INTERVIEW/ICR-New York Director: Outbreak of pandemic pushed us online and we found ourselves global institute

Director of the Romanian Cultural Institute in New York Dorian Branea told AGERPRES, in an interview, that the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the institution's activity in the online environment, and this meant the identification of new ways to promote the Romanian values on the New York cultural market, but also a greater visibility, in all corners of the world. "The online environment has allowed us to compete more confidently in this market, it has had a somewhat leveling effect, keeping the proportions, but we have been able to create events with a very high visibility and that can be distinguished even in such a busting environment as the one in New York. Suddenly, from a physical institute in New York, operating on the New York market, but also in North America, the United States and Canada at large, we found ourselves a global institute," says Dorian Branea. He talks in the interview about the way the COVID-19 pandemic has affected cultural life and that of the ICR New York, but also about the process of modernizing the institution or future plans, which include the reorganization of a library with over 20,000 volumes. The director of ICR New York also talks about the first event organized after the resumption of cultural activities, in the context of the pandemic. Among the future projects of ICR New York is an exhibition by artist Dumitru Gorzo, but also a larger event dedicated to writer Norman Manea. AGERPRES: The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the world. How were the effects of this pandemic felt at the ICR New York level? Dorian Branea: It is obviously an enormously difficult and even tragic period for all humankind. The sudden, untimely, overwhelming outbreak created a shock for everyone, at the level of states, major institutions and came as a tsunami, as a very devastating avalanche for everything that means cultural life, artistic life, affecting us as well. On the other hand, paradoxically, it was also a great opportunity and we took it as such, because it allowed us to accelerate a process that we had begun, namely, the transition to a digital or hybrid cultural diplomacy, carried out in physical spaces, on physical stages, but also in the online environment. It was a process that we had started, we were working on the development of this neo-media ecosystem - a high-performance site, which would allow many functions, attracting an ever-renewing American public, accounts on social platforms, an active database. The onset of the pandemic, which caused the entire artistic and cultural world of New York to end its activity, pushed us into the virtual environment, but it helped us to develop an approach which had not been previously so intense or, in any case, less frequented. And it was a huge chance, we all learned a lot during this time of more than a year and a half. We managed to intensify our activity at a pace that we could not even have imagined before. We were able to experience new ways of promoting Romanian culture, given the ferocity of the New York cultural market, the difficulties of access, the difficulties of partnership, the fierce competition of this avalanche of events produced by New York cultural organizations, some of them the most famous and frequented worldwide. The online environment has allowed us to compete more confidently in this market, it had a somewhat leveling effect, keeping the proportions, but we were able to create events with a very high visibility and that could be distinguished even in such a bustling environment as the one in New York. Suddenly, from a physical institute located in New York, operating on the New York market, but also in North America, in the USA and Canada at large, we found ourselves to be a global institute, because the online environment means international addressability, beyond of all borders. It was a difficult time that left its mark on our lives. As the director of this institute, I say that the greatest achievement of this period is the fact that the whole team came out healthy out of the most difficult moments of the pandemic, I say in a very good tone. There were no illnesses, medical, physical or psychological problems. There have been some opportunities harnessed, first of all, this expansion in the online environment. This very fierce activity in the virtual area has brought us closer to the ideal of a hybrid action in the physical and online space, which will become the norm of our promotional action from now on. In addition to this exclusively online activity, we had the opportunity to carry out extensive renovations, rearrangement of the headquarters, optimization of our space - they had not been done for some time. With the support of the MAE [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] headquarters, we managed, on the basis of very well-drawn plans, to approach what we would call the transformation of an office space according to the stylistics of the international architecture of the '60s into a truly multipurpose center of cultural diplomacy, Romanian cultural projects. We consider, and we are very aware of this, that Romania, the Romanian culture, has a strategic advantage by the fact that we have this space in the heart of Manhattan, in the heart of New York. This space has a lot of potential, it was capitalized on this occasion, but there are a few other things that, once achieved, and we hope to be able to achieve in the coming years, will lead to the creation of a Romanian cultural scene, a Romanian cultural space that will allow the realization of the entire repertoire of formats of cultural diplomacy - concerts, shows, exhibitions, debates, dialogues, various presentations, almost everything that means international promotion. About 70 percent of our plans to create this multi-purpose cultural center of Romania in New York have been realized. The most important thing in this effort to rearrange, renovate, reorganize the space is the creation of the Romanian art gallery that we called "Constantin Brancusi", not only because the great Brancusi is the tutelary figure of Romanian art, one of the great artists of world, but because it is one of the bridge figures between Romania and the USA. He is a much-loved artist in the United States, has very large collections, the largest in the world at the Guggenheim Museum, MOMA, the Philadelphia Museum, and important collections, so our choice was a natural one. This exhibition space, which endows the institute after more than seven years with such a gallery with the possibility of exhibiting, will be dedicated to the promotion of Romanian and Romanian-American artists on a very expensive visual arts market that is difficult to penetrate, in which the costs for organizing an exhibition can escalate to frightening amounts, or, having this exhibition space is, I think, a great advantage for the promotion of Romanian and Romanian-American artists. Our entire space, this entire multipurpose Romanian cultural space in the heart of New York, is designed to offer a permanent season of the Romanian culture in New York, that expresses the full diversity of forms, ideas, approaches of the diverse Romanian culture and we have a lot of things to show as long as we have a clear curatorial idea. AGERPRES: The pandemic caught you in the middle of this process of repositioning and relaunching the Institute. Did you say that you managed to complete 70 percent of this process, what does the remaining 30 percent mean? Dorian Branea: The Romanian Cultural Institute in New York has as a precursor the Romanian library in New York, founded in 1969. Basically, this institute was originally a library and the program extension of this library, then it became a cultural center and then a cultural institute. From the point of view of physical space itself, it operates in the same place. These changes have led to a different approach, as cultural diplomacy has evolved as a vision, techniques, resources invested. Our next major intervention, which we want very much and which we have planned quite thoroughly and we hope to solve next year, is the reorganization of this Romanian library, which has over 20,000 volumes. A laborious reorganization, which involves several components, from the withdrawal of the books and the restoration of the book fund, so that it can be used as an initiation in the most important aspects of the Romanian humanist culture, from history, literature, language Romanian, grammar, visual arts, cultural history, biography, children's books, up to various interventions in the physical space of renovation, rearrangement and creation of a search engine as efficient as possible, based on a reconstruction in the sense of the most modern library techniques. We want this library to be built according to the latest library standards. We hope it will bring us closer to this ideal of creating this multipurpose cultural center, which will include, in addition to the small performance hall, film screenings, an art gallery and a book library and an information-documentation center as well. so that, upon entering the Cultural Institute of New York, you can experience the whole variety of Romanian culture in all its forms of manifestation. AGERPRES: What public can ICR New York now host after the rearrangement? Dorian Branea: We try to host as many people as possible in this space, which is not very big. Apart from the restrictions given by the pandemic, our studio hall, our main event hall, can accommodate around 90 seated people and the entire space around 130-140 people standing, using the Brancusi gallery, as well. It is not a very large space, but there are many things that can be done and it is a space comparable to many cultural spaces in Manhattan, if we consider that Off-Off-Broadway theaters can accommodate under 250 people - and they are actually very well known and prestigious institutions - or various other reading spaces, poetry or dialogues with intellectual and cultural personalities, which have around 100-150 seats. I think that we can be competitive, relevant, interesting with this space, it is true, of more modest dimensions, but enormously precious, so an enormous strategic advantage for the Romanian state and the Romanian culture, which must become this showcase of the Romanian cultural diversity. AGERPRES: Not long ago, cultural activities with the public were opened. Recently, you organized an event to relaunch this space with a retrospective of photographer Viorel Florescu - double Pulitzer Prize winner. What new projects are you preparing? Dorian Branea: On September 17, we organized a triple celebration. Namely: the return to the physical spaces, the projects with the public we had missed for a long time and that no technology can replace, a second celebration was the presentation of our renewed space and the opening of the Brancusi gallery and the organization of the first retrospective of an exceptional photojournalist. Unfortunately, very little known in the country - Viorel Florescu, but a personality of documentary photography in New York. We organized the event with great caution, because we have to strictly apply the sanitary regulations imposed by the American authorities. We could only admit the vaccinated public, we kept the legal distancing as much as possible, we asked the public to wear masks throughout the whole event. We also had a very important exhibition with our colleagues from the EUNIC association in New York. A project that started as an online initiative and has now developed can also be expressed in physical form and we are pleased to open this exhibition accomplished artists located on both sides of the Atlantic, in the EU and New York, developed during the pandemic between people who do not know each other, between some transatlantic artistic couples, and now the fruit of this online activity is presented. The opening will take place this week. The exhibition is hosted by colleagues from the Austrian Cultural Forum, but events will also take place at the Romanian Cultural Institute. We are preparing a concert in October, an exhibition in November of the artist Dumitru Gorzo, a very well-known Romanian artist with long stays in the United States. We will also have a composite event, in which we present a photography exhibition with images from the life of the great Romanian-American writer Norman Manea. He turns 85 this year, but it is not an anniversary project. Talking to Norman Manea, I promised him that we would not use this word because he is still a writer in full swing, he is preparing the release of a book, so he is not thinking about anniversaries, but a regular activity, however, we thought that it is important to honor the talent and presence of this important civic consciousness, not only Romanian, through a composite event that is a photo exhibition, but it is also an event to evoke his work and personality, which we realize together with the Romanian Embassy in Washington. As for the retrospect part, there will be an introductory speech by the Romanian Ambassador to the USA, Mr. Andrei Muraru, a lecture on the work and life of Norman Manea, delivered by probably one of the most competent experts in the work of the famous writer, Professor Claudiu Turcus from the University Babes Bolyai from Cluj, as well as other memories offered by Romanian and American friends. AGERPRES: When would this event take place? Dorian Branea: At the end of October, on October 29. AGERPRES: What are the conditions for organizing cultural events in the context of the pandemic? Dorian Branea: It is mandatory for public admission to cultural and sporting events to present proof of vaccination. Wearing a mask is mandatory, and social distancing is again something to keep in mind. AGERPRES: Is the allocated budget enough for a cultural institution? Dorian Branea: People of culture and cultural institutions always complain about budgets and it would be a stereotypical answer that I could give. I can't give it, I know it sounds completely and completely unusual. Obviously you want more and more is needed. I would say that with the set up of this team in New York - we are all part of a team that started in the summer of 2018 - I think we managed to endow the institute with a satisfactory budget. I repeat, each budget must be adequate for a certain period of a cultural institution, or we have gone through an accelerated period of development, expansion, reinvention, repositioning of the institute and in each of these years we have had some concrete needs. I could not say, however, that we could not achieve, with perhaps certain exceptions, almost everything we set out to do, including operationally, so with the projects carried out also in terms of physical infrastructure. Of course, now we are entering a different period, once the pandemic has subsided, it will have been defeated, in which budgetary needs will increase, but so far we have felt a great receptivity from the ICR and MAE, our tutelary institutions that ensure the administrative budget, respectively the operational budget. There is always room for more and better, but I think that if you present some very clear plans, if the strategy behind them is obvious, if it makes sense and if you have shown that you can successfully carry out these projects, no one has an interest in underfunding an ambitious institution that, in the last resort, highlights the Romanian culture and strengthens this cultural-educational component that exists in the Strategic Partnership between Romania and the United States, which represents our permanent reference in terms of cultural promotion action. AGERPRES: Is New York becoming again, as it is known, "the city that never sleeps"? Dorian Branea: Yes, for some time now it has been a city that is back with all the engines running, not only to the economic, social life, but also on the cultural scene. Recently, on Friday, Broadway opened after a year and a half of dimly lit awnings and posters removed from windows. New York has become again a very lively, very dynamic city. It has not completely returned to its pre-pandemic existence for a very simple reason, namely that international tourism is not yet possible in the United States. To this city, which used to attract millions of tourists and which doubled its population annually, if we add tourists, the only element it lacks is this mass tourism. Otherwise, little by little, the whole cultural world returns to a kind of normalcy. The dynamism inherent in this city has the floor again and we are getting reintegrated into the dynamism of this city, trying to be not only a cultural promoter, operating in the field of cultural diplomacy for an official public, or quasi-official or only with our diplomatic colleagues, but trying to be a true multipurpose cultural center, a showcase of Romanian culture on the real, proper cultural market of New York. AGERPRES (RO - author: Florentina Peia, editor: Mirela Barbulescu; EN - author: Simona Iacob, editor: Razvan-Adrian Pandea)

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