Monika Koblerová – director of New York’s Czech Centre

Monika Koblerová, photo: Ian Willoughby

One of my first ports of call on a recent visit to New York was the city’s Czech Centre, which is at Madison Avenue and 83rd St in Manhattan. At least that’s where it’s located for the moment – later in the year it’s moving to the Bohemian National Hall, around 15 minutes walk away. New York Czech Centre director Monika Koblerová talks about that move and much more in this edition of One on One.

Monika Koblerová
“The Czech Centre has been working in New York since 1996, so it’s a pretty long time. The main activities are to present the Czech Republic in the fields of culture, tourism – there’s a branch of the Czech Tourist Authority here – and business. During the year we organise more than 100 events.”

Do you have particular activities as well, such as Czech classes?

“We are starting with a Czech class, a Czech club, for children. We hope when we move to the Czech National Building this year that we will continue in this and that we will open several courses of the Czech language.”

There’s a sign outside on the street saying that your areas of activity are arts, business and tourism. Do any of those take priority for you?

New York’s Czech Centre
“Yes, of course, the priority is culture. We are trying to build dialogue between the Czech Republic and the American public, and co-operating with American organisations is very important for us. We need to bring Czech artists and to show the best from the Czech Republic and to offer it to American organisations. That’s why we have a lot of events in co-operation with strong American cultural organisations.

“For example our last big event was a retrospective of the films of Miloš Forman at the Museum of Modern Art, a really prestigious organisation. It was the first time Czech film had a retrospective there. It was on for 14 days and was really well attended. Also some celebrities visited this event…”

Tell us who.

New York’s Czech Centre
“Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones. We also invited [actor Vladimír] Pucholt and [writer-director Ivan] Passer. It was very important for Czech culture because it was not only for Czech people but mostly for Americans.

“We would like to continue in the project, and next year we will have a retrospective dedicated to Ivan Passer at MOMA.”

Has it taken you long to establish relationships with a lot of these important New York institutions?

“Yes, really a long time, I think since the Czech Centre started, so 11 years. For institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art or the Guggenheim or the Metropolitan Museum we need to have a really good relationship, to show that we are trying to do a good job and to support them, and to bring the best of Czech culture here.”

Which of your activities generates the greatest response from the American or New York public?

“For the public we organise every year a Czech Street Festival on 83rd St, between Madison Avenue and Park Avenue. The whole street is closed and from morning to evening there is a Czech programme – Czech artists, Czech theatre, Czech music, Czech food. Usually more than 4,000 people are here during the Street Festival, and we also organise an after party.”

This may sound like a silly question, but is there any sense in which you are competing with other national centres? I saw around the corner there’s the German Goethe Institute – are you competing with them, or the Polish Centre?

New York’s Czech Centre
“I think we are every day, or every event, because it is very difficult to attract people to come to your event. Because every day there are so many things going on in jazz…film festivals…Every day we are doing our best to attract people.”

How does it work with planning for you? Are you completely autonomous, or do you coordinate your plans with Prague?

“We are part of a network of Czech Centres. We co-operate with Prague and our headquarters are in Prague.

New York’s Czech Centre
“But we co-operate also with other cultural institutions and with the consulate general and with the Czech Embassy in Washingon DC. Because we would like to spread Czech culture around the whole USA, not only New York.

“The most expensive thing is to bring people from Prague, but to spread them around the USA is not so expensive. It’s a way to share the costs.”

Bohemian National Hall
Now we’re here in a very nice building, and you’ve a very nice office, on Madison Avenue, which is a good address, I’m sure. But later this year you’re moving – tell us about that.

“Madison Avenue and 83rd St is I think one of the best addresses in New York, because it’s only one block from the Museum Mile, from the Metropolitan Museum, from the Guggenheim, the Design Museum, so it’s a great, great location. But we are very small.

“This year we will move to the Czech National Building, in October. It will be a huge building for the presentation of Czech culture. There will not only be a gallery but a restaurant, a multi-functional screening room and a ballroom for 350 people. We’re really glad that we are moving there.”