A CONVERSATION WITH NEW ARTS CENTER DIRECTOR BILL BRAGIN
By Gazelle News Editor Melinda Szekeres
Despite being the first executive artistic director at NYU Abu Dhabi’s Art Center, Bill Bragin defines himself primarily as a curator. One only needs to check his Twitter bio to see this — packed with a string of playful identifiers, it reads: “Imposing his taste on friends & strangers since 19xx. Agitador Cultural. Globalizer. Arts Monger.”
Bragin joined the NYUAD community in December 2014. He claims that the first part of his title – the executive before artistic director – is what adds structure to his curating, requiring him to build staff and create programs.
“It’s making the decisions of which artists are going to be coming here, what repertory do they do, how long do they stay for,” he said. “Negotiating all the business terms and then looking at — once we select an artist — how can they then connect with the multiple larger constituencies here.”
As a kid, growing up in Long Island, New York, Bragin used to have friends over and pull out the records he thought they needed to listen to. Often, before the first record even ended, he would already be taking out a second.
“I’ve always had this tendency to take my passion for the arts and then want to share it, or impose it, as I sometimes say — and in a certain way, I’ve made that my career. And when I program, I do it first and foremost from the standpoint of being a fan, and I’ve got lots of intellectual ideas about why I might choose a certain artist,” said Bragin. “It’s about … that moment of discovery and then being able to share that discovery.”
Bragin’s father was a professional musician who taught instrumental music and his mother an amateur pianist and big music fan. He grew up playing the trumpet and considers music a big part of his upbringing.
“I don’t think you need to be an expert [for that] immediate spark of discovery,” he said. “You’re immediate emotional and visceral reaction to a dance performance or to a jazz concert or to an experimental performance piece — that’s really valid too.”
A 1989 Haverford College graduate, Bragin majored in sociology out of curiosity, but his focus remained more on popular culture.
“I was not an arts major at all. But I look at my work [with a] concert series on campus as my vocational training,” Bragin said.
Bragin recently started to realize how much his sociology background has affected his career path. After graduating, he worked for four years at a music company that produced mostly corporate-sponsored music festivals. He then transitioned to work for Central Park Summerstage, a free multidisciplinary festival, along with other mission-driven organizations.
“Even though the actual activity of the work that you do every day: curating, producing events, negotiating contracts … is actually the same … the mission and the rational and the motivation [are often] different,” he commented. “I’ve realized that the jobs that I’m attracted to are the ones where the social impact of the work and the way that the arts relate to social structures are [important].”
Since his professional beginnings, Bragin quickly rose to prominence among the live-music circuit; in 2008, The News York Times had referred to Bragin as “one of the most influential figures in the New York live-music business.”
Bragin considers being at NYUAD as an opportunity to work internationally. To be at a place like Abu Dhabi means living in an incredible crossroads between north and south, east and west.
“[I want to] make sure that the work is relevant to the students,” he said. “That’s going to be important.”
Meeting students is an organic process, he said, adding that since he’s not teaching, it has been harder for him to do so; he has primarily been able to interact with students through art festivals, performances and fairs.
As an event planner, he is also excited for the diversity of facilities and venues at NYUAD. The lobby at the Arts Center stood out to him as great common ground for those going to events to meet and exchange ideas. He also noted, however, that spaces shouldn’t be just restricted to the Arts Center. Bragin plans to give back to the community at large by planning events outside of campus in cooperation with visiting artists.
“Down the line, there’s also a goal that [the Arts Center] becomes a regional and international destination,” he said. “And fits more into the larger Saadiyat cultural district [so that it becomes] one of the things you then do when you come to Abu Dhabi.”
As for more immediate plans, Bragin aims to organize about ten productions per semester – roughly three events per month. Each of those productions may bring with it related activities over the course of the week, both within the university and the local community.
“We’ll customize each one as we understand who the artists are, what their own interests are, how it connects with any classes,” he added.
Bragin’s focus is not only on the end product of events, but rather the process.
“There will be a lot of multidisciplinary works,” he said. “And many of the artists that we’re looking at have concerns that are not only artistic, aesthetic, formal concerns but are also addressing larger issues.”
Bragin mentioned his love for “hyphens”: mixing forms, ethnic traditions and generational traditions.
“This sort of hyphenated identity is what both attracted me to being in a place like [NYUAD] and will also play out in the kinds of work that we present,” he said. “It’s that idea that these identities aren’t fixed and they are really fluid and they are constantly changing.”
Melinda Szekeres is news editor at The Gazelle. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.