Flushing Town Hall in Queens. Photo by Shawn Choi.
A watercolor of a majestic tiger baring its teeth catches your eye as you walk through the Korean Art Gallery at Flushing Town Hall, but your ears lure you upstairs.
In the theater, a lilting Taiwanese pop song drifts into the soca beat of a Jamaican party hit, both peppered with handclaps and laughter as audience members abandon their seats to dance in front of the stage.
Between sets, a recorded sax wails on “The Man I Love,” and the scent of deep-fried samosas draws a line at the concession stand.
At most performing arts centers, this could be the scene of International Night, or some kind of special occasion.
But at Flushing Town Hall, it’s just a typical Friday evening.
“One goal of our programming is to surprise and delight audiences with unexpected combinations,” says Flushing Town Hall Deputy Director Sami Abu Shumays.
Located in Queens County, where more than 100 languages are spoken, Flushing Town Hall has become a model of inclusive programming, engaging local audiences and visitors by celebrating “global arts for a global community.”
A NYSCA grantee through our Presenting and State & Local Partnership Programs, FTH features local, immigrant, national and international artists, with a focus on populations from China, Korea, Latin America and South Asia. Within its historic 19th century landmark building, multidisciplinary offerings include classical, theater, dance, spoken word, world music, arts education, visual art, comedy and more. The venue also honors Queens as the “home of jazz” with monthly jam sessions, a 10-hour annual jazz festival, and season concerts.
Falu’s Bollywood Orchestra, 2016. Photo by Shawn Choi.
“We maintain a commitment to presenting a multiplicity of cultures and artistic disciplines, and work that we feel diverse audiences will connect to,” says Shumays.
Altogether, Flushing Town Hall serves more than 50,000 annually through performances, exhibitions, special events such as a Lunar New Year Celebration, and collaborations with institutions ranging from Carnegie Hall to The Moth. Programs are often unique to the venue, such as the Global Mashups series, which pairs dance lessons and music exploring different world traditions – earlier this month, Taiwan and Jamaica – featuring sets from each group and a joint jam session.
“We have found that as diverse as NYC is, many people still feel more comfortable within their own niches and cultural bubbles,” says Shumays. “We burst those bubbles spectacularly through our Global Mashups world music series!”
At the recent Mashup, when saxophonist-singer-composer Stephanie Chou asked how many audience members spoke Chinese, about a quarter of the hands in the audience went up – a little less than the number of fans of Jamaican music who joined in when Tribal Legacy took the stage for a Bob Marley cover.
Flushing Town Hall has figured out how to build the programming it needs – and how to compel its audiences to not just show up, but dive in.
This wouldn’t be a #NYSCASuccess story if we didn’t share: how do they do it?
At Flushing Town Hall, the Chinese Cultural Committee, made up of local residents, artists, and business leaders, advises on programming and contributes to multilingual outreach. FTH also advertises in Chinese, Korean, Spanish, and Urdu to ensure that language is not a barrier to attendance.
Recognizing that its local audiences – especially young audiences – have modest incomes, low-price tickets are often available, and teens always get in free.
Encouraging not just attendance but active engagement with the venue, the organization has significantly increased participatory and educational programs in recent years under the artistic direction of Ellen Kodadek.
“We believe deeply that the arts are for everyone, and that (active) participation in the arts is an essential part of the experience,” Shamuys said.
Calligraphy Workshop at Flushing Town Hall, 2014. Photo by Shawn Choi.
It’s a core part of the FTH mission to expand arts appreciation and awareness through these programs, but it also pays off – workshops have made it easier for families to attend other weekend programs, and visitors who attend jazz jams form the core of the audience for jazz concerts, too.
Participatory and otherwise, every program on Flushing Town Hall’s schedule is the result of in-depth research. A five-person programming team draws on firsthand knowledge, research into NYC and international artists, attendance at international booking conferences and festivals such as International Performing Arts for Youth (IPAY) and Le Trois Jours de Castelliers in Montreal, and networks such as the New York State Presenters Network.
Flushing Town Hall’s staff includes a trained folklorist with deep experience working with Latinx and Native American artists and communities and a long-time practicing musician in the NY jazz scene, and staff members devoted to the venue’s Cultural Committee.
Over years devoted to global arts events, the programming team has developed contacts that can offer recommendations and serve as experts in particular cultures.
“Every cultural tradition has its own standards, gatekeepers, and masters – and some knowledge of that landscape is necessary in order to make informed decisions as to which artists will best represent a particular culture, and which will most connect with local audiences,” says Shumays.
“Audiences can tell when programming decisions are superficial versus when they are based in a deep appreciation and respect for cultures and traditions – therefore, cultivating that depth on an organization’s programming team is essential.”
The good news, he adds, is that it can be learned.
“There is also no substitute for a deep curiosity about other cultures – go out and explore and learn as voraciously as you can!” he says.
You can start by checking out a Flushing Town Hall Global Mashup, Japan Meets Puerto Rico, on Queens Public Television. For more information about the program and Flushing Town Hall, visit flushingtownhall.org.