Bill Bragin, the executive artistic director of New York University Abu Dhabi’s Art Centre, has been busy since his appointment last year. A key part of Bragin’s role at NYUAD is building and shaping the public arts programming on the new Saadiyat Island campus. As he prepares for his first full academic year at the institution, Arts&Life catches up with him.
What are the main priorities in your new role?
One priority is to present process as well as products. I think that in general most people experience the arts in finished forms and do not necessarily understand all the work that goes into creating it or the research and experimentation, the iterative process and the labour behind every piece. Given that NYUAD is a liberal arts college and a research university that idea of artistic investigation and process is really important to emphasise.
Can you give an example?
Earlier this year we had a puppet theatre company called Phantom Limb, co-led by a husband-and-wife team, spend a week in residence with us. Jessica Grindstaff is a visual artist who started making assemblages and Erik Sanko is a musician who makes marionettes as a hobby. They formed a puppet theatre company and in their performance they include dance, projections, movement, music and deep research. During their residency they did some guest teaching and interaction with students, as well as a two-day workshop in their puppet theatre technique, not only for NYUAD students but also some from Sharjah and Dubai universities. That is a good microcosm of all of the other kinds of activities that intersect the classroom separate from performance.
Would you describe it as part of your role to instigate cross-pollination between the artists, performers and the students?
When I look at my work as a curator, it is not purely on an aesthetic level. The artwork itself is central but it is not the only thing. I am very interested in community building in general and my vision of the 2030 plan and the whole idea of the Saadiyat cultural district is the way that culture can really inform a sense of place as well as binding people together with common experience. This is a fairly transient place and with NYUAD being part of this larger effort, the idea is to create more connectivity to being here in Abu Dhabi.
So, at the Arts Centre, you will not focus on visual arts?
No, the art gallery, which is run by Maya Allison, is separate and runs a parallel programme. But we do share the project space here. Also, as there is an increasingly porous border between live art and visual art, so we are going to be looking at that as I put together next year’s programme.
At NYUAD there are theatre, music, film, interactive media, art and art history departments. Would you say there is still a need for more art education in the UAE?
I think arts education is essential, but given that there is not necessarily the same grass-roots structure here in Abu Dhabi, you look at other ways in which you can help support that development. That is one of the reasons that we wanted to have a workshop space and to make the performances free to the public at the beginning as a way of reducing friction points. I am certainly thinking about how we can connect with young people and those who don’t necessarily have artistic exposure.
Will this have a long-term effect on the courses that are offered at this university?
A lot of my job right now has been getting to know people and I am building long lists of projects that I can instigate within different members of the faculty and the curriculum. Then it is about how we can weave it together so it can benefit all sides.
What do you think defines the UAE culturally?
I think there are some specific things about the UAE that make it really attractive. Its deep history and the conditions that led to its hyper-accelerated development as well as the nexus of east, west, north and south is an unusual combination. Also, once all the museums and the performing-arts centre are open, combined with the beaches and the shopping, is a really uncommon mix. Also, there is so much shared desire and sense of mission and opportunity here that they are really happy to see new people arrive who share that sensibility and a willingness to collaborate. There is a clear level of intention happening on a number of different levels.