Czech Center chief Barbara Karpetová: If you commit yourself to the mission, New York will pay it back

Barbara Karpetová, photo: Ian Willoughby

When I visited New York in September I heard nothing but praise for the work of the city’s Czech Center in recent years. Much of the credit for this belongs to Barbara Karpetová, its tireless director, whose tenure is now coming to a close. The Czech Center is located in the magnificent Bohemian National Hall on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. When we spoke at its well-stocked, stylish library, I asked Karpetová who the institution’s visitors tended to be.

Barbara Karpetová,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“We very much hope that it’s a diverse audience, and it is of course.

“Even though some of the events are focused on a specific group of visitors, it’s mainly the general public which comes.

“Believe it or not, that’s not that easy in New York. There’s such competition here and the general public, in general, is pretty spoilt.

“To persuade people to come to the building on the Upper East Side, on a kind of side street, and for them to believe that they have invested their time and energy in the right way, even without paying – which is in fact a disadvantage, not an advantage, for promotion – is not easy.”

So is it the case then that though you have an amazing building and an amazing space, the location isn’t perfect from your perspective?

“Let’s put it this way, if you know the spread of age groups and interest groups in Manhattan, most activities are going on downtown.

“Then when it comes to universities, New York University is located at the very bottom of Manhattan and Columbia University is located at the very top of Manhattan.”

And on the other side of the park.

“There’s such competition in New York and the general public is pretty spoilt.”

“Exactly [laughs]. We are in the very middle of it all.

“Plus, most importantly, the Upper East Side, which is a posh district, is a residential area.

“That means that most of the people who really make it here really care about peaceful, quiet and in a way not exciting surroundings [laughs].

“Some of the, let’s say, professionals that are moving near the very cultural centres wouldn’t really associate this place with the interesting Manhattan cultural zone.

“So it’s very important for us to build up credit and to build up this image as a place that is worth coming over to.”

When it comes to organising your programme, how much independence do you have from Prague? Do you decide on everything yourselves? Or do you get directives on what to do here?

“I would say we are fairly independent. That’s what I would see as a huge thing.

Bohemian National Hall,  photo: Marián Beneš / Czech Centre in New York
“Believe me, not all of our colleagues from EU institutes have that luxury and that freedom.

“I would say that Czech Centres are promoters of independent cultural diplomacy. That’s very important in my eyes.

“Czech Centre directors go through a quite complicated selection procedure.

“However, once they are chosen the responsibility for the programme, and obviously the implementation of programme, is mainly on their shoulders, with the huge support of headquarters and the central body.

“Though it’s mainly the person’s concept, idea, mission and vision that creates the programme.”

The New York Czech Center is an amazing place. But do you or organise all your events here, or do you also have some elsewhere?

“I would say that specifically for the four years that I have spent here a huge part of my mission has been to make the place alive, attractive and with high credit as regards the quality of the events.

“Hence we have concentrated a lot on a programme based here in the building.

“But about one-third of the programme takes place in venues that are important for the cultural map of New York.

“We’ve done programmes with Carnegie Hall, with the Metropolitan Opera, with the Metropolitan Museum, obviously with some of the universities, with the Lincoln Center, the Lincoln Centre Film Society, Metrograph – really quite a variety of venues.”

2018 has been a big year for many Czech institutions. How has the year gone for you guys?

“I would say that we are fairly independent. Not all of our colleagues from EU institutes have that luxury and that freedom.”

“Very well, actually. We’re very pleased with the fact that a place which was not famous for huge visibility and high attendance is really this year kind of harvesting the work we’ve been involved in in previous years.

“That took us about three years, when our strategy was to have a lot of events – we used to have 10, 12, even more a MONTH – which is very ambitious.

“And this year we prepared a strategy of having two or three huge events, usually of festival character which can attract people to come – and to save the date in their calendars in advance.

“Well, that is super ambitious. New Yorkers are not that eager to save their dates. They can change their minds every minute [laughs] and there will always be something interesting to see.

“Hence sending the save-the-date or new announcement quite in advance and saying, Careful, in half a year, then in two months [laughs], you’re going to see something which you haven’t seen before, is quite risky.

“But I should say it’s really been working this year very well.”

Also you have something here that I’ve not heard of any other Czech Center in the world having, which is a roof you can use. Can you please tell us about that?

Rooftop of the Bohemian National Hall,  photo: archive of Czech Centre in New York
“Well, the rooftop is definitely the most attractive part of the building, even though I wouldn’t say exclusively the only attractive part.

“If I go from the ground floor, or first floor, or whatever it’s called in America [laughs], we have a beautiful cinema.

“It’s of club cinema character. We do screenings and we have extremely attractive programmes, one of which is called Window to Europe.

“Our programme director is, by the way, a very successful young Czech lady and won an Academy Award last year [Marie Dvořáková, winner of the Student Academy Award for Who’s Who in Mycology]

“She’s bringing films which American audiences have not had a chance to see because they were not distributed by film distribution companies and they’re always absolutely packed.

“On the second floor we have our gallery and that gallery made it into the New York Times for a very specific article mapping the situation in New York and the changing dynamics.

“Chelsea, which is a traditional gallery area, is losing a bit of this, let’s call it melting pot, spirit.

“The rents are so high that the gallerists there cannot afford to accommodate experimental art.

“We’ve done it and that, in a way courageous, step was acknowledged by the New York Times.

“Then finally [laughs] we’re getting to the rooftop and that is a place that we use for our summer Ciné-Concert series.

“We have accommodated experimental art and that, in a way courageous, step was acknowledged by the New York Times.”

“Ciné-Concerts are based on silent films being accompanied by live music.

“It can be contemporary music, it can be classical music, it can be a soloist and it can be a full band.”

My final question is, what has working here in New York and living here given you over these last few years?

“In fact, this has been my ninth year in the United States – I served as the cultural counsellor in Washington, D.C., at the embassy.

“I should say that all of those years have been a big lesson.

“It’s a big opportunity and it’s a big challenge and it’s very intense.

“New York is usually described by people as the city that never sleeps and you can easily apply that to people too [laughs], so I’ve had nine years of lack of sleep.

“But it feels very rewarding, too.

“I would say that New York works very specifically as a magnifying glass.

“If something is very interesting, it’s super-duper interesting in New York. If something might seem very complicated, it will surely be very complicated in New York.

“New York is described as the city that never sleeps and you can easily apply that to people too, so I’ve had nine years of lack of sleep.”

“But if you do, let’s say, engage yourself and commit yourself to the mission it might take time but New York will pay it back.

“There is the saying, if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere and I agree with it.

“It’s not easy but the fruit and the feeling of, well, competence, the feeling of the support of a community in New York who are able to express their gratitude is very warming.

“I think I might miss it [laughs].”