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New start for Williamsburg venue - Chez Bushwick to receive $150,000 cultural fund; looks to strengthen arts community

Jonah Bokaer paces around the soft, well-worn hardwood floors of the East Williamsburg performance venue, Chez Bushwick, setting up pillows and chairs for the evening’s event, a film series on modern dance curated by Michael Kelley.

“We were started in 2002 and we’ve always operated in the black,” said Bokaer, a choreographer and Chez Bushwick’s Founding Director, as he carried three cakes to be sliced for guests attending the night’s the film screening. “For the first six years we had no budget but I was starting to think how we can be more efficient to more people.”

Last November, the Rockefeller Foundation announced that Chez Bushwick would receive a 2009-2010 Rockefeller New York City Cultural Innovation Fund award, a gift of $150,000 over a period of two years. The space, located at 304 Boerum St., along with the new Center for Performance Research (361 Manhattan Ave.), which is home to several dance companies and interdisciplinary performance events, will likely become a new hub of collaborative community arts projects in the neighborhood in the coming months. With the funding, Bokaer aims to launch a community coalition called CAPITAL B, which stands for Coalition of Art & Performance Initiatives Towards A Livable Bushwick, though this would include many Williamsburg arts organizations as well.

Chez Bushwick’s staff members have indicated that their strategic planning would be to identify and work with twelve local organizations across a spectrum of the arts, which include galleries, performance venues, educational institutions, and volunteer groups. The outreach is still in the early stages and discussions with local community groups has only recently begun.

“We are trying to create more strengthening of resources and strengthening of the network,” said Jane Gabriels, Chez Bushwick’s Director of Community Programs. “We want to keep an eye on real estate too. People know arts is happening out here but we’re trying to deepen connections in the community.”

Chez Bushwick members know that keeping artists in East Williamsburg will be difficult, as market forces, city laws and political decisions can force artists from loft spaces they have converted due to a number of factors. Their political goals remain unclear, though their artistic goals appear to center around promoting collaboration among arts-minded groups in the community. Whether this could lead to new interdisciplinary performances, profitable arts festivals run by Arts in Bushwick, the founding of new nonprofit groups, or the stabilization of neighborhood galleries and existing entities such as Lumenhouse (87 Beaver St.) or the Bushwick Starr (187 Starr St.) remains to be seen.

It is also unclear how the recession will affect development in East Williamsburg, though Gabriels believes that the real estate market has slowed enough so that it will give the arts organizations time to organize and gather resources to prevent further displacement.  Bokaer is mainly adamant about not reinventing the wheel and building coalitions among the existing groups in East Williamsburg and Bushwick in order to achieve those goals.

“An aspect of this can be regranting,” Bokaer said. “We don’t plan to change what anyone is doing. We want to reward that. The grant will build on small connections that have been made before.”

For more information about Chez Bushwick, visit www.chezbushwick.net or call 718-418-4405.

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