New kid on the block

In just a year, Bill Bragin has curated a new performing arts season and, together with fellow ambassadors, is setting the stage for a cultural community

It’s no secret Abu Dhabi has visions – and it’s going to great lengths to turn them into reality.

But sometimes it’s the people at the lower levels who help achieve these ambitions. Others have visions of their own. Enter Bill Bragin.

This humble New Yorker is the man behind New York University Abu Dhabi’s (NYUAD) inaugural performing arts season, which comprises an eclectic mix of musical and dance performances from around the globe.

Aside from encouraging people to discover something new, Bill wants to bring people together and create an arts community for performers and audiences.

“Art brings soul, understanding, connectedness; it tells stories and touches emotions in different ways.”

It’s this belief that has inspired Bill to use the arts as a way of connecting people with each other and the city in which they live.

At the small liberal arts college he attended in the US, a young Bill joined the concert series and campus radio station, which opened up opportunities to create multidisciplinary shows comprising rock, experimental electronic, jazz, reggae and world music.

“I ended up quickly getting the bug and realising that’s the outlet I love the most – sharing my enthusiasm and getting people together in the same place and time; that aspect of community building has been a big part of my work.”

After helping produce several big outdoor festivals and completing stints in arts hubs like the famous Lincoln Center in New York, Bill honed his curatorial skills to help open up people’s ears and minds to new genres.

“The things these festivals had in common is that they’re all very eclectic in terms of programming and the idea of having events be free or low cost so people will be inclined to take chances on discovering something new.”

That’s the same philosophy behind his programme at NYUAD.

“The fundamentals are the same in programming artists that are excellent world class artists, and are from a variety of disciplines, cultural backgrounds and places in their career,” Bill explains. “There are people in the line-up I’d consider master artists – Kronos Quartet and Meredith Monk – who’ve helped define their forms, then I’ve got people like Rudresh (Mahanthappa, Indian composer and alto-saxophonist) who are emerging.

“There’s a big hunger and curiosity here. Hopefully what we’re developing is curatorial trust. For the moment with the shows being free, people just have to invest their time, not their money, so people can take a chance on an artist they haven’t heard of, maybe in an art form they haven’t heard of.”

While these performances are all hosted at the university, the season is surprisingly accessible and has resulted in a diverse audience – something Bill is proud of.

“I think a lot of about what it means to give people access to the arts in terms of whose work and voice is represented on stage, how that affects who’s in the crowd and the role that these experiences can play in creating a community.”

But what is this community Bill references? Surely as the executive artistic director of a university’s arts centre he only has the campus community’s interests in mind.

“I don’t think I’d be here if it was just to serve a small number of students. The work we’re doing is much bigger than that. This entire campus exists not just for the students but to be a resource for all of Abu Dhabi.”

Bill moved here shortly before National Day last year, so admits he’s still getting to grips with the city, but since day one has been eager to get to know its ins and outs.

“This is a new community for me and one that’s really complex. I spent so long in New York and felt like I knew how it operated – and I had a lot of relationships with leaders from different sub-communities.”

It’s like a game of cultural connect the dots.

“A lot of the way my programming works means working with people who have knowledge and relationships that go outside of myself. Here, I’m the new kid in town. It’s such a diverse place and I’m still building those relationships and trying to figure out what’s already happening and discovering opportunities where we can help expand the reach to other sub-communities that we may not be intersecting with.”

And from his explorations, Bill has come to realise that while Abu Dhabi hosts major names like Bon Jovi and Florence and the Machine, there’s no middle ground between that and the daily hotel cover bands.

“This is a place that’s so festival-oriented. You get these major events – and it’s been somewhat feast or famine: everybody goes to Abu Dhabi Festival, Abu Dhabi Art, the Film Festival (RIP). In between, not much else is happening.”

That’s why Bill was quick to introduce himself to the people “who are doing the work on all levels” like Dorian Rodger from Rooftop Rhythms, the team at White Cube, Sana Bagersh at Brand Moxie and Hanan Sayed Worrell at the Guggenheim.

These are the people who are helping create a platform for local artists to express themselves and meet other artists and musicians.

“Events like Metronome and Rooftop Rhythms are important, especially now that the cultural sector has been identified as an area of expansion and part of the future identity of Abu Dhabi, which it hasn’t been historically.

“If you want to present artists from a local community, they need to have a place to develop their art form.”

Even after he’s identified the cultural entrepreneurs, the city’s hidden talents and is opening Abu Dhabi’s ears to new genres, Bill still asks: “How can it all be threaded together?”

“I think about the future every day. How can we create a habit of art as an on-going part of people’s lives? What role can we play in creating a place for artists to try out their work and present it in front of a crowd?”

For now, he continues to explore the scene, meet new people and help others connect through his curated performances – something he thinks will fill a void in expats’ lives.

“There are lots of people who are here for different reasons; they are hungry to be engaged in art but just don’t have that outlet.

“This is a great place to live in many ways but there’s a sense of something missing and for some people that connection that happens through the arts is what was missing – those moments of discovery that happen when you hear music in a different language and you find even if the rhythms are unfamiliar or you don’t speak the language, it can connect with you emotionally. In a place that’s as international as this, I think that’s important. It opens doorways.”

WORDS Rachael Perrett
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