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James Bartlett on MoCADA, The Fear of Failing and Beating the NYC Grind

James Bartlett on MoCADA, The Fear of Failing and Beating the NYC Grind

Jamesbartlett

James Bartlett has a lot on his plate but you wouldn't know it. His calm coolness suggest he's often the laid back dude among the late night revelers, observing the chaos without being overrun by it. As the Executive Director of MoCADA, The Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts, James is constantly visioning and implementing, along with his tight staff, to showcase new and innovative work within the African Diaspora and create a space that values community outreach and interaction. 

In addition to his work with MoCADA, James is the co-founder of MVMT, "a collective of artists, entrepreneurs, and organizers whose missions align to promote the arts, social entrepreneurship, and collective empowerment." We spoke about the paradox of the New York grind, his epiphany on his last trip to Ghana, and why the process and the present is all we have.

You’re from the South right?

Well, I’m from Louisville, Kentucky, born and raised. My father is, and was, a musician and singer but it just felt like it was a regular job to me. So in hindsight I had a lot of exposure to the arts but it didn’t feel like it growing up. It was just my dad’s job, he played piano and he sang.

Do you play any instruments?

I don’t. I just recently started dabbling on the piano.  Growing up my dad didn’t discourage us from getting into music but he didn’t push us. I think secretly or subconsciously he didn’t want us to go into music because it’s a tough life. I like music but I wasn’t drawn to playing. I was drawn to basketball and played in high school and college. I  came to NYU for grad school and got my masters in magazine publishing and I was bit with the entrepreneurial bug. I liked the magazine world but it was just one potential form of artistic and entrepreneurial expression and I was more interested in the arts in general, so I started exploring the business of the arts.

I stared a company with Terence Nance and Rolando Brown called MVMT. We had our own internal artistic projects and offered consulting services to arts organizations. On our own artistic projects, we settled into music and film. I worked and managed Blitz the Ambassador for about five or six years. I executive produced his first album and worked with him over the course of the next several years. On the film side, I worked with Terrance on his first feature film, An Oversimplification of Her Beauty.

I did the MVMT thing for about six or seven years but we started working with MoCADA as a client about four years ago. I fell more and more in love with the mission of the museum and even developed some projects from scratch like the MoCADA journeys program, a travel program I conceived and produced. Our first trip was to Ghana was in 2012 for about 35 people and I produced a concert featuring Blitz the Ambassador and Les Nubians; about 2000 people came out to the concert. The people that came on the trip from the states loved it. We’re actually planning a trip to Kenya next year.

MoCADA is kind of the intersection of the majority of my personal passions and interests. It combines so many things - from visual arts to performing arts etc. I also realized that in the six or seven years of doing MVMT, I‘ve always been the person who supported others artistic vision.  I found that a skill I have is getting peoples artistic visions out but also being the museum director gives me the opportunity to create my own end vision as well. At the end of the day I set the tone, direction and the programming so for me it’s the perfect balance of facilitating the creation of art by others but also having a vision of my own that is very specific.

A museum is a very Western concept. It is the idea that art and culture needs to be housed in a building. I like to look at art and culture from a more African context. In Africa art is about community, connections, interaction, creativity, preservation of historical traditions, etc.

Can you talk a bit about the work MoCADA does with marginalized groups of folks in New York City? You're one of the only museums I know taking such a hands-on approach to working with residents of lower socio-economic neighborhoods. Museums typically have a really high-brow/elite type of aesthetic. Why is it important for you to change that ideology?

MoCADA really tries to reach people where they live, rather than insisting that they come to us. For that reason we put art programming in public schools, parks, small business, and public housing.  We believe that art has the ability to transform lives and communities, and that it shouldn't be confined to a box, or reserved for the elite.   The fact that we are even called a "museum," for me personally, is just to give funders a general box to put us in for grant purposes. We are much more than that.  A museum is a very Western concept.  It is the idea that art and culture needs to be housed in a building.  I like to look at art and culture from a more African context.  In Africa art is about community, connections, interaction, creativity, preservation of historical traditions, etc.

Obviously you work with many artists, do you ever feel like there's an artist in you that wants to be expressed?

I’ve always been very content with helping other people get out their vision. I’ve always felt like I was an artist in the sense that everyone is an artist. I always feel creative. I guess when I think of artists, I think of someone with a very specific vision that if changed, is compromised. I always think of my vision as very malleable and flexible and that my vision is bigger than anything I would have the capacity to create. I inherently have to enlist the support of others in creating their visions that are part of my overall vision. My personal artistic creativity is more just being a whole human being in the sense that art and creation is just a part of being human.

I always think of my vision as very malleable and flexible and that my vision is bigger than anything I would have the capacity to create. I inherently have to enlist the support of others in creating their visions that are part of my overall vision.

You have so much on your plate. How do you stay in the process, especially in a city like New York, which is constantly moving and going?

When I first came to New York I was super focused and driven and singularly focused on ‘making it’ and being successful - whatever that means. I worked constantly - to the point that even when I wasn’t working, my mind was working and I had zero down time. I went through years of that. It wasn’t a bad thing - it got me a lot of places. I think it was a period I had to go though. But I had this epiphany in Ghana. I realized being in Ghana that I had largely, on my own, produced this trip for 35 people and these 35 people would not be in Ghana had it not been for a random conversation I had had 18 months prior. Combined with that was the fact that for me, it was one of the most fulfilling things I had ever participated in in my life. The people were so amazing, and it was Blitz’s first concert in Ghana ever – his family was there.

It was a very rewarding experience and the epiphany was that in the process of doing the planning for that trip, for me, in the ranking of priorities that year, I don’t even think it cracked the top ten. I was doing it on the side of the million things I felt I had to do. And so in the process of it, I was not at all present. I was just used to working constantly and doing a lot of things and this was just another thing. Then I look up and I’m in Ghana and I was like ‘wow – this is one of the most rewarding and fulfilling things I have ever done.’ As I was planning it, I did not value it on that level at all. It was just, ‘let me get it done because I have to do it.’ It really made me rethink my priorities and how I prioritize things and think about what I want to be doing, what I need to be doing, how I spend my time and how I want to spend my life. It made me much more selective with the projects I take on and more present to the process.

It sounds like you started choosing quality over quantity. What do you think was driving you to take so much on?

I had to be really honest with myself. I think a large part of that period of my life was fear - fear of failing, fear of not accomplishing and when you’re afraid of that you kind of just throw everything at the wall like ‘ok I’m not going to sleep, I’m just gonna work. Who cares about relationships. I’m gonna make it.’ But you only do that if you’re afraid there’s a chance you’re not going to make it.

I think a large part of that period of my life was fear - fear of failing, fear of not accomplishing and when you’re afraid of that you kind of just throw everything at the wall like, ok I’m not going to sleep, I’m just gonna work..but you only do that if you’re afraid there’s a chance you’re not going to make it.

Now I’m more confident and secure in myself, my abilities, the direction I’m going in. I can further enjoy the process and it’s not all about the end goal or the end result. The process is all you have. If you’re always striving for goals, you’re never going to be satisfied. For the majority of my life I lived in the future, I defined myself not by where I was or what I was doing but where I was going and where I wanted to be. I think that is a coping strategy for being a young struggling artist or entrepreneur. You kinda have to justify the struggle like ‘I’m doing this for this because next year I’m going to be here.’ But all we have is right now. So, if you don’t fully embrace the now then who cares about the future.

Right, and then when we get what you want, we don’t fully enjoy it because we’re on to the next thing.

Right. Even though you accomplished that future you envisioned a year ago, you’re now in a new future.

For the majority of my life I lived in the future, I defined myself not by where I was or what I was doing but where I was going and where I wanted to be. I think that is a coping strategy for being a young struggling artist or entrepreneur.

And then it’s never enough.

Right, it’s never enough.

Do you have any tools you use to stay present and in the process?

I would still very much consider myself a novice but I’ve started meditating more and pursuing more practices that aren’t geared towards a specific end goal. Like, I’ve started dabbling on the piano or I started learning French. Not for a specific goal just to explore different ways of expression, different ways to use my brain. Again, I think it’s just about being more comfortable with myself and where I am. You’re less concerned about getting to the future when you feel that momentum carrying you there. It reminds me of a rather interesting quote I heard, ‘fall in love with the process and the results will come.’

Interview by Jahan Mantin

Born and raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Jahan is an OG of pre-gentrified New York. She is a traveler, book nerd, creative coach, music lover, editor and the Co-Founder of Project Inkblot. 

East WillyB: Michael Shawn Cordero's Hood

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East WillyB: Michael Shawn Cordero's Hood

Michael Shawn Cordero

Some months ago, I started hearing a lot of buzz about this new web series called East WillyB, and I grew intrigued. The show is set in the rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick, where long time Latino residents are having increasing culture clashes with the young hipsters moving in. At the heart of the series is the show’s producer Michael Shawn Cordero, who was born and raised in Bushwick, and contributed a lot of his own experience into the development of the show. As Cordero describes below in our interview, mainstream media has made few attempts to portray the new generation of Latinos in a genuine light. Cordero talks about his involvement with the East WillyB movement flipping the game of how Latino's are portrayed in media, his boutique gallery Fresthetic in Williamsburg, and his work as a youth media educator in the community.

How was East WillyB conceived, and at what part of the development did you join as the producer?

East WillyB was created by my good friend Julia Grob and Yamin Segal. Julia approached me because she wanted to set the series in the community of Bushwick where I was born and raised, and wanted me to take part in the production, design, and artwork for the series. So I jumped onto the opportunity to represent my community and soon ended up as a producer for the show. We shot parts of the pilot season in my grandmother’s backyard and my parent’s house served as a production base.

Being a New York native and Bushwick resident, how have the transitions in the New York that you knew growing up, also translate into the themes of the show?

Well it's pretty much one of the main themes of show. It's set against the ever evolving cultural landscape of Brooklyn. It's about a community facing the change and what it means to the New York culture they grew up with. It deals with gentrification as told through the eyes of a historically latino neighborhood and how to adapt to that and the effects on their relationships, careers and family.

As the producer of East Willy B, what is your role in casting, writing, character development, and the general culture of the show?

For the new season that we raised 50k on kickstarter for, I was a fly in the writer’s room and offered insight on the direction of the characters and the authenticity of how the neighborhood was represented. I designed all the branding/graphics and website for the show and manage all the creative.

I have this affair with legacy and i’m always thinking of what i’m leaving behind for my family, my community and my culture. Art will last forever and the impact never deteriorates. Its one of the pillars of our history as people.

Is one of the characters modeled after you?

lol. I tend to see aspects of me in a lot of the characters. Manny and his big dreams aspirations of being a filmmaker, Ceasars’ protective nature towards his neighborhood and Willie’s relationship with the legacy of his father’s bar and the community.

Your personal mission is to effect positive change and leave a lasting positive impact on communities. How much are art, politics, your cultural subjectivity intersected in your artistic/creative work?

It's the foundation of everything I do. I have this affair with legacy and I’m always thinking of what I’m leaving behind for my family, my community and my culture. Art will last forever and the impact never deteriorates. It's one of the pillars of our history as people. It’s proof we were here. Our politics and culture survive through it. I strive to visually tell our stories and always want my work to be reflective of our times.

Have there been other Latino/Latina focused hyperlocal films or television shows based in New York, even if they only survived a very short blip in time?

I know there has definitely been films like I Like it like That, Hanging with the Homeboys, Raising Victor Vargas, which are like more than 10-15 years old, and more recently Gun Hill Road. When it comes to a series, something episodic, besides the reality show Washington Heights recently, I don’t think there have been any successful attempts. I don’t think networks and studios invest in really understanding the market of the new generation Latino that speaks both English and Spanish interchangeably.  They have a warped impression of Latino culture and it reflects in some of the characters that are on TV.  Especially with most studios being based in Hollywood, we don’t really see New York Latinos honestly represented on TV. I think we are very inspired by what Spike lee did for NYC African Americans and Latinos in the 90's and I feel we are trying to invoke that spirit for Latinos in this new generation and age of Brooklyn.

Willie is a very emotive or easily affected character. What do you think are the issues that stay most prevalent in his mind? What is he trying to negotiate? How do you relate?

I think Willie’s character is about preservation. I think he is scared of the change just like other members of the neighborhood but as a leader in his community he feels like it rests upon his shoulders to battle the fear openly. He is very protective of the legacy of his father’s bar that he inherited and doesn’t want his generation to be the witnesses of its possible extinction. His younger brother, who is played by Rick Gonazalez this season, got out of the neighborhood and is a big reggaeton artist in Puerto Rico, and Willie is kinda envious of that a little bit because he had his own dreams of being a salsa singer when he was younger. So he is very much trying to hold on to history and part of his development is how or if he embraces change. Even with his relationship with Maggie he is holding onto his past which is why she doesn’t see a future for them.

I can definitely relate with the legacy issue and wanting to keep my culture alive in my community, but I’m not as threatened by change as Willie. I feel more challenged to make sure we plant our roots deep in our communities.

What is the impact of the show East WillyB in your own community?

I feel like a lot of people are very excited that their story is being told by us. Julia and Yamin chose Bushwick because we are right in the middle of this culture clash that Williamsburg witnessed 10 years ago and we all saw what has transpired there and in Los Sures. But at the same time it's also about the characters that exist in a Latino community and give us a more accurate representation that is something other than a drug dealer or maid.

Who do you guys hope the show reaches? I’m sure you want to reach as many people as possible, but who would be your ideal target demographic?

Our demos are pretty broad cuz we feel like the show speaks to so many in different ways. We’re sure it will resonate with 18-34 Latinos who represent that new generation of English and Spanish speaking Latinos in the U.S, people looking for alternatives to what they see on HBO with Girls and actually see real portrayal of Brooklyn and NYC Life. Anybody living in a community affected by gentrification and a collision of cultures.

I don’t think networks and studios invest in really understanding the market of the new generation Latino that speaks both English and Spanish interchangeably. They have a warped impression of latino culture and it reflects in some of the characters that are on TV. Especially with most studios being based in Hollywood, we don’t really see New York latinos honestly represented on TV.

You’re also a youth educator. What are some of the greatest takeaways that your students leave your instruction with?

I can teach students technical aspects of design and video production like using programs and camera operations but I like to focus my work on content and make sure they are creating with purpose.

What are the most valuable aspects of working with young people in a creative context?

There are not a lot of options for students, especially underprivileged youth in NYC, to take part in creative programs that truly give them a voice and make them feel important. Historically, funding for such programs are always the first to be cut, so I feel like the value of my work with youth is tremendous and will guide our future because they are the leaders of tomorrow.

What are the most validating aspects of being a storyteller?

I think when it comes to films and even documentaries, your main tool is empathy. The closer and more involved you are with the story, the characters the better the outcome. One of the most important responsibilitie for you is making people feel--not only feelings, but a place, a time--any type of art to be honest. Thats the most validating for me, the fact that I see people are feeling what I felt or anything close to it.

I think when it comes to films and even documentaries, your main tool is empathy. The closer and more involved you are with the story, the characters the better the outcome.

Were you ever discouraged from being an artist?

Nah never, my older brothers were artists as well, as well as my father. My mom is a teacher, so discouragement didn’t really exist, my parents really provided a great space for me to follow my dreams, even to this day.

What else is on the horizon? What is your big goal for 2013 and beyond?

Hopefully we get East WillyB fully funded or picked up and we can continue the telling our stories through a couple of seasons.

Also I've got a lot great things going down at Fresthetic, my boutique gallery in Williamsburg. We have a great lineup of artists showing this year and more products. As always everyone is looking forward to this summer for our annual Makossa Brooklyn Cookout with DJ Wonway Posibul.

I'm also looking forward to what my students create this year with all the developments I have been guiding them through. Its always exciting to see youth take advantage the great resources we provide them and watching them develop and find their voice.

Interview by Boyuan Gao

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