In the late 1980s a trickle of artists began to flow into Williamsburg Brooklyn on the north side around Bedford Avenue because of cheap rents and the convenience of the subway to Manhattan, just one stop away by L train. Artists began to open their studios as small pocket sized galleries and this began to attract weekend visitors, a few collectors, and even some museum and gallery folk from Manhattan. Little by little the small art colony grew. Meanwhile, the south side remained an underdeveloped area and was considered to be a “dangerous” place. Then in late 1996 the artist Yuko Nii bought the Kings County Savings Bank Building on the south side at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge on Broadway at the corner of Bedford Avenue, and founded the not-for-profit Williamsburg Art & Historical Center (WAH Center), based upon her Bridge Concept. That concept envisions a multifaceted, multicultural art center whose mission is to coalesce the diverse artistic communities, and create a bridge between local, national and international artists, emerging as well as established artists of all disciplines. Thus through the international language of art we come to understand each other to create a more peaceful and integrated world. The WAH Center is truly a force for peace and understanding and its concept is incorporated in its acronym: “WAH” in Japanese means “peace” or “harmony” or “unity.” Nii also wanted to preserve the WAH Center’s building, a French Second Empire masterpiece, which is on the National Register of Historic Places and a New York City Landmark, and make it a functional part of the cultural community of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY.
Since the creation of the WAH Center numerous articles about the WAH Center and Nii have been written in local, national and international magazines and newspapers. Nii has also appeared on many television and radio programs.
During the first 7-1/2 years the WAH Center has pursued what Chris Gray in an article in the New York Times called a “furious schedule,” producing over 150 fine art shows incorporating over 2500 artists, and countless performances. Since then till today it has produced many additional shows and events, totaling over 200 fine art exhibitions with more than 3,000 artists’ participants, and over 150 performance programs with more than 1000 performers.
Besides local and national exhibitions, the WAH Center has bridged internationally so far, to Cuba, Holland, Islamic Nations, Italy, Japan, Palestine, Russia, Slovenia, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam. The WAH Center plans to bridge to some other countries such as Israel, Germany and Latin America in the near future.
The WAH Center also produced an annual Art & Ability show by artists with disabilities. Each year the show became more popular and the number of the participants increased, and included both mentally & physically handicapped artists. Due to the lack of accessibility (an elevator) to the larger gallery space on the second floor, we had to discontinue the program after the 6th annual show.
Additionally the WAH Center has created a membership program, the WAH Salon Art Club. Every year the members participate in the annual January Salon Exhibition, and the 11th annual Salon Exhibition was held in January 2010. Depending upon the members’ good standing, the WAH Center offers a solo show in our small gallery and also offers to the members of high artistic merit a solo show at our affiliated exhibition space at the Amarin Café in Greenpoint.
Besides ongoing music, dance, theatrical productions, poetry and stage readings, symposia and lectures, the WAH Center created annual festivals such as the Williamsburg Film Festival, the Williamsburg Dance Festival, the January “Musical Meltdown” with over 20 bands taking turns playing from 4 o’clock in the afternoon to 6 A.M. the next morning, the Williamsburg Spring Festivals, the Williamsburg Fashion Festivals, an annual Williamsburg Historical Walking Tour lead by a local historian, and the Williamsburg Arts & Culture Festival (WAC Festival) that featured galleries, local businesses, artists’ open studios and provided a free shuttle loop bus service. The WAH Center was fortunate to be supported by local business people who generously donated wine, beer, food flowers, promotional considerations, etc. to the festivals.
Another merit we have pursued has been Nii’s wish to establish a permanent collection for the sake of the important historical record of the constant changing artistic climate of the current New York art world. Thus, the WAH Center started acquiring contemporary works mainly from the exhibitions held at the center, and also works not exhibited at the center, but donated by the center’s generous friends. And while many works are from artists in New York City, we also have works by artists from across the United States and abroad. The WAH Center is most thankful to have received so many works donated by generous artists, and is especially delighted and honored to have works by some particularly outstanding artists who are highly respected in the International Art World, such as Ilya Bolotowsky, Judy Chicago, Yayoi Kusama, Faith Ringgold, Jerry Rudquist, Toshiko Takaezu, and more. For the most part, however, they are working professionals of high talent some of whom have been already recognized, having had wide exposure in the New York art world and beyond, and some of whom have started receiving recognitions since they had their first exhibitions at the center, whose works have been acquired in the WAH Center’s permanent collection, and some of whom might be well known in the future. We are following their progress with great interest.
To honor the artists, the WAH Center presented their works to the public the fall of 2009 under the title, “Selected Contemporary Works from the Permanent Collection.” Because the number of the works in the collection has exceeded the center’s ability to show them all at once (more than 300 works), it was decided to divide the show into two parts: Part 1 show (collected from 1998-2001), started Oct. 3rd, ended Nov. 1st, and Part 2 show (2002-present), started Nov. 21st to Dec. 27th. The exhibit witnessed the rich collection that historically documents the past 13 years of wonderful experiences at the WAH Center.
Despite the financial hardship of the many expenses related to our operational costs and artistic projects, the WAH Center has been able to survive, thanks to many generous volunteers who have kindly donated their talents, time and energy, providing whatever they can to keep the Center going. Some of the volunteers have been with the center more than 12 years without payment. We have been very blessed by the human spirit of giving.
Thus, the WAH Center tried to follow it’s mission as much as possibly in the past 13 years by serving to the local, national and international art & cultural communities as well as the public in general.
The WAH Center has been recognized as an important asset for the Brooklyn and New York communities
In 1998 Howard Golden, then Brooklyn Borough President, named Nii one of Brooklyn’s “Women of the Year” for her “unparalleled devotion to her art and commitment to the artist community of “Williamsburg/Greenpoint.” And he said that the WAH Center’s activities have resulted in “tremendous cultural & economic activity throughout the northern Brooklyn area,” an area recently designated an “historic district” and “economic development zone.”
In 2001 Governor George Pataki named Nii one of “New York States’ Women of the Year”, and called her a “Woman of Excellence with Vision and Courage.” He also congratulated Nii on turning the historic Kings County Savings Bank Building into a multipurpose art center that serves the needs of artists and art aficionados of diverse backgrounds.
In 2003, Borough President Marty Markowitz named Nii as one of Brooklyn’s “Women of the Year” and gave Nii the “Betty Smith Arts Award” for her outstanding achievements and contributions to the arts in Brooklyn. And in the same year, 2003, City Councilwoman Tracy Boyland gave her the “Outstanding Citizen Award.”
In 2008, during Asian Heritage Month in May, Borough President Marty Markowitz honored six outstanding Asian leaders for their achievements and contributions to their communities, and gave Nii the “Asian Cultural Award.”
The WAH Center received the kind financial help given by New York City Councilmember Ken Fisher who provided a yearly $20,000 line item grant for a number of years in his budget until his term ended, and also $68,000 by a joint effort of the The New York Landmark Conservancy and the New York City Landmark Commission in 2000 to help restore the clock tower, a part of which fell during a hurricane.
In 2004, the center’s insurance company required that a fire escape had to be installed under threat of canceling our policy. Borough President Marty Markowitz, along with local councilwoman, Diana Reyna secured and saved the center with a $120,000 grant through DCA for the installation of the fire escape to the building. This construction took over three and half years to complete, during which time the center was allowed to have events/activities only on the ground floor, which had a second aggress, which limited in being able to produce only small scale but nonetheless very colorful local artists’ exhibitions.
Last year, the WAH Center received $5,000 grant from the landmark commission to repair the leaking roof.
Integration with Strategic Priorities of Brooklyn, New York City and New York State
The location of the building is one of New York’s most historically significant areas and an economic development zone. Williamsburg has also been in the last 10 years one of New York’s largest art communities. The building and the art center are vital resources for the city & state, and the building's restoration is essential. We are pleased to note that we are helping to fulfill the objectives in the New York State Historic Preservation Plan by “promoting preservation as a catalyst for economic development and tourism,” and by “integrating historic preservation into the planning process through close coordination among federal, state, regional and municipal agencies,” and by “fostering pride in community.”
The WAH Center is committed to investing in areas that enhance quality in all areas of its operations. Priorities for investment include recruitment and retention one of the best curatorial individuals with emphasis on diversity. Accordingly, investment in quality of life for staff, volunteers and interns is also a high priority. In pursuit of excellence, the WAH Center recognized from day one the importance of internationalization, pursuing today’s necessity of “globalization” and ensuring that our communities understand the world’s cultural diversity. The WAH Center is a valuable asset to the New York community who demand great cultural amenities where they live, work and enjoy their lives. With its diverse collections and exhibitions featuring art from all over the world, the WAH Center contributes to the city’s emphasis on internationalization and cultural diversity.
The WAH Center is committed to making its space accessible, welcoming and meaningful to diverse audiences and in the next five years will focus on collaborating with Brooklyn partners and beyond to increase and improve its service to all people and our aging population, among other underserved audiences. Among the highest immediate priorities is to install a handicap elevator so the elderly and disabled can access the second & third floors to enjoy our fine art exhibits and performing art programs.
Interdisciplinary collaboration is also important. Recognizing the incredible potential of creative collaboration across disciplines, from the fine arts, to science and humanities in the academic world, the WAH Center has taken the lead in activating the “interactive art center” concept. An interactive art center is one where creativity and innovation are encouraged and fostered in all areas, often through collaborations across disciplines. The WAH Center takes pride in its successful interdisciplinary partnerships in education; fine arts; performing arts, and literary arts. In prioritizing dialogue about global ideas and issues in its exhibitions and programs, the WAH Center demonstrates its commitment to work creatively with colleagues from many different disciplines to pursue groundbreaking and innovative artistic endeavors.
Another borough-wide priority is Brooklyn’s cultural revival sustainability. This initiative is led by Yuko Nii who seeks to make the art center a model of sustainability, integrating the goals of artistic excellence, with creating an atmosphere that will enhance tourism and economic development and social equity in its operations, exhibitions, performances, and outreach.
The WAH Center values its close working relationship with the Borough of Brooklyn, academic institutions such as Pratt Institute, Brooklyn College, and the WAH Center partners with the local community on many initiatives designed to improve the quality of life for all residents. At the corner of Bedford Avenue and Broadway, we occupy a symbolic and actual gateway into Williamsburg and Brooklyn at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge, serving as a “cultural bridge” between the international communities and the wider New York community and a catalyst to creative engagement we offer a rich array of exhibitions, performance programs and lectures/symposia designed to inspire and educate people and enrich their lives. Thus Yuko Nii in founding the art center used the “bridge concept” in developing her art center, bridging fine art and performing arts in interactive events and exhibits, bridging young and old artists and performers who can learn from each other. Bridging art of yesterday, today and looking to the art of tomorrow.
The WAH Center distinguishes itself among local art organizations as a creative laboratory for innovation in the visual arts. Accordingly, WAH Center makes great works by living artists of diverse groups (local, national and international) accessible to diverse audiences by using a variety of innovative approaches to the fine art & performing art using science and technology and uses the interpretation of art to express opinions about environmental and social concerns. We also want to present shows that reveal our historical context, for humans of today are a product of their past.
The WAH Center will exemplify not only innovative leadership in the international art community, but other creative fields as well, pursuing original research to develop stellar collections, engaging exhibitions, creative publications and unique programs that includes an artists membership program, international shows, integrating fine art exhibits with performing arts as well as lectures and symposia.
The WAH Center places education and scholarship about art at the forefront of its activities, providing visitors with engaging and inspiring experiences that enhance visual literacy and promote cultural diversity by inviting fine artists, craftsmen with video & slide presentations, demonstrations of new techniques, and critical discussions on the state of the arts.
The WAH Center contributes to an interconnected, international community by being accessible to all and employing art to explore and celebrate the diversity of world cultures.
The WAH Center achieves excellence through diligent stewardship of resources and collections in its care, maintaining the utmost integrity and accountability in all areas of its operations.
1. To weave the WAH Center’s programs into the fabric of the local and international communities in order to enhance cultural and learning.
We embrace the special role as an art center at a great moment and place in time. The WAH Center is a catalyst to creative engagement between the art and wider communities and partners with colleagues to serve audiences worldwide. Our highest goal and greatest commitment is to integrate every aspect of the art center’s work into the international community. Accordingly, every member of the WAH Center’s staff serves as a liaison to that broader community and will contribute to the development of partnerships and collaborations that enrich the art experience while advancing the goals of the art center.
2. To broaden our national and international reputation and influence as a leader among art organizations.
As a jewel in the crown of the Williamsburg community, our goal is to be a leader. The WAH Center has already produced historically significant shows and is recognized in a number of key areas. We are poised to receive comparable recognition in other areas.
By 2011, the WAH Center will expand its offerings and will expand our opportunities to partner with other organizations and individuals to attract the support of donors who can help us to achieve our goals.
3. To provide a friendly environment that stimulates engaging and meaningful art-centered visitor experiences for diverse audiences.
We will schedule a variety of types of exhibitions to appeal to diverse audiences. We will ensure that young visitors to the art center always encounter exhibitions, programs and activities to make their art center experiences exciting and educational to enrich their lives.
4. To use the diverse art exhibitions, performances, film, poetry & literary readings, symposia and lectures to facilitate dialogue about global ideas and issues.
In our fine art exhibitions, performances and other events such as poetry, lectures, and symposia the WAH Center will engage ideas and issues that are on the minds of people on a global scale, locally nationally and internationally. These may range, for example, from the nature of the creative mind to environmental and cultural sustainability. We will explore with our cultural colleagues the many ways that artists reflect on, respond to and influence the societies in which they live and work. Exhibitions and performances and events that address the compelling issues of our day will ensure that the experience of great works of art at the WAH Center is stimulating emotionally and intellectually.
5. To work with Brooklyn partners and beyond to make the WAH Center a destination for the experience and enjoyment of art & culture.
We share with our neighbors a vision of the WAH Center as a marvelous destination for people interested in the visual and performing arts. This area of Williamsburg is busy day and night, with people enjoying the local cultural scene, restaurants and shops.