People Who Make NY Special

Rachel Chanoff‘s Ever-Evolving Vision

How BRIC House’s senior artistic adviser has been shaping Brooklyn’s performance scene for three decades.

Photo courtesy of Thomas Lesser

With more than three decades of experience in the fields of film, music, and the visual arts, Rachel Chanoff has collaborated with some of the biggest names in popular culture. In addition to ongoing work with her own production company, Chanoff serves as the performing arts and film curator for both the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and the New York Jewish Film Festival. She consults with the Sundance Institute and contributes as the senior artistic adviser for programming at Brooklyn’s BRIC House. New Yorkers probably know her best as the artistic director for the BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn Festival, which wrapped its 38th summer season in Prospect Park earlier this month with a knockout show from Senegalese musical icon Youssou N’Dour.

We were lucky enough to catch Chanoff in an extremely rare moment of quiet to ask about her favorite things to do in the city, her favorite artists, and the future of cultural curation.

Can you tell me a bit about the founding and evolution of BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn?
Celebrate grew out of an intentionally forward-thinking, civic impulse to lure people back into Prospect Park. When we began, the neighborhood and the park were drastically different, both more diamonds in the rough than what they are today. The umbrella organization of BRIC Arts sprung up organically as a framework to maintain and amplify what became Celebrate Brooklyn’s signature elements: social impact and an aggressive ethos of inclusion. Those two things are part of the DNA of the organization and still guide the work we do today; it’s a rare and special place to be.

Given the relatively new creation of BRIC Arts’s brick-and-mortar space on Fulton Street, how do you expect BRIC’s role to change as it pertains to the borough?
BRIC House has staked out what I think is a crucial spot in our neighborhood as a welcoming, beautiful, accessible home for performance and as a meeting place for Brooklynites to talk and learn. There’s a video production studio, art galleries, public meeting spaces…part of what makes the building special is its openness. We see BRIC House as a matrix where things get made, creators can cross over into fresh disciplines, compelling conversations start, art is seen, and new ideas develop. We want to be Brooklyn culture’s living room, and we’re listening to the local community to determine the best way to do that, both now and in the future.

When did you know that you wanted to work in the arts?
I never wanted to do anything else. When I was in college, I got an internship at Playwright’s Horizons as André Bishop’s assistant. I was there for many years; we did the first runs of Sunday in the Park With George, Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, and The March of the Falsettos. It was a superfertile time for off-Broadway theater; I ended up dropping out of college to focus on that work. But, you know, it felt like all that theater was written by white guys from Yale. I adore those plays, but there was a particular view of the world in the work that I didn’t always share. Ultimately, I ended up leaving to find out what techniques other kinds of theater-makers were using to tell their stories.

Over the course of your career, would you say you face less or the same amount of gender discrimination from people within the industry now than when you started?
More, unfortunately. A lot of people believe that programming is the last bastion and purview of colonialism. We don’t want it to be!

How do you mean?
You look at who is running the major cultural organizations all over the world and it’s still almost exclusively white men. I’m not sure how or when that changes. In America, there are people—and I’m one of them!—who control what does and doesn’t get put onstage for decades at a time. Everybody ends up choosing from the dominant pool of artists, and that pool is populated almost entirely from a white male perspective. That’s what I mean by colonialism: white male perspective determining what everyone should hear and see and enjoy.

I don’t mean to exempt myself or my work from that criticism either. The mission of BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn is to really reflect what the Brooklyn community is all about and what it needs. That is necessarily a multicultural project. But when I look at my programming team, we’re all white. So even though we’re progressive people, and I really believe that we’re doing a strong job presenting a multicultural collection of artists who address multicultural issues, it’s not multicultural curators who are bringing that point of view to the table.

So how can you fix that?
I ask myself that all the time. I often find myself being brought in as a consultant to speak with institutions about multicultural programming, and the whole room is white!

On one side, the question is, Who can tell whose story? I feel vehemently that we all have the right and imperative to explore worlds beyond our own. You’re saying that because I’m Jewish, I can make art about the Holocaust but not the civil rights movement? I don’t accept that. I’m of the opinion that that line of thinking is how we got into this fucked-up, silo-ed political situation we’re in now, where empathy for everyone else’s plight is in such short supply. That said, I feel like I’m obligated as someone who runs a curatorial company to cultivate people with other perspectives and different identities, not just people who love art so they want to be around it. I need to be helping groom the next generation’s curators now so that they have the experience and expertise to speak for themselves.

And are you seeing that happen now?
Not really. For sure there’s a grassroots group of curators coming up in the ranks who aren’t all white or all male, but I’m not seeing them supported by the major cultural institutions.

Who can we expect to see at BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn in upcoming years?
Celebrate Brooklyn is lucky enough to have developed a family of artists who come back to us time and time again with powerful and intriguing projects. Can you imagine how great my job is? I get a phone call and it’s Angelique Kidjo or Jason Moran or Carrie Mae Weems or Chris Thile or William Kentridge saying they want to work with us. How do you do better than that? The sad days are when we lose a member of that family, as we just did with the beloved Geri Allen. We were always blessed to have her on our stage.

Who counts as a “dream artist” to get on your stage?
The list is endless. I’ll name just one: Grace Jones.

Plan out a perfect day for yourself in New York: Where would you go and what would you do?
I’m sure I’d hit the dog park, read The New York Times front to back, sit in the sun, and take lots of cabs all over the city. I don’t know about doing it by myself; for me, the best day out would be among my community of friends and family.

Rachel Chanoff’s Faves…in a NY Minute

NYC-themed movie?
Escape From New York.

Coffee shop?
Café Archway in Dumbo.

Rainy-day activity?
The Angelika.

The PowerHouse Arena.

Place to people-watch?
The High Line, but only before 10 a.m.

Walk a mile in Rachel Chanoff’s shoes; we can arrange a BRIC-centric day around the neighborhood.