Featured IAP Interview with Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer, NYC Council Member on The Cultural Immigrant Initiative

Featured IAP Interview with Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer, NYC Council Member on The Cultural Immigrant Initiative

NYFA’s Immigrant Artists’ Program (IAP) is always on the lookout for programs supporting the creative immigrant community. As such, when in 2014 Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Jimmy Van Bramer, Majority Leader and Chair of Cultural Affairs and Libraries Committee, announced the creation of cultural funding and the development of fresh cultural initiatives in New York City, IAP was instantly intrigued. 

Named The Cultural Immigrant Initiative, the new program provides cultural programming targeting immigrant groups throughout the five boroughs. This year the fund was doubled and IAP was fortunate to interview Jimmy Van Bramer to find out more about what inspired the initiative and why he is so passionate about supporting arts and immigrant communities in New York City. 

NYFA: How did you get passionate about the arts? What were your influences that pointed you in that direction?
JVB: As with most folks it started with Elementary school. I went to public school: PS70, in Astoria, Queens. The school had an amazing music teacher, Mrs. Miller, and in addition to Mrs. Miller teaching us a number of songs and performances, she played the piano for us in the auditorium so often that I came to love orchestra music. Every year we had a music festival and each class would put on plays, shows and performances. I believe they still do this now. I was a very shy kid, but I always participated, and we would have a lot of fun singing and dancing. So I certainly grew up as a lover of music and dance and performance, in particular. The school also had robust school trips and we visited the Queens Museum. It was the first museum I ever went to see. It was a great to be exposed to the arts at such a young age. Then, as I grew into adulthood, I continued to seek out the arts, took art classes, art appreciation classes and history of art in college, and have always gone to many museums and performances. Before I got elected, I served as President of the Queens Council of the Arts, so I have a great appreciation for individual artists and the role of our arts councils. As a result of my experience in the arts and libraries, when I got elected to the City Council, I only really wanted to be the Chair of Cultural Affairs and Libraries Committee which I am.

NYFA: What inspired you and your colleague Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito to create the The Cultural Immigrant Initiative last year?
JVB: Every year I have an open house in my district office in Sunnyside, Queens. A young man who I had never met before came to the open house. He introduced himself and said he was part of an Ecuadorian cultural organization called Ayazamana and wanted me to come and see them. I said it sounded like they are doing some great work. I asked him if he received any government funding for his organization and he said he didn’t really even know that existed and wouldn’t even know how to go about doing that. Like many other immigrant organizations, they raised all of the money themselves. I said to him “This is government funding, these are your tax dollars and you should be eligible for it.” I went to see their performance and was indeed very impressed with what they did. I really wanted to get Ayazamana into the cultural funding stream that existed in the city of New York.

It also made me think more broadly about other cultural organizations that are by and for largely immigrant communities all over the city of New York who are doing great work that deserve to be funded. There has never been a funding stream created that was specifically targeted towards these communities to build the organizations and their capacity and I wanted to change that.

This was several years ago. I wrote up a proposal forThe Cultural Immigrant Initiative and unfortunately, in the previous administration, it did not move. When Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito became the speaker last January, in my first meeting with her, I proposed The Cultural Immigrant Initiative. I dusted it off and bought it back to her and from the get go, she said “I like this, this is a good idea and we should do this.” With the Speaker’s help we created The Cultural Immigrant Initiative last year at $1.5 million that is a dedicated funding stream to small cultural organizations with budgets less than a million dollars that are specifically working with immigrant communities in the cultural realm. I am extremely proud that this year we more than doubled the initiative. Now that fund is at almost $3.2 million dollars and it is extremely exciting to have been able create this, with the support of the speaker, and see the good that it is already doing in the city of New York.

NYFA: Can you share any success stories that speak to the intended value of the initiative that enabled you to advocate for more funding?
JVB: There is a Caribbean folk singing group based in south east Queens called BRAATA Productions and they were recipients of the initial grant last year. They are a small organization that sings traditional Caribbean songs mostly from Jamaica and Trinidad. They told us that they had been long wanting to perform certain music and create a festival but they never had the funding to bring these songs and traditions to a wider audience. With the funding they received from The Cultural Initiative they were able do this. I went to see them perform recently and was honored by their organization for this initiative and am very impressed by them. When we had an announcement a couple of weeks back with the Speaker, we had them perform at this event.

I heard numerous stories from all over the city from my colleagues about some of the organizations that have received this funding and what they are doing to showcase the art, culture, dance, song, and languages from our multi-cultural city. This funding is so invaluable for organizations like BRAATA  and Thalia Hispanic Theater from our district. They are able to do more programming and pay more artists, and are able to celebrate their cultures in ways they weren’t able to do before this cultural fund stream existed. I am very proud of a number of things I have been able do on the city council but this is one of the things I am most proud of.

I had not known BRAATA  before all of this happened and I love that the funding is going to every neighborhood in the city of New York, finding folks like Founder and Executive Director Andrew Clarke and BRAATA, and building their capacity, increasing the size of their organizations and allowing them to do so much than before. We are at $3.2 million now and obviously I’d love to see it expanded even more next year. It is very exciting that in a time when arts funding has sometimes decreased or stagnated that we are creating and growing new funding streams specifically dedicated towards our immigrant communities. I think it is long overdue and I am really proud of it.  

— Interview by Felicity Hogan

Image: Jimmy Van Bramer, credit Bill Alatriste, NYC Council

Amy Aronoff
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