Bill Bragin, executive artistic director of New York University Abu Dhabi’s Arts Centre Image Credit: Anjana Sankar/XPRESS

Abu Dhabi: As the executive artistic director of New York University Abu Dhabi’s (NYUAD) Arts Centre, Bill Bragin is one of the most influential movers and shakers on the UAE capital’s cultural landscape.

He has been leading and shaping NYUAD’s public art programme and community interaction since September 2014. With the 2016-2017 art season getting under way this month, XPRESS caught up with Bragin to talk about his role as the curator and frontrunner of contemporary art in Abu Dhabi. Bragin says leaving New York’s vibrant music scene – he was dubbed one of the most influential figures in New York’s live-music business – to be on the frontline of a cultural revolution in the UAE capital has been one of the most rewarding experiences of his career.

Excerpts from the interview:

How important is your job as an ambassador of art and culture?

It is very important. I joke in my Twitter profile that I have been imposing my taste of art and music on my friends for the longest time now. Ever since I was in high school, I was the kind of guy who would force my friends to listen to my records. I was able to do the same for neighbours and friends as the Director of Joe’s Pub or at the Central Park Summer Stage in the US. And I was always inspired by art from all over the world. And being able to do the same in Abu Dhabi in a different context and coming into contact with a community that is incredibly diverse has been fantastic.

You joined NYUAD two years ago. How has been your journey?

People have been extremely receptive and audiences super enthusiastic about what we bring to them. There is a sense that the work we are doing here at the Arts Centre is transforming Abu Dhabi, and to be in the forefront of that process is an advantage. Also the way that UAE is at crossroads of the north and south and east and west, and the co-existence of deeply traditional and hypermodern energy is something dynamic. The kind of artists who are drawn here represent that hybrid nature that is so part and parcel of the DNA here.

As someone who has been in the limelight of New York’s live music scene, how does it feel to be working in an emerging cultural landscape like Abu Dhabi?

I have been lucky enough to work in the most important and visible institutions in New York City and the US. In New York there is so much going on all the time. Your work has an impact but it does not transform the place. So the idea that the work I do here can have a long term resonance and reverberation that can transform the place is very special. Also I am in a city where art and culture are going to be key elements in defining itself in future.

What is the response to NYUAD events?

Honestly, the public participation has exceeded my expectation so far. I was told that the kind of contemporary art performance I present does not have many takers here. But many of our events got sold out within minutes. Even if the artists are not well known, the publicity they get through word of mouth has been great. So there is a real appetite for art here. We also have events like Rooftop Rhythms where audiences become performers, and the opportunity to interact and discover themselves also draws the crowd.

You bring in artists from all over the world to perform in Abu Dhabi. What about local talent?

First and foremost, the art performances are free and they allow everyone to partake. People bring in ideas and inspiration that can open up the world of opportunities for others. Usually our artists are here for a week or two. So built into the format of the programme are master classes and lectures where students or local artists get opportunities to collaborate with the artists to explore opportunities to hone their skills. We also work with local universities and schools bringing in students for programmes and organising interactive sessions with our artists.

What’s your take on art education imparted in UAE schools?

I am not familiar with the syllabus here. But I know there is a huge appetite for art. From my standpoint, art training and music training is not just about creating artists and musicians. It is about changing the way people think. It is about making people understand that art serves many functions. It is about self-expression. And cultural creativity might lead to the next technological breakthrough or entrepreneurial idea.

With the opening of Louvre and Guggenheim museums, do you see NYUAD Arts Centre vying for space on Saadiyat Island?

Personally one of the things that made me come here was that these museums were opening. The idea that Saadiyat is going to be a cultural centre is compelling. That concentration of art will draw more creative energy to the community and will open endless possibilities for art lovers. We are already having art and culture roundtables with curators from the museums to understand who is doing what and when. Obviously we are not competing directly, but you will see lot of collaboration.