Competition for public’s attention enormous in New York, says Czech Centre head

Rooftop of the Bohemian National Hall, photo: archive of Czech Centre in New York

Nearly ten years ago, the Bohemian National Hall on the Upper East Side of Manhattan reopened its doors to the public, becoming the seat of the Czech Centre in New York. How difficult is it to attract visitors in a such an extremely busy city? And what is the main focus of its activities? I discussed these questions and more with Barbara Karpetová, who has been in charge of the Czech Centre in New York for nearly three years now:

Barbara Karpetová,  photo: archive of Czech Centre in New York
“The classical programme is of course a part of our mission, but we are trying as well, in the spirit of New York of the 1970s, the melting pot, to bring the heritage in the future.

“The embodiment of this idea is Thomas Messer’s Bohemian hub. Thomas Messer used to work as a director of the Guggenheim for more than 27 years and the hub brings together Czech and American artists.”

“The residency programme allows them to stay for about one or two weeks and create a new piece of art.

“In the year 2016, when the project started, we had four residencies and I think that all of these artists were really facing a bit of a challenge. And this is the mission of the project - to let the artists work in different conditions.”

The Czech Centre New York is not only offer much more than that. Can you give me an outline of the activities that you offer?

“We are very fortunate, because the building provides us with a cinema, an exhibition hall, a beautiful concert hall with a capacity of 300 people, two smaller concert halls, libraries and the roof top.

“Czech Centre itself prepares about two, three but sometimes even four different events a week. Altogether with the activities of Bohemian Benevolent and Literary Association, Consulate General, and some other institutions, we bring a really vibrant programme to the building.

“The competition is probably the biggest in the world and to make ourselves a part of the fabric is very difficult.”

“If you consider this type of management, it really requires a lot of organisation, collaboration of the institutions and obviously a lot of communication.

“The result is that the place is recognised by our American partners. They are much happier to work with us on the programmes in their venues and we are able to have partners like Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Centre, Metropolitan Museum, who are giants of the cultural sphere in New York.”

New York is obviously one of the busiest cities in the world. There are hundreds of cultural events taking places each day. How you do make yourselves heard in such a city?

“You mention all the advantages and disadvantages of New York at the same time. The competition is probably the biggest in the world. To make ourselves a part of the fabric is very difficult.

“Especially for the team of four people, who are managing all the programming, all the production, all the financing, and obviously PR as well.

Bohemian National Hall,  photo: Marián Beneš / Czech Centre in New York
“You really need to know the moods and fashion waves, something what is known as the dynamics of the city. And it is not easy, because it is changing very rapidly.

“New Yorkers are spoiled. They have seen everything, they have heard everything and they want to be surprised.”

You have been in charge of the Czech Centre in New York for nearly three years now. Looking back at this period, what were some of the most successful projects?

“Well, one of the most successful projects was happened in October and November 2014 and it was connected with the 25th anniversary of democracy in the Czech Republic.

“We wanted to bring something really special as a reminder for New Yorkers that we are able to be together again. And that embodiment of collaboration of Czech and American spirit was the manuscript of the Symphony from the New World.”

“Antonín Dvořák wrote the manuscript in New York. It was very much influenced by American music and with his return to his homeland the manuscript was taken back and never ever visited New York again.

“Symphony from the New World, together with Beethoven’s Symphonies, is the most often played symphony in the world. And for many Americans it is considered American music. I found it very special and I think that the American media are really sensed that this was something to be written about.”

How much ahead do you actually have to prepare events such as this one?

“It really very much depends. Some of those I would say huge things can happen nearly like a last minute projects. But especially in New York the planning in advance is obviously very important.

“New Yorkers are spoiled. They have seen everything, they have heard everything and they want to be surprised.”

“But Americans are very flexible and if there is a will they are able to help things to happen. They are very enthusiastic and hard-working as well and they love the things that are surprising.

“But in true life you need to plan things very much in advance. You need to be in touch with people, there are a lot of permits they need to have. There is a lot of logistics you need to be secure about and a lot of insurance things.

“Everyone who is planning events knows that the programme is created at least a year in advance, very often two, three or even five years in advance. That is the cultural professional world.”

Next year Czechs are marking two important anniversaries. One hundred years since the foundation of Czechoslovakia and 50th anniversary of Prague Spring. Are you going to reflect these events in your programme?

“Very much so, especially the 100th anniversary of the Republic is something very much connected with American history and with American impact.

“Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk was dealing about the creation of the first Republic with Woodrow Wilson. Americans were the ones who supported the idea and many of the very important agreements and declarations were signed in the US.

Bohemian National Hall,  photo: archive of Czech Centre in New York
“It is indeed very important to bring this event in Czech-American context and highlight the enormous influence by American democracy on creating Czechoslovakia.

“We are preparing a lot of events and I think that this moment of surprise should be kept, so I am not going to say what is going to happen.

“But hthe Czech National Building in Manhattan will surely be radiating the spirit of that time and the importance of the Transatlantic connection.”

Apart from the two anniversaries that we have just mentioned, can you reveal something about the programme for the upcoming season?

“A programme will be connected with the important personalities who were somehow connected with New York or the United States. Every month of the next year will be revealing interesting projects connected to the values which these personalities were bringing and following.

“Some of them are artists and some of them are entrepreneurs or politicians. I think it’s very natural that we will mention Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, Václav Havel, Antonín Dvořák, Alfons Mucha, but there are other who might be a little bit in a shadow and it would be very nice to mention them too.”

Finally, you have been in charge of the Czech Centre since November 2014, what was the experience like and what do you most like about your job?

“I have been to the United States for more than seven years. I served as the Cultural Councillor at the Embassy in Washington DC, so I have got quite a substantial time to see the turbulences of American society during the very significant time for the US, the change from Barack Obama’s administrative to Donald Trump’s administrative.

Rooftop of the Bohemian National Hall,  photo: archive of Czech Centre in New York
“I wish Americans all the best. They are very hard-working people. I wish as well Czechs would have more opportunities to see the true American life and may change their ideas of the standard of life in the US.

“New York especially is a difficult destination to work at. It brings a lot of challenges, which is exciting, but also demanding. And it can give you a lot of energy, but it takes a lot of energy too.

“For me it is nearly spiritual experience. To be in the place with this image of a labyrinth of the world definitely leads you to the paradise of the heart.”