Arts and Culture, Astoria
Mar 29, 2014

The Kaufman Arts District Established in Astoria

On Thursday, we had the honor and pleasure to attend the announcement of the Kaufman Arts District. A whole slew of Western Queens cultural leaders and elected officials were there to (…)

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On Thursday, we had the honor and pleasure to attend the announcement of the Kaufman Arts District. A whole slew of Western Queens cultural leaders and elected officials were there to usher in this amazing move to recognize and heighten appreciation and acknowledgement of the vibrant arts scene in Astoria, especially in this pocket of the neighborhood. Here are folks arriving and mingling with each other.

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The Kaufman Arts District’s boundaries are 31st Street to the west, 34th Avenue to the north, Steinway Street to the east and 37th Avenue to the south. It was first publicized in a NY Times article last week.

Speakers at the event included City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, who has served as the City Council’s Chair of the Cultural Affairs since 2010 and has made arts and culture a priority in his career; Hal Rosenbluth, Astoria Kaufman Studios President; Carl Goodman, Executive Director of MOMI; U.S. Representative Carolyn Maloney; NY State Senator Michael Gianaris; NY State Assemblymember ; and Barbara Pryor, President of the Board of Trustees of Queens Council on the Arts.

Donna Finn, Principal of the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts was there to introduce the American Songbook Ensemble, a student musical group from FSSA who serenaded us about two thirds of the way through the event. Here they are getting themselves ready for their performance, and let me tell you with my trained musician hat on—these kids are very talented.

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Jimmy Van Bramer was the MC, of course—he is really good at it! We are all fans of his humor and ease at the podium. He was given another chance to put on that ringmaster jacket, too. You can see everyone on stage got a kick out of it.

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He spoke a little bit with it on, then changed back into civilian clothes.

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Actually before that (and at the very end), Hal Rosenbluth stood up and spoke.

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He’s pretty excited about this new Arts District, and understandably so, since Kaufman Astoria Studios is a major part of the arts and culture “revival” in this part of town. MOMI, too, and those two organizations together solidified the area for arts and culture with their early roots in Astoria.

Jimmy stated that artists are one of the groups that drive the city of New York (think Broadway, for one), and in Astoria they have made quite an impact; artists and their work create jobs. Just look at who is in this Arts District—the aforementioned Kaufman Astoria Studios and MOMI, the Kaufman Astoria multiplex, The Theater Development Fund Costume Collection, Astoria Performing Arts Center and Queens Council on the Arts offices, and of course the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts right across from Kaufman Astoria Studios (while we were waiting we saw through the window ballet class happening on one of the upper floors). Everyone from performers to teachers to production staff to administrators are making a living in the arts while providing a viable and tangible service and product to the world.

He also us that he wants the city to be required to have a cultural plan, because arts and culture are such a vital aspect to life in NYC. Establishing this cultural district—the first one ever in Queens—will likely be a boost to convincing folks of the importance of the arts from both a creative and economic standpoint. The merging of arts and culture is good for artists, the economy, and housing (live-work spaces and affordable housing, too)

Carl Goodman stood up to speak next.

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We learned that MOMI, where he is the Executive Director, has seen a revived number of visitors in recent. In my mind, the Breaking Bad and Jim Henson exhibits along with their amazing programming and curation are part of that. Someone said that MOMI is the “coolest museum in NYC.” They believe that investing in the arts is investing in neighborhoods, and that banding together with other arts organizations like QCA and Kaufman Astoria Studios will help bring this neighborhood to the next level.  In Carl Goodman’s words, the area’s artistic life has been a “slow burn” to what we have now—a place where the arts are actively practiced, researched, and produced.

After that, Barbara Pryor of QCA stood up and made a brief comment.

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She’s pretty thrilled about this whole thing. We’re very glad that QCA is in the neighborhood, too!

Up next was Carolyn Maloney.

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She proclaimed this neighborhood is a cultural and arts Mecca of Queens and NYC! The spirit of cooperation among the arts organizations has helped that reality. And this cooperation involves the arts organization, artists themselves, and community activists who are passionate about the arts and culture. Not only do they believe in the deep value of arts and culture but, again, they recognize the arts and culture as an economic driver. You can see that in the abovementioned increase in visitors to MOMI (who won Favorite Place to See Art in our Best of Astoria 2014 competition!), but also in the arrival of Queens Council on the Arts, an organization that has helped support many artists in myriad ways.

And then there was the tidbit she revealed about a new hotel coming to the area as well, which will make it extremely convenient for visitors to enjoy the area, see some art, shop at the Astoria Flea in the summer, and get to know the rich cultural area that is the Kaufman Arts District.

Additionally, she mentioned plans of a congressional resolution for this Arts District, which is pretty exciting in and of itself!

Michael Giannaris spoke next.

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He mentioned that when he was a kid growing up in Astoria, you’d only come down to this area if you didn’t want anyone to see what you were doing (Jimmy called him on that, “So what were you doing?!?!?”). George Kaufman bought the Studio property when Giannaris was just 10 years old—then it was the Army Pictorial Center and government sold it to Kaufman for $1. All these years later, Giannaris believes the Kaufman Arts District will help the rest of the city recognize the cultural riches in this part of Astoria.

Donna Finn was up next.

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She told us that Tony Bennett himself was pretty excited about the establishment of the Kaufman Arts District. She also told us that the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, with audition-based enrollment, had 3,000 young people audition for just 200 spots. This is pretty impressive. She introduced the members of the American Songbook Ensemble—an outgrowth of the American Songbook Course at FSSA. The ensemble sang a medley of California Dreaming, Go Where You Wanna Go, and Dancin’ in the Streets. They did so well! Bravo, all!

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Marge Markey spoke next.

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She gave her support of this new Arts District and actually was the one that told us the story of the Army Pictorial Center

As I mentioned above, Hal Rosenbluth spoke again, obviously proud of who came before us at the Studios—Valentino, Gloria Swanson, The Marx Brothers—and what has been here for some time—Sesame Street—as well as the face of what is here and what the future is—Orange is the New Black came to mind. He is incredibly proud of the accomplishments in the area, and reiterated the sentiment that MOMI is the “coolest museum in NYC.”

After that they moved the podium and posed for a photo with the Proclamation.

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(That’s Lynn Lobell of QCA on the left end!)

Toward the end of our time together, Jimmy Van Bramer reiterated the importance of artists to the community. Not only are they economic drivers, they care about a lot of things that many of their fellow humans care about—clean streets, social justice, affordable housing, a safe place to live. Artists are not separate from the rest of the community. And on a personal note, as an artist myself, I have to say I agree with him!

We’re really pleased to see this turn of events and can’t wait to see how the Kaufman Arts District grows and develops as a cohesive unit. This is a really exciting thing for Astoria, Queens and New York City overall! By the way, you can follow the progress of the District via their twitter feed at @KaufmanArts and also on Facebook; the website will likely be up and running soon, too.

About Meg Cotner

Meg Cotner was trained as a harpsichordist and now works as a freelance writer and editor. She is the author of "Food Lovers' Guide to Queens," and is a skilled and avid home cook, baker, and preserver.

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