Flushing Council & Flushing Town Hall – 40 years of Global Arts
Forty years ago, it was hard to imagine how rich the cultural life of Queens would become, or the role Flushing Town Hall would play. In the late 1970s and 80s New York City was experiencing a period of urban decay, and Flushing Town Hall was just one abandoned building among many. At the same time, waves of new immigration to Flushing, beginning after the 1964 World’s Fair and picking up in the 1970s, were beginning to transform the neighborhood.
Jo-Ann Jones saw the potential. At the time, she was singing with the Oratorio Society of Queens, and helping fundraise, and she wanted to raise the profile of the growing cultural community in the neighborhood. In 1979, she reached out to Aaron Weiss, then head of the Downtown Flushing Development Corporation (DFDC). Together they created the Flushing Council on Culture and the Arts (FCCA), which was initially an arts and culture committee of the DFDC until its incorporation as a separate organization in 1983.
Jones was one of several important women leaders in Queens who have had major impacts on Flushing Town Hall. For the first five years of FCCA, she volunteered all of her time to run the organization. Her broad-minded and inclusive approach was clear from the start: she was committed to presenting the art forms of new immigrants, to supporting other local organizations, and to presenting a wide variety of artistic disciplines.
In its first decade, FCCA partnered with more than 50 venues across Queens to present concerts and festivals, including the Queens Botanical Garden, Queens Museum, Queens Theater, and Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, where FCCA presented the “Asian Village” at the Queens Festival every year from 1985-1992. In 1992, FCCA made a bold move at the festival, presenting an African Pavilion alongside the Asian Village, and developing cross-cultural arts education programs. In Jones’ words, the goal of FCCA was “to reveal and revel in the diversity” of Queens. After FCCA opened its own small art gallery in 1985, it presented exhibits by numerous Haitian, Latino, and Chinese artists (and an exhibition of Isamu Noguchi’s work while he was still alive). “Intercultural Exchange” was core to FCCA’s mission from the beginning.
While FCCA was beginning to have a greater impact on the borough’s cultural scene, the Flushing Town Hall building was falling into disrepair. Built in 1862 as the town hall for the village of Flushing, the stunning Romanesque-Revival building was converted to a courthouse when the five boroughs incorporated in 1898. In 1967, the building was given landmark status. It passed through numerous hands, and by 1989, it was a dilapidated mess, with boarded up windows and a crumbling façade.
Claire Shulman was one of the leaders determined to save the building. Shulman, who in 1986 became the first woman to hold the office of Queens Borough President, had an impact on the cultural life of Queens that cannot be overstated: she was responsible for saving historic buildings and creating and funding numerous cultural institutions during her tenure. She took an active role in the fight to save Flushing Town Hall, along with Community Board 7 and other organizations. Finally, in 1989, Judge Phyllis Flug issued a ruling enabling the city to reclaim the property.
By mid-1990, FCCA had moved in. Over the course of the next decade, Shulman contributed $8 million toward the full, gut renovations, which eventually transformed the building into the beautiful cultural facility it is today, with a state-of-the-art 308-seat theater, an art gallery, garden, administrative offices, and gift shop. Architect Howard Graf, who became FCCA board president in 1992, supervised the renovations, along with Peter Calvacca. In 1996, due to the efforts of Jones and Shulman, Flushing Town Hall was one of the last organizations to be added to New York City’s “Cultural Institutions Group” (CIG).
The “Jazz Live” series, begun in 1993, put Flushing Town Hall (FTH) on the map. Clarence “CB” Bullard, a former Atlantic Records executive on FCCA’s board, and Cobi Narita, director of the Universal Jazz Coalition, worked with Jo-Ann Jones to bring the biggest names in Jazz to Flushing Town Hall over the next decade, including artists such as Abbey Lincoln, Clark Terry, Jimmy Heath, Lou Donaldson, Junior Mance, Valerie Capers, Ron Carter, Papo Vazquez, Max Roach, and Chico O’Farrill. After CB passed away in 1997, his son Clyde Bullard took over as Flushing Town Hall’s jazz producer and curator. In 1998 FTH produced the Queens Jazz Trail, highlighting the rich history of Jazz artists who lived in Queens. In 2008, under the direction of NEA Jazz Master Jimmy Heath, FTH created the Queens Jazz Orchestra.
The inclusive, multi-cultural approach started by Jo-Ann Jones continued to be the hallmark of FTH even after she retired in 2003 (and died in 2005), in part thanks to the many relationships Jones had built in the community. She brought in an Asian arts specialist, Dr. Hsing-Lih Chou, a native of Taiwan and an expert in numerous disciplines including calligraphy, music, and dance, who, with his rich community connections helped to expand the reach into the growing Chinese-speaking populations of Flushing. The partnerships FCCA cultivated with other Queens arts organizations continues to this day, and FTH joined the Smithsonian Institution as an affiliate in 2004.
Queens and Flushing have continued to change rapidly in the last several decades, with new immigrants from all over the world making the borough the most diverse location on the planet. Under the leadership of Ellen Kodadek, appointed Executive and Artistic Director in 2008, FTH has fully embraced this demographic change, continuing to expand and diversify its programs.
The organization has begun to look to its past, and Flushing’s history, to lay the groundwork for its future. One of the most significant efforts in recent years has been to cultivate a closer relationship with the Matinecock tribe, the native people of Flushing, who continue to live and work in the area, preserving and presenting their cultural knowledge and history. FTH is also inspired by the Flushing Remonstrance (1657), which set the tone for hundreds of years of religious and cultural tolerance in the neighborhood.
Arts Education, has grown into a major focus, with programs including field-trips, residencies, after-school programs, workshops and family-friendly performances serving more than 22,000 school children, senior citizens, disabled populations and family audiences in 2018. Kodadek’s vision is that young people deserve the same high-quality artistic work as adults, and that the multi-cultural student bodies of Queens schools deserve to see themselves represented on stage. World music, dance, and international puppetry theater – with artists touring from Spain, Nova Scotia, Quebec, Taiwan, and England – make up the school field trip and family performance series. These programs serve students across all of Queens, as well as from Brooklyn, the Bronx, Manhattan, Long Island, and Connecticut.
Continuing its role as an arts council, FTH currently provides programs and services geared to artists. Space Grants offer free use of the facility to artists in any discipline looking to develop new work. Circus artists, visual artists, musicians, actors, and dancers have all taken advantage of the Space Grant. Other artist services include professional development for teaching artists, Jazz Jams, live drawing, annual visual arts members exhibitions, and gift shop consignment opportunities. Partnerships with organizations large and small, such as the Korean Traditional Heritage Society, the Indo-American Arts Council, Queens College, and Carnegie Hall, among many others, remain important. FTH also serves the community as a low-cost rental space, and many local organizations hold cultural programs at Flushing Town Hall – plus rentals for weddings, parties, and meetings.
Community leaders continue to step up, including Emily Lin, Principal of Lin + Associates, a major architectural practice in the tri-state area. Ms. Lin has given back to the community through the Lin & Loveall foundation and her community service with organizations such as the Queens Botanical Garden, Garden of Hope, and the QEDC. Lin will be presented the second annual “Howard Graf Award for Creative Design & Architecture” at Flushing Town Hall’s 40th anniversary gala on June 6, 2019, along with Claire Shulman, who will be given the first annual “Jo-Ann Jones Award for Devoted Leadership.”
In addition to maintaining its popular jazz programs and increasing performing and visual arts programs featuring cultural traditions from China, Korea, Latin America, South Asia, and more, Flushing Town Hall has developed new cross-cultural programs, in an effort to bring diverse audiences together.
FTH’s vision for the future is exemplified by “Global Mashups,” which have taken the cross-cultural approach to a new level: the music series brings together two bands representing widely different cultural traditions for one night of joyous wonder. Each band offers a dance lesson to warm the audience up, then each performs solo, and then both bands jam together in a third set – finding common ground and making new discoveries. Mashups have included “India meets Brazil,” “Japan meets Puerto Rico,” “Haiti meets China,” “Korea meets Greece,” and “Balkan Punk meets West Africa.”
“When you have bands that are from totally different geographies, it brings an audience in from all different parts of the world, creating a communal space that I relate to… it’s the kind of world that I want to live in,” said Mark Marczyk of the Lemon Bucket Orkestra. “That’s exactly what we are aiming for,” says Kodadek, “We’re trying to show the world how people from widely different backgrounds can relate to each other by sharing culture. Queens itself has become a global mashup, and we’re embracing that as we move toward our next 40 years. If Jo-Ann Jones were here today, she’d be proud of how far we’ve taken her original vision.”
Flushing Town Hall’s future is indeed bright. For 40 years, they have been a leader at the cutting edge of diverse cultural programming. Now that the broader public is starting to recognize the importance of diversity in the arts, the organization is gaining wider recognition nationally and internationally for their unique and adventurous programs. As that recognition grows, Flushing Town Hall hopes to expand its acclaimed educational programs, to present more high-profile international artists, and to commission more new work. They have all the ingredients for success – and the potential to become one of the best-known arts organizations in New York. Flushing Town Hall represents the future of our country.