Kristina Newman-Scott on Authenticity, Vulnerability, and “Rising Tide” Moments in the Arts
Jun 16, 2020 1:17 pm
Kristina Newman-Scott, president of the Brooklyn arts and media nonprofit BRIC, grew up in Jamaica and worked as a curator and arts administrator in Connecticut before moving to Brooklyn in 2018. She spent the initial year and a half of her tenure at BRIC working on the organization’s first “holistic strategic plan.” Below Newman-Scott explains why BRIC is well-suited to respond to the current crises and how she sees the institution adapting to an uncertain future.
Coming in to BRIC from a completely different state was interesting and wonderful. My team and I worked very hard on creating our strategic plan. How do we show up in the world as “one BRIC”? Up until six-and-a-half years ago, when BRIC moved into its Fulton Street location, we had been functioning as three separate institutions (visual arts, performing arts, and media). Now we can learn how to capitalize on all the resources we have across these platforms. Our manifesto was approved by the board last fall. It’s a way to hold ourselves accountable. BRIC’s values have long been felt by our team members and community, but we’d never said them out loud. And when you say something out loud, you’re accountable, which is really important.
Like everyone else, we’ve pivoted to 100 percent virtual programming. We have six cable television channels that reach a combined one million homes across New York City, 500,000 of which are in Brooklyn. At the same time, we’re doing stuff on Instagram, Facebook, and Zoom. We’ve been testing our multi-platform strategy to ensure that the artists we’re working with have maximum visibility. At BRIC, we’re imagining that 70 percent of everything we do in the next fiscal year, which starts July 1, will be multi-platform and digital. We have to make sure we’re agile and responsive because so much is unknown. We have to be able to be uncomfortable, and accept that we don’t have all the answers. It’s hard! It’s ok to not be ok. But we’re committed to our mission, and our mission is to build Brooklyn’s creative future.
We have some tremendous resources that are not common among arts organizations. Most museums don’t have public-access TV channels, for example. The key for us is to make sure we’re relevant to artists, and to our community. The challenge—and opportunity—is shifting how we work, so that we don’t go back to how we were before COVID, before the latest racial unrest.
One exciting program in the works is with the city’s department of education. I was talking with our director of education, Keith Kaminski, about how important it is to consider families and children who are being left behind due to a digital gap. Many people who subscribe to our channels don’t have access to tech resources at home. Given that all the schools are doing online classes, what do young people do who don’t have a laptop at home, or even a smartphone? How can we use one of our six channels to partner with the DOE to bring educational content to hundreds of thousands of families? We’re planning on launching this program in late June on our HD channel. Every day a three-hour block of time will be dedicated to educational content created by the DOE. It’s an example of us stepping back, seeing where there are issues, and figuring out how to address them.
There are also so many of our peers in the arts who are like, “Oh my god, I have to film our dance classes but we’re not filmmakers, I don’t know how to present in this way.” How can BRIC be in service to our colleagues? This is a rising tide moment. We’ve made all of our media classes free to arts organizations and small businesses in Brooklyn, so now a dance studio can learn how to film, edit, and stream its classes.
I’m really proud of the contemporary arts team for the virtual exhibitions they’ve organized. Joey De Jesus’s show “HOAX” examines the racist hypocrisy of how “white witch culture” is packaged and sold by mainstream brands, while the concept of black magic has been used to justify violence against Black people. On top of making art that addresses racial and identity politics, De Jesus is currently a candidate for the New York State Assembly District 38. At this moment, it is important to listen to LGBTQ+ and BIPOC artists who embrace both artistic and political practices.
I’d also recommend people listen to the June 4 episode of BRIC’s podcast Glitter & Doom, which features Black revolutionary Ojore Lutalo, who was in solitary confinement for twenty-two years, due in part to his political beliefs. The episode covers everything from the art he made while incarcerated to the killing of unarmed Black people by the police.
I live in Bed-Stuy but have been in Connecticut with my family for a few months, helping to take care of my elderly mother-in-law. But I speak with my team every single day. I know that we are all energized by this moment. We are not only standing in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, but we are standing in action. We opened our doors as part of the “open your lobby” call to action, and had many staff volunteers who wanted to help provide food, water, bathrooms, and phone charging to protestors. We recently unveiled a twenty-foot Black Lives Matter banner, in partnership with Urban Glass, on our building on the corner of Fulton Street and Rockwell Place.
It’s important to be authentic and vulnerable in this moment. It’s important to say out loud how we feel and how we’re responding. The mutual aid networks, in particular, are doing smart work by pooling financial resources—a strategy that the “post-coronavirus” culture sector should seriously consider emulating.
There is a stark gap when it comes to the leadership of arts and culture organizations. It’s easy to hide behind programs that seem to prioritize artists of color, right? If the institution isn’t going to make changes from the top down and the bottom up, diverse programming is not enough. As a Black woman in America, I appreciate statements of solidarity, but I want to see the corresponding action. What is actually going to change? How does an institution start to mirror its community in a more authentic way? This isn’t a Black community problem, it’s an American problem. It’s a global problem. The burden shouldn’t be on Black people to fix it. We have a long way to go and a lot of work to do, and we have to work alongside each other.
—As told to Leigh Anne Miller