two artists each year a six-month residency with an artists’ workspace, full access to Museum staff and resources along with a stipend.

 

One example of how Launch Pad residencies took advantage of QMA’s staff expertise in community engagement was the project of artist Damon Rich, co-founder of the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP) and an urban designer based in Newark, NJ. His Red Lines Housing Crisis Learning Center (2009) collected the history and material culture behind the current housing crisis, creating an experimental site for reflection and learning. A highlight of the exhibition was an intervention into the Museum’s famed architectural model of New York, the Panorama of the City of New York, where thousands of small plastic markers were placed on every block that experienced three or more foreclosed homes (based on 2008 data). Viewers were able to see instantly that the crisis was not evenly spread throughout the city, but concentrated on the very same neighborhoods that had been denied access to credit in past through discriminatory lending practices. QMA leveraged the depth of research and excitement around the Red Lines exhibition to reach out to organizations and individuals in the community who were already doing something about the housing crisis. We made special efforts to reach out to neighborhoods in Queens and Brooklyn where limited English proficiency and lack of economic literacy attracted predatory lenders. QMA’s Red Lines programming helped audiences understand the scope of the crisis as well as how to avoid being caught up in it.

 

QMA’s community organizer in 2009, Alexandra García (the successor to Rosario), had experience in housing activism that was a critical asset in being able to fully utilize the exhibition as a catalyst for education and organizing around the mortgage crisis. Her efforts were essential in slowly and patiently winning over those who were skeptical of how an art museum might help them do the job of fighting to improve their community. She oversaw arrangements for two bilingual off-site Town Halls, each involving nearly a dozen housing organizations, elected officials, neighborhood groups, and service providers in a public discussion about housing and foreclosure issues in the hard-hit neighborhoods of Jamaica and East Elmhurst, Queens. She also was able to lead the effort to identify, mail, email, and phone hundreds of New York City housing organizations with invitations to the “Red Lines Housing Advocates Thank You Party,” that expressed appreciation for the New Yorkers who devote their careers to improving housing in the City. This celebratory event featured a public discussion with Ken Jackson, a noted historian of urban disinvestment, and housing and fair lending advocates Sarah Ludwig of NEDAP (Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project), and Michelle O’Brian of the Housing Here and Now Coalition.

 

The Museum’s efforts also resulted in significant media exposure for how the mortgage crisis was not just a question of individual families losing their homes but also represented the “theft of wealth” from low- and middle-income people in African American and immigrant neighborhoods. The stunning visual display of the foreclosures on the Panorama, the “map of tragedy” created a unique visual draw that proved appealing to the New York Times and other papers. Perhaps the highlight was an in-depth story on PBS’s NewsHour that featured the exhibit, but then spread out through our community networks into Queens to meet individuals affected by the housing meltdown.

 

NewsHour used the exhibition as a visual backdrop for a story about the foreclosure crisis, followed by interviews on local conditions with representatives of CHANGER (Communities, Homeowners, and Neighbors Gaining Economic Rights). CHANGER also organized transportation and a customized exhibition tour for their constituents, followed by a workshop to plan a campaign for financial consumer protection. Furthermore, having a community organizer onboard helped us to build upon the collaborations even beyond the timeframe of the artist project itself. For example Neighborhood Housing Services of Northern Queens and Rebuilding Together NYC who participated in our town halls continued working with us, co-sponsoring the block rehabilitation event, My Block, My Home, that took place in June 2010 on 107th Street in Corona, in which over 100 volunteers rehabbed homes, cleaned the block, distributed free plants, and celebrated a mural project to commemorate the upcoming building of a visitors center for the Louis Armstrong House Museum.

 

Next Steps

 

While we have had some modest successes in our efforts, QMA has found that we can increase the effectiveness of our programs and remain responsive to shifting priorities by spending time listening to participants’ feedback, engaging in personal reflection, and being honest about our challenges. Our program development is an iterative process, one that we hope allows for innovation to come from a variety of voices and which respects the complexity of the neighborhood in which we hope to play a constructive role. For example, after two years worth of Corona Plaza: Center of Everywhere projects and several Launch Pad residencies, we took time to collect feedback from the community, collaborators, and artists. First, many of the projects deemed most successful both by community members and by the artists themselves were those by Spanish-speaking artists. Feedback also indicated that meaningful participation of the community in the projects would necessitate longer residencies. Some artists wanted access to a dedicated physical space within Corona. Based on our reflective dialogue, we went back to the drawing board to develop the next generation of projects in Corona: Taller Corona or Corona Studio, with support from the Rockefeller Foundation’s NYC Cultural Innovations Grant. Neither a traditional residency nor a commission, Corona Studio will collect a roster of eight proposals in which two to four artists will undertake a year-long project-based residency based in and engaging with community partners in Corona. Simultaneously, QMA is partnering with nearby Queens College to begin developing a Masters in Fine Art program in Social Practice that would reach beyond the traditional space of the studio and directly into the public arena and everyday life. Corona Studio artists’ projects would provide up-close examples of social practice in which students can experience and participate directly.

 

At the beginning of 2011, the first of these year-long artist projects began, in collaboration with the veteran public art organization Creative Time. Cuban artist Tania Bruguera, who primarily works in behavior art (arte de conducta), performance, video, and installation, will use Corona, Queens as the launch point for a multi-year, multi-site project “Immigrant Movement International.” Bruguera will live and work in the neighborhood with a base of operations in a 1500sf studio/event space on Roosevelt Avenue, just a few blocks from Corona Plaza. She has set up an interactive, relational art project that is simultaneously a year-long performance, a community center, and a consideration of the role and image of immigrants in the 21st century. With QMA’s current Community Organizer, Jose Serrano-McClain, she is connecting to local elected officials, immigrant services and advocacy organizations, immigrant law specialists, and leaders of various immigrant communities. As I write, her bustling storefront space is hosting ESOL classes with a “Know Your Rights” focus for members of New Immigrant Community Empowerment, workshops of the Corona Youth Music Ensemble–inspired by Venezuela’s “El Sistema” methodology, citizenship classes, regular one-on-one legal consultations, an ongoing conversation about the “usefulness” of art, and organizing monthly “Make a Movement Sundays” workshops and seminars.5

 

Conclusion

 

I have tried to provide some examples of the evolution of QMA’s experiments in arts-based community engagement over the course of more than 6 years. In that process, in no way have we put aside the commitment to our role as a fine arts collecting and exhibiting institution. Rather, we have attempted to apply the same sort of imagination, experimentation, and resources to community engagement that we do to the galleries. This article is not meant to provide other arts institutions with a roadmap to community engagement in their own locales. Rather, it is an interim report on some promising and creative approaches. Even after several years of development, many of these initiatives are just getting started. Ironically, while these programs were not conceived as audience development, one of the clearest successes is that the museum is now livelier, more active, and better attended than ever.

 

That being said, we do hope to catalyze interaction by sharing our experiments with others in the field. To that end, the online version of this book (available at www.artsengaged.com/bcna) includes three appendices to this article which share personal reflections written in May 2008 on the Museum’s community engagement projects in Corona from three different institutional perspectives: Tom Finkelpearl, the Museum’s Director; Naila Rosario, QMA’s Community Organizer from 2006-2009, and myself, the Director of the Public Events Department. I hope that these three perspectives will together provide a useful resource for other organizations considering working on community development issues in their neighborhoods and what challenges they are likely to face. Furthermore, the Museum has since developed a community engagement blog, a multi-vocal archive and social networking platform devoted to the role of arts and culture in community growth. We invite you to read, contribute, and participate in on-going discussions at http://community.queensmuseum.org. We are still straddling old and new Queens, seeing the two blur through a range of business deals, intermarriage, and social bonding. Our own institution is in flux, reinventing itself both socially and physically, trying to stay fluid in one of the quickest changing places in America.

Notes

1. Demographic Data used in this essay is based on information made available by the NYC Department of City Planning (http://www.nyc.gov/planning) based on 2000 Census Data in Queens Community Boards 3 & 4, as Corona straddles both. Special thanks are due to Arun Peter Lobo of the Population Division of the NYC Department Planning for helping the QMA to understand the demographic trends of Corona, and Queens more generally.

 

2. LTAP youth participants collaborated with several artists including Judith Sloan & Warren Lehrer, Pedro Lasch, and Chankika Svetvilas on the topic of immigration. Brief descriptions of these collaborations can be found on QMA’s Community Engagement Blog: http://community.queensmuseum.org/lang/en/blog/corona-plaza/working-with-artists-on-reframing-discourse-on-immigrants/

 

3. A detailed account of Corona’s history and demographic shifts, as well as a focused study on quality of life factors in an around the area of Corona Plaza, can be found in the final report made by students at Department of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College who undertook a 2-semester studio in Fall of 2003 and Spring of 2004, supervised by Professors Tom Angotti and Lynn McCormick. The report is available for download at http://maxweber.hunter.cuny.edu/urban/resources/Corona.pdf.

 

4. Many thanks are due to Miguel García, the visionary Program Officer then at the Ford Foundation, who believed that arts and cultural organizations could play a key role in community development and who established the Shifting Sands Initiative to support arts organizations throughout the United States in pushing themselves to achieve actual social change outcomes in their communities. Partners for Livable Communities, which administered this initiative were critical in sharing nation-wide best practices and up-to-date research, as well as for creating a network of like-minded institutions and individuals who continue to inspire and educate each other. Much patient encouragement and invigorating insight were also generously shared with us by several technical advisors provided by the Ford Foundation over the years who helped us in this difficult process of institutional change and cross-sector work, particularly Esther Robinson and Tom Borrup.

 

5. For up-to-date information on Tania Bruguera’s project Immigrant Movement International, please visit the website: http://www.immigrant-movement.us

 

Appendix 1: Personal Reflection of Tom Finkelpearl, Director of the Queens Museum of Art

 

Going into this project, I felt that the Queens Museum needed to have a stronger, more productive and more consistent presence outside our walls in our surrounding communities. Prior to 2004, we had engaged in various outreach and audience development efforts; however these initiatives were never intended to have an effect on the actual urban fabric of our environment. But the Leadership Through the Arts and Heart of Corona projects were meant from the beginning to be of a different nature than what we had ever done before–a merger of community development and art, so I suppose that it was inevitable that we needed to be ready to think critically and be flexible.

 

In the process of working through the potential of the project, we made two important mid-term adjustments. First, we focused our efforts more intensely on a single neighborhood, Corona, and a single site within that community, Corona Plaza. Second, we hired a community organizer, Naila Rosario, to be the person on the ground working in this site. The advice that I would convey to others who are interested in this sort of initiative would be: Focus your efforts very narrowly at first, then spread out, and secondly, make sure that the skill-sets of the key people involved in the initiative include actual on-the-street organizing. People in the arts have a great set of communicative tools at their disposal. But translating these tools into a community-based project that has a chance to make a lasting impact takes a different set of skills, which we found in Naila’s community organizing background.

 

A new way of thinking began to permeate the museum. Down the hall in the Education Department of the museum, we initiated a project in collaboration with the Queens public library system to work with immigrants in our communities. Next, we received funding to work on a two-year initiative to investigate the interaction/intersection of immigrants and parks, allowing us to hire an “Outreach Fellow” to work in Flushing Meadows Park. Both the library partnership and the parks initiative are true compliments to the Heart of Corona initiative, and I feel that the multi-year Ford funding gave us a track record that allowed us to receive two major grants from IMLS (for both the Heart of Corona and the library partnership), which allowed us to initiate New New Yorkers educational programming across our institutions. In addition, we received major grants from the Altman Foundation and the J.M. Kaplan Fund -- the Altman Foundation grant being for literacy through art and the J.M. Kaplan Fund being for immigrants and parks collaboration. Starting with the Ford funding, I feel that this new suite of outreach/activist programs has transformed the culture of the museum.

 

When I started six years ago at the museum, there was not a single staff member outside the security and maintenance departments who spoke Spanish fluently. This was an insane disconnection in New York City, but especially in Corona where Spanish is far and away the most common language after English–and approaching English as the first language. Now our staff speaks eight languages, and most staff dealing directly with the public are fluent or conversational in Spanish. (For many years we have had guards who speak Spanish. Now a quarter of our administrative counts Spanish as their first language). I have never been more convinced that it helps to have a staff that brings their own networks of knowledge and experience outside of those normally found amongst arts administrators and curators. Although every QMA staff member brings unique talents to the table, they might not be available to act locally and use grassroots experience. Naila’s experience with immigrant rights campaigns, work with local elected officials, and participation in door-to-door canvassing activities in Corona gave her the contacts, familiarity, and deep knowledge of Corona that allowed her to hit the ground running with this initiative. It is also important to note that key individuals in these initiatives hail from Colombia, Mexico, and Ecuador, so there is diversity in the staff. When we devised the Leadership Through the Arts project four years ago and talked about the possibilities of working at the intersection of community development, activism and the arts, I did not understand how profound the project would be for the museum.

 

Max Weber once said that enacting social change was like the slow boring of hard boards. I always liked this analogy both because it is somewhat nostalgic (in that people used to actually have to bore holes in boards on a routine basis) and because it talks about physical expenditure of energy spent working with people to make a difference. We have found that there is no substitute for interpersonal exchange and that building trust is hard work. But this seems to be the best way to do what we wish to do in collaboration with community members.

 

If we are boring holes slowly in hard wood, then time-span is as essential element. I tend to think that museums move at a very deliberate rate. We are always planning a year or two out in the future. However, community work makes museum work look like a snap. Years could pass with slow progress before the true symptoms of change began to show on the surface.

 

However, we can already point to some heartening trends that we can see across the board with our various community engagement projects. The first observation is that while the number of participants naturally levels off after the initial roll-out, as a program continues it is important to adopt refinements based on evaluation and become more focused on our partnerships and activities, deepening the level of interaction. The second observation is a transition occurs, moving the organization from top-down programming decisions to participant-originated change, with community members approaching us with suggestions for improvement and for means of addressing pressing needs.

 

Lastly, our achievements have also become a challenge. Because we have had such great success with our respective initiatives, we want to continue refining and offering programs but are hitting budgetary limitations due to the fact that the grants which fund these activities are non-renewable. While we are convinced of the quality and value of the programs and remain committed to continuing our community engagement activities on some level beyond the terms of any grant, we must also plan on sustainability measures so that we can continue to “bore holes” and see our combined efforts come to fruition in the coming years.

 

Appendix 2: Personal Reflection of Naila Rosario, Queens Museum of Art Community Organizer, 2006-2009

 

1. Let’s start by talking about your history with this initiative. How did you become involved, what was the extent of your engagement, and what interested you most about being part of this initiative?

I began working on this initiative in November 2006. What initially attracted me to this position was the idea of working with a museum on community development. I had previously worked with City Council member Hiram Monserrate and was a canvassing coordinator and political organizer for the Working Families Party, so working in a museum environment was a nice departure from being within a political framework. Working for the museum, I got to spend more time with community leaders addressing their day-to-day concerns and developing personal relationships than I had in my previous political work. Now my goal is to move beyond partisanship and towards cooperation and partnership. The most interesting part of this initiative is the way it brings together different stakeholders in the community. Unlike any other initiatives that I’ve worked on in the past, this one involves everyone from the single immigrant parent to the well-to-do business owner. I have come to realize both the challenges and the rewards of coalition building. The importance of inclusiveness as a value in organizing was the biggest lesson.

 

2. What did you initially expect to come out of this initiative, and how have those expectations changed over the years?

I had never worked with an arts organization before and knew very little about art. I really didn’t have any expectations in the beginning of this initiative; it was something completely new to me. I was initially apprehensive that the community would be suspicious of why an arts organization would be so involved in local community business, but the consistency and regular activities, as well as seeing some positive results helped change their minds. It helped that the museum offers so many programs and educational activities that are attractive to Corona residents and has numerous staff speaking different languages, so that they really felt the institution was for them and not just for trendy art crowds. Over the years not only have I learned more about the day-to-day dealings of an arts organization; I have also challenged myself as a community organizer to see how artists and artmaking can be a valuable tool in building neighborhood identity and getting disparate groups to work together.

 

3. How do you see the role of the Museum in terms of presenting public art and facilitating community-based change for neighborhoods like Corona? Is this very different from the role you envisioned at the start of the initiative, and if so, how?

When I first began working on this initiative I thought that the museum was going to focus only on art and culture programming and just bring that into the community. I didn’t think that we would address health and community beautification to the depth that we have. I think the museum has been truly innovative. We have been able to change the perception of the museum’s role in the community. The museum has been able to show that the commitment to community change goes beyond the walls of the museum.

 

Through the public art project we have been able to engage the community around the very definition of what art is. Many community members have had limited exposure to performance, installation, and conceptual art and initially expected the projects to include traditional painting and sculpture. This was often the first opportunity they had to work directly with respected contemporary artists for whom social interaction is a core element in their work. I think they not only enjoyed participating in the creation of the projects, but also through the process, learned to see Corona’s assets and problems in a new light. Many of the projects directly connected with Heart of Corona Initiative goals of public space activation, social integration, and production of neighborhood identity.

 

4. Are you ever more drawn toward one aspect of this initiative over the other–public art versus civic engagement, for instance–and if so, how do you ensure balance in your perspective?

As a first generation immigrant to this country, I have always been drawn towards civic engagement. As early as Junior High School I began to get involved in immigrant activism, I have worked with elected officials and community development organizations. Civic engagement has become second nature to me. Working at the museum has been a challenge at times because I, personally, have had to learn more about public art and my own views on art and its involvement in the community have had to change. Previously, I wasn’t aware of the impact that art can have on community development. For example, in the past I would walk past a community mural and just see a nice picture. Now I walk past that mural and see the different stakeholders in the community that came together to make it possible; for the first time I see the civic engagement and the public art in this mural. To ensure a balance in my perspective, I have to keep adjusting my own perception of both civic engagement and public art.

 

5. Whom do you see as the primary constituents of this initiative, and how have your conceptions of—and relationships with—those constituents evolved over time?

While all the residents of Corona are constituents of this initiative, I see the recent immigrant community of Corona as its primary constituents. The recent immigrants have been overlooked by leaders in the community and rarely have a say at the table when it comes to community change. Many of their organizations are overcrowded and under-funded. Working so closely with this community, I have been able to see that they are much more an asset than perceived. They are parents, business owners and budding community leaders that have many things to contribute. Over the course of this project I have been able to build a trust with this community; I hope to strengthen that trust as the initiative moves along.

 

6. What do you see as the greatest achievements of the initiative to date? What about your own personal strides?

This can encompass changes in personal philosophy, actual measurable outcomes among constituents and participating artists, perceptions of the Museum among community members, or anything else that you think is applicable.

 

The greatest achievement of this initiative is its diversity. We have been able to build a coalition that truly reflects Corona and we have been able engage issues on several levels; the partnership with Elmhurst and MetroPlus has insured the uninsured, the partnerships with the American Heart Association and The American Diabetes Association have created awareness about heart disease and diabetes; the partnership with The Queens Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and Corona Action Network have been able build trust between the community and business. In general, this initiative has reinforced my belief of strength in diversity.

 

7. Drawing on insights and experiences to date, what do you think you would do differently in launching the initiative today and/or reproducing its activities and successes elsewhere (e.g., Flushing Meadows Corona Park)?

The only thing that I would do differently is build stronger relationships with the religious organizations in the community. I think that if approached the right way they can be a great resource to any coalition. The religious institutions have been a catalyst for community change in the African-American community and I think that it can also work in the new immigrant community as well. Corona has many religious leaders that are underutilized.

 

8. What would you advise colleague institutions to consider before launching similar initiatives?

I really think that you can’t underestimate partnering with the right organizations and making a personal connection with community leaders. It can be easy to send an email or a letter but having that one-on-one meeting with someone in extremely valuable. I have found that when people see you in the community and get to know who you are and your intentions, it can really strengthen the relationship. It is also very important to know who the players in the community are. You need to know who you can work with and who can be a potential road block. The successful outcome of initiatives like this one really boils down to partnering with the people who bring a positive outlook towards change and have the communication skills and assets that they can actively bring to coalition work. There are many self-appointed leaders who may not actually be representing the entirety or even a large segment of the community. It is important to find those individuals who are able to see interconnectivity beyond the narrow scope of their own personal ambitions or personal projects and to provide them with support and positive reinforcement for their leadership efforts.

 

9. How has this initiative changed or influenced existing Museum practices?

This initiative has made the museum more accessible to the recent immigrant community. There are more programs and workshops in Spanish at the museum and more staff members from the community or with solid ties to surrounding Queens neighborhoods. The museum sees the community as not just potential audience members but as the real heart of the institution. [Emphasis added by Editor.]

 

10. What is your vision for this initiative over the long term, and what resources do you think are needed to realize that vision?

I would love to see the Heart of Corona Initiative evolve into a coalition of community organizations that work beyond the festivals and the public art projects to something which has greater political clout to address whatever pressing issue may come up and to advocate for greater resource allocation. In order to accomplish this, I think we need to help strengthen the small CBOs by offering grant writing workshops, networking opportunities, and perhaps an outside consultant who could help them craft a new set of priority action items for the coming years.

 

 

Appendix 3: Personal Reflection Document of Prerana Reddy, Director of Public Events at the Queens Museum of Art

 

1. Let’s start by talking about your history with this initiative. How did you become involved, what was the extent of your engagement, and what interested you most about being part of this initiative?

 

Initially I was hired by QMA to coordinate The Leadership Through the Arts program for Queens youth aged 16-23 which combined political education, digital media, and theater training along with grant-making activities. The group met weekly and worked on projects that highlighted tension points in their communities. Participants learned firsthand from organizers and philanthropists how people were practically addressing these problems. The tension points they identified included criminalization/demonization of youth due to lack of after school opportunities, lack of trust between old and new residents exacerbated by class differences and language access issues, and exploitation of and discrimination against undocumented immigrants. The keys to the success of this project were consistent engagement with the youth education in how they could engage their communities using art, media, and activism, and connecting them to individuals and organizations with whom they could continue their work after the program. What interested me in participating in the initiative is the sincere attempt by an art institution to share resources with local constituents and to help support future leaders towards a path in which arts and community development would be part of their conceptual and professional purview. The project also opened the museum to begin hearing community voices that would help us understand what the community of museum users would want from the institution and to develop personal relationships with staff who would facilitate deeper and more horizontal connections.

 

2. What did you initially expect to come out of this initiative, and how have those expectations changed over the years?

Since the program did not target youth from any one neighborhood, it was difficult to focus on local situations that could be tackled over the long-term. Moreover, given the significant personal and familial challenges

which participants brought to the program, significant staff time was spent on individual development goals and crisis management rather than on larger scale neighborhood change. We realized that we needed to re-strategize our involvement and hone in on Corona, the single neighborhood adjacent to the museum. I also realized that while my skills in event management and youth program development were useful, my lack of Spanish fluency and experience in the political fabric of Corona were limiting my ability to move the initiative forward. I realized that we needed to hire a community organizer to develop solid partnerships and navigate the complex relations among various stakeholders in the neighborhood.

 

Also it took some time for me to wrap my head around what a museum could do that “counted” as community development. Furthermore it required a gradual stretching of our institutional framework to imagine engagement beyond audience development and towards concrete social goals. While there were considerable growing pains in this process, a period of internal reflection helped our organization get on track with really listening to community voices and developing projects that connect to our core competencies as an institution while maintaining clear development takeaways.

 

3. How do you see the role of the Museum in terms of presenting public art and facilitating community-based change for neighborhoods like Corona? Is this very different from the role you envisioned at the start of the initiative, and if so, how?

I don’t think we could have anticipated that the project would become. The initial project came from an internal understanding of what the museum thought the community needed and what we were comfortable doing from a programmatic and educational perspective. The project as it stands now came out of a commitment to listening to a broad range of community stakeholders and strategically putting our efforts and resources where we thought we could make headway. Given that I had no formal training in the community development field, I didn’t know what doing that work entailed on a day-to-day basis. Many of the activities we do now seem far afield from what my initial idea of museum work would be–cleanup activities, meetings with business associations, and educating people on heart health for example. However, I think we wanted to ensure that whatever the project ended up being, art and culture were still at the core of it, as a catalyst for the activities which we use to motivate and enrich neighborhood potentials. The Museum’s role is really providing structure, support resources, and a good dose of creativity and motivation for our partners to achieve their own stated goals. A part of that creativity is bringing in artists’ sensibilities to the community, which allows participants in those projects to view their neighborhoods and neighbors and cultural and physical assets in new ways.

 

4. Are you ever more drawn toward one aspect of this initiative over the other–public art versus civic engagement, for instance–and if so, how do you ensure balance in your perspective?

I believe I’ve always been attracted to both art and civic engagement, but my idea of civic engagement came from a youth development and activist framework rather than a community development perspective. My background was in developing educational outreach programs for the African Film Festival in schools in Harlem as well as running workshops and trainings for South Asian Americans through Youth Solidarity Summer. These groups stressed engagement based on anti-oppression pedagogy, structural analyses of global power, and connecting young people to social justice organizations and ongoing campaigns for workers and immigrant rights. I had little knowledge and training in community planning, working with businesses and economic development institutions, or with housing agencies or developers–the milieu of the community development field–and the language in which they speak. That was, and still is, the biggest challenge in terms of reorienting my thinking and communication. I think, in the end, if one is accountable to particular outcomes and to particular communities, one must move beyond what one is drawn to or has a background in and toward what is needed. I’ve realized that I need to bring in staff and partners who can do some of the work needed that I either can’t do or am not good at. I trust that they will help me stay on the correct path and not get too comfortable in the programming and audience development mode in which arts administrators generally operate.

 

5. Whom do you see as the primary constituents of this initiative, and how have your conceptions of–and relationships with–those constituents evolved over time?

The primary constituents of this initiative are the residents of Corona, both old and new, young and old. Our understanding and ability to bridge gaps among these constituencies has become more nuanced as QMA develops a reputation for openness to working with many groups and being balanced in regard to working through differences. This is an incredibly complex and constantly evolving place, so our role in developing consensus around projects and creating opportunities to work together is crucial to developing a neighborhood identity and a positive attitude to achieving change. I think that this initiative has pushed beyond our comfort zone of just working with other cultural organizations or even social services organizations and developing relationships with small business owners, workers in the informal economy, and health partners, so the variety of stakeholders we are in contact with has grown considerably.

 

6. What do you see as the greatest achievements of the initiative to date? What about your own personal strides? This can encompass changes in personal philosophy, actual measurable outcomes among constituents and participating artists, perceptions of the Museum among community members, or anything else that you think is applicable.

I think this initiative has really changed us institutionally–from the level of whom we choose to join our staff, to the types of programming we do, to level of seriousness with which we take our role in developing a consensus understanding of “neighborhood identity.” We have had to struggle with how to be accountable to those we are working with, while still holding on to our identity and autonomy as an arts institution, and balancing competing interests within the community. This is largely due to the presence and leg-work of our community organizer, Naila Rosairo, who taught us our biggest lesson which is that slowly building trust and personal relationships is the only way to do this work. Despite being physically removed from our neighboring community, I think no one questions why we, as an arts institution, are at the table today. Rather we have become a regular fixture and resource for the community, an entity that has consistently been present and will do its best to problem-solve. That was no small feat. It remains a challenge to translate our work into quantifiable outcomes and to think through how to share our learning with other institutions, but we are always pushing ourselves to find them. Also, I think we’ve become more patient with the process of community visioning, rather than rushing through programming cycles as a measure of our accomplishments.

 

7. Drawing on insights and experiences to date, what do you think you would do differently in launching the initiative today and/or reproducing its activities and successes elsewhere (e.g., Flushing Meadows Corona Park)?

I think we should have brought in a local urban planning professional in to help us define the contours of our project at the very beginning, as it took us some time to be able to figure out our social change goals at the outset. Having this outside consultant check in periodically to assess progress and troubleshoot and to make necessary adjustments in the workplan would be the ideal way to keep us on track. Sometimes it’s hard to do objective and fearless analyses of one’s own work without a neutral party providing that perspective.

 

We are currently in the process expanding our work in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, having hired a new Park Programming & Immigrant Outreach Fellow, and many of the lessons learned in Corona apply: the importance of asset-based planning, researching and cultivating broad-based strategic partnerships, consistent communication with all stakeholders, and effective mediation of divergent visions. If we were to do anything differently, I’d say we’d take on fewer social change goals at any one time, as that has been a capacity challenge in Corona. Everything takes longer to do when trying to bring a variety of people along with you…

 

8. What would you advise colleague institutions to consider before launching similar initiatives?

Since this is a time-consuming effort, it is necessary for senior staff and board to support the program staff in their efforts. This not something that just a couple of people in an institution can do on their own, as community partners will quickly be able to assess the commitment of the institution as a whole to the initiative. It is imperative that the initiative doesn’t seem to be ghettoized within your organization. Furthermore, this work requires a lot of physical presence in a variety of community spaces, and it’s difficult for one person to add initiative activities on top of their regular roster of duties. We achieved the most traction once we committed to hiring a person whose job it is to “pound the pavement” and spend time listening to a variety of stakeholders. Given that much of the work of this community organizer takes place offsite and is a process of intuitive decision-making, the challenge on the project management side is to periodically put all the diverse activities and discussions into some kind of strategic framework. We must keep on asking ourselves if what we are spending time on is actually achieving the larger goals of the initiative.

 

Another challenge is dealing with self-appointed community leaders who might be suspicious of newcomers to the table. Rather than being drawn into adversarial roles, one must be consistent in communicating your conviction and strategic in developing ways in which they can positively contribute to your initiative’s activities. Or, if all else fails, it’s important to figure out creative ways of connecting your constituents with resources without having to go through them.

 

Lastly, one thing to keep in mind if your institution is larger than most of the other partners, is that they will perceive your organization as having unlimited resources, when in reality you are a struggling arts non-profit. You might indeed have more resources and connections than many of your partners, but they might not understand how those resources are allocated and what it costs you to do business. Oftentimes, one must repeatedly explain that the grant money you receive is restricted for particular use. Maintaining a balance between transparency and accountability to the community on one side and keeping focus on initiative goals and institutional autonomy on the other can be quite challenging.

 

9. How has this initiative changed or influenced existing Museum practices?

I think the initiative has brought people with different backgrounds and skills to the museum community, broadening the types of activities it undertakes. It has also encouraged inter-departmental collaboration and learning, as community change goals are often achieved through sharing of institution-wide intellectual and material resources. The museum as a whole has developed an appreciation for the depth of cultural assets that exist in our neighborhood and realize the value in developing long-term, two-way relationships with our constituents. We aim not to be just good neighbors but also to be a safe space, a site for education and interaction, and a trusted resource for the community. I think this attitude now pervades the museum and is noticeable in the daily interactions between staff and community members.

 

10. What is your vision for this initiative over the long term, and what resources do you think are needed to realize that vision?

I think that we are creating the necessary structures to accomplish goals and an atmosphere in which partners feel positive about the possibility of community change. It is important that our committees learn skills, solve problems, build trust with each other, and achieve some successes before we move into that next phase of the process. We have not yet gotten to the stage of a more holistic community visioning process that would require considerable advocacy for greater public funding to be allocated to Corona, especially in regards to school overcrowding and the dire need for real affordable housing. This shift is a conceptual move from fixing current problems to envisioning a better future.

 

While funding for this project outside of Ford has been a challenge as it straddles two different funding “silos,” we have been able to get several grants (IMLS, JM Kaplan, and Altman) that help us fund affinity projects that support community engagement initiatives. However, these successes generally support programming but do not provide for long-term staffing. The key for future sustainability of this project is to ensure that funding for the community organizer position is maintained as long as possible so that the initiative can build on its initial successes. At the same time, I think that some professional development with outside facilitators and urban planning professionals is key to cross that next threshold of bringing greater resources to the community itself for physical improvements and to capitalize businesses in the area.