Arts & Culture

Inside the NYUAD Arts Center with Bill Bragin

The NYUAD Arts Center is gaining international recognition one view at a time.

By Sharifa Al Badi

Abu Dhabi got the attention of the international art scene when it opened its own version of the Louvre Museum in 2017. The Louvre Abu Dhabi is considered the first universal museum in the GCC region, and there are similar projects to follow, stemming from Abu Dhabi’s exploration of the different definitions of art, and the building of an integrated ecosystem of creative platforms that are gaining international recognition. One of these spaces is the New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) Arts Center.

Located at the NYUAD campus in Saadiyat Island, the modern, multidisciplinary center was founded in 2015 to amplify the interdisciplinary vision of NYUAD, with the arts as an extension of the university’s emphasis on learning, research, knowledge development and creative expression. It was also intended to be a resource for the entire UAE, and thus builds a relationship with the larger community, alongside the NYUAD Institute and the NYUAD Art Gallery.

The arts center’s pilot season began in February 2015 with a concert by Mary McBride, and their inaugural season kicked off in September 2015, with the concert version of Toshi Reagon’s opera Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower. It went on to present the world premiere of the full opera two years later.

Since then, the magnitude of the center’s projects has been meaningful and leaves a trace of awe and curiosity in its visitors, truly living up to the center’s slogan of “Come curious, leave inspired.” Thus, it comes as no surprise that the center has been awarded Pride of Abu Dhabi Awards twice, under the ‘Best Contribution to the Arts’ category in 2019, and under the ‘Best Cultural Experience’ category in 2018.

I speak to Bill Bragin, the Executive Artistic Director at the NYUAD Arts Center, who gives us the inside scoop on the center, its current programming and what to expect for the future.  

Speaking to an international audience through local collaborations

A performance at the NYUAD Arts Center. Courtesy.

Bill is the child of a professional trumpeter and music educator, and a passionate amateur musician, so the arts were present in his life from a very young age. Bill also grew up playing the trumpet himself, and has sat in a few times at the center, sometimes with his music and other times with his poetry. He has also djed on several occasions, but does not consider himself a performer. Bill first started presenting concerts in New York when he was an undergraduate student, and he has been in the field of live arts ever since. “I have always been someone who shares my passions with my friends, and now strangers,” he tells me. Prior to joining NYUAD, he served as the director of public programming of New York’s Lincoln Center from 2008 to 2014. “I was working with a very diverse array of artists, in iconic locations, with the goal of building a community through participation in adventurous programming.”

Bill came to the UAE approximately six years ago, when the country was making notable strides in the infrastructure of the arts. “Around six years ago, the cultural district in Abu Dhabi was announced and they were bringing in the Louvre, the Guggenheim and the Zayed National Museum; none of them existed yet. I will say that is one of the reasons I came here: the idea of being a part of one of the first arts organizations that would really help shape the arts and culture ecosystem in the UAE. It was a time when the country had really identified the arts as an important sector for growth and investment, and it has been exciting to be a part of that conversation,” he says.

One of Bill’s main roles at the center includes setting the artistic vision, and curating the program in a way that integrates their artists and performances into the academic vision of the university, as well as in the larger fabric of the country. This is done by creating partnerships within the community, and examining how to further add to the growth of the artistic ecosystem in the country.

A young Bill Bragin (right) with his father (left) and Bebop legend Dizzy Gillespie (center). Courtesy.

 “Many of the artists brought here are pioneers in their fields, but are often not household names. They are really pushing their art forms forward in important and meaningful ways. Sometimes the work presented already exists, or the center commissions something new and relevant,” he explains.  Artists include those in the fields of music, dance, theater, film and poetry.

The multi-venue center also encourages local talent and has presented theater performances by young Emirati artists. One of their notable shows was Al Raheel: Departure by Reem Al Menhali and Joanna Settle, which was composed of an all-female cast. The poetic production explored the many assumptions made about theater, and what it means to be a young woman in the UAE today.

Another one of their memorable shows was the Cuban-Khaleeji Project, which was a collaboration between the musician Arturo O’Farrill  and the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra ( which is an Afro-Cuban jazz band based in New York), and artists from the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain and Morocco. The show was a musical dialogue between regional music and the music of the Americas that sparked a global conversation, and presented regional music in a different light to the rest of the world. The performance can still be viewed online.

The show must go on: Programming at the NYUAD Arts Center in light of the COVID-19 crisis

Given the COVID pandemic, the NYUAD Arts Center has transitioned to conducting online and video-based work, and is embracing the fact that people are inventing new artistic forms through Zoom or telephone. Team members are also hosting meetings with different artistic and cultural entities in the UAE online, in which they discuss how they are responding to the crisis and expressing what their hopes for the future are.

NYUAD will not have any on campus visitors through the end of the year, and currently large group gatherings are not permitted anywhere in Abu Dhabi, so the center has had to completely reinvent what they do. Bill explains, “This fall, we became an entirely physically distanced arts center, and really leaned into new ways of working, from one-on-one interactive performances on Zoom, to real-time virtual spoken word open mics, to a theater piece for an audience of only two participants via telephone, to an online robot themed dance party.”

A student performance at the NYUAD Arts Center. Courtesy.

They have also launched an online series called “Reconnect”,  which is a historical record of the center’s five years of past performances. It was made available so that people can watch them at anytime from anywhere in the world. Artists sometimes join to have real time, online conversations about their work and how it may have changed.  

“Nobody knows right now when we will be able to gather together in large crowds. Nobody knows when artists will be able to come in freely from abroad. But we do know that you can have a meaningful experience even if there’s a screen in between. So, there will be the kind of art that deals with that: how do you create connection when people are physically distant from each other,” Bill adds.

Regardless of the COVID challenges, the NYUAD Arts Center has a very busy and exhilarating upcoming program. They will be presenting 600 HIGHWAYMEN’s A Thousand Ways: Part 1, which they co-commissioned, today. It is a poetic and imaginative piece of two strangers who share a guided experience over the telephone. The second production Robot House Party with turntablist Kid Koala, which will take place on the 10th of October , will be an event all family members can tune into and enjoy. Furthermore, the first screening of this year’s CinemaNA series of contemporary Arab cinema, as well as series of short films by Academy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker Sam Green, will be shown.

Also taking place is the first online poetry slam competition of the year with Rooftop Rhythms, and a classical piano recital by NYUAD faculty member Ioannis Potamousis. The center will also host online workshops, including one with the award-winning British dancer and choreographer Aakash Odedra .

What the future holds

Toshi Reagon performing at the NYUAD Arts Center. Courtesy.

Post COVID-19, the NYUAD Arts Center plans to bring artists to Abu Dhabi on a residency basis so that they can become a part of the community for a certain period of time. During their stay they will not only hold performances for the public, but also lead workshops, master classes and host career talks. Some of them will even visit local primary and elementary schools to really play a part in developing the arts and culture network in the UAE.

As Bill states, “Art is not a luxury; it should be free and part of everyday life. It is essential for human and emotional connection. It opens up conversations, it is part of any country’s national identity, [and] it exposes people to other ways of thinking and different art forms. Art is also a way to develop people’s voices.”

When it reopens, the NYUAD Arts Center, which has played a large role in shaping the artistic and cultural identity of the artistic landscape of the UAE and the GCC as a whole, is definitely a must visit. Now here is some insider information on why this is one of the coolest art spaces in town: the upholstery for their seats is made by the same company that makes the upholstery for Ferrari. Plus, one of their halls is made completely out of wood that it almost looks like the inside of a pipe organ. Because it is made from beautiful blonde sycamore wood, the vibrations from any musical piece actually get absorbed by the wood, so listening to any musical piece there involves feeling all the sound waves in your body and really having a transcendental experience.

For more information about the NYUAD Arts Center, click here.

Sharifa Al Badi is a published writer and author from the magical lands of Oman. She has written for Esquire ME, Khaleejesque and The Culture Trip. She is also the author of “Themis Aella & The Magical Forest” and “50 Things To Know As An Adult.” 

The views of the authors and writers who contribute to Sekka, and the views of the interviewees who are featured in Sekka, do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Sekka, its parent company, its owners, employees and affiliates.