New York Czech centre head Pavla Niklová: Czech films are the biggest attraction

Pavla Niklová, photo: Tomáš Vodňanský

The heads of Czech cultural centres from around the world gathered in Prague last week to share ideas and make plans for the future. I met up with Pavla Niklová – head of the Czech centre in New York to talk about the kind of events that are organized and how popular they are with the public.

Czech center in New York
“Of course we try to cover a broad scope of cultural activities but there is no doubt that the most popular events with the locals are definitely film screenings. We are fortunate enough to have our own cinema so we show Czech films every Tuesday, with English subtitles, and in the summer we have screenings on the roof which are extremely popular –we actually have to send people home because the capacity is limited. So film is definitely number one. And then I should also mention design. A year ago we had an exhibition that was connected with a big international fair of contemporary furniture and several Czech companies exhibited their products both at the fair and at the centre and some of them were then purchased by the Museum of Art and Design –so we are very proud of that. But we do not exhibit only official design –right now we have an exhibition that is called Domácí Umení –or Home Art. These are objects made not by professional artists but by people in the 50s, 60s, 70s because it was very difficult in those days to get an art object to decorate your home so people became very creative and created their own pieces. Now it’s a collection of about 1,000 pieces that is available for exhibits and we have about 250 of them in New York right now. They are a big success and at the opening we heard remarks like “ this is just what we want to see –it’s not commercial- it’s just what people made for themselves to give them pleasure.”

Domácí umění/Home Art
Do you have many sales exhibitions where people can buy something Czech they like?

“Not really, no. We provide them with contact details for artists or galleries, but we do not do it ourselves.”

What about books and Czech cuisine?

“Of course, we try to promote Czech authors whose works have been translated into English. We collaborate a lot with UNIC which is an association of European cultural institutes and with them we organize two literary events –one is a book club – this year we will have one evening devoted to the translation of Petra Hulova’s Pamět mojí babičce (In memory of my grandmother) with the translator Alex Zucker who received the 2010 National translation award for another of Petra’s books (All this belongs to me). The other literary event we organize is called New literature from Europe –it’s a festival to which different cultural institutes bring Czech authors. Last year we had Radka Denemarkova and actually I should mention a third event the PEN festival of international literature. This year Monika Zgustova participated in it and due to her participation her work will now be translated into English for the first time.”

I believe you organize a Czech street party every year – what’s in the pipeline for this year’s event?

Czech Street Festival
“The street party has quite a long tradition. It is now in its 13th year and for the first time it will take place on 73rd street which is close to our new location – close to the Bohemian National Hall and the festival is always a big celebration of Czech food and Czech art. As concerns the music this year we will have the bands Skyline and Please the Trees. We will also have a Czecho-Slovak folk band –people who live in New Jersey – and as usual there will be a children’s choir singing Czech national songs – so we are offering a mixture of many things. Also this year we want to invite people to see the Bohemian National Hall so there will be an after party in the building.”

What kind of people come to your events –ex-pats, people with Czech roots, Americans who hear about it from friends?

“It’s a mix. And at every event the percentage of Czech expats and Americans is different. We also try to collaborate with a lot of other European cultural institutes, so people who visit the Austrian cultural institute also come to our place and so on. So it’s a mixed audience and that’s the way we want it to be.”

Where do you advertize? Obviously you have a web page but where else can people learn about the events you organize?

Pavla Niklová,  photo: Tomáš Vodňanský
“Advertising is difficult because it is very expensive and few cultural centers can afford it, but we regularly send our list of activates to Time Out New York which is a weekly and they pick up the programmes they are interested in. This summer one of our films was advertised there every week, some of our exhibitions have been advertised, and we do the same with the New York Times –they are especially interested in programmes for kids- we are usually featured whenever we have an event for children –which we have monthly, either a performance, concert or film with English subtitles.”

You are now in the reconstructed Bohemian National Hall –how happy are you there?

“We are very happy. For the first time the Czech centre has its own gallery and we can use all the facilities, we can use the cinema, we can use the roof – for screenings and small concerts and other social events. And we can also use the ballroom –the ballroom is the biggest room in the Hall, it seats 300 people, it has gorgeous acoustics for classical music so we collaborate with local organizations and musicians and invite people to use the place.”

This country is known for its ballroom dancing tradition – do you organize balls?

Czech center in New York
“Yes, I have been working at the Czech centre for a year and a half and in the past the centre used to organize its own balls, but we do not do it anymore. Now it is the two Czech expat organizations here that do it and they use the ballroom. But it is a big undertaking and we no longer have the capacity to organize it ourselves.”

What are your ambitions for the future?

“I would definitely like for the centre to attract more visitors. Not just in presenting Czech art – I would like to collaborate more with local organizations and through them to invite more Americans. Also, I hope that we will be able to use the ballroom more by offering it to musicians, to other organizations, saying look we have this wonderful facility and you can use it –we will not ask for rent we would just like for the place to become more culturally alive. Then I have ambitions to bring in some Czech artists and present them to the American audience in a very prestigious gallery or stage – one is Obludarium, the freak show by the Forman brothers, and I would love to see an exhibition by Adrianna Šimotová either in New York or Washinton D.C.”