Whitehot Magazine

Interview with curator and community activist Vida Sabbaghi

COPE NYC presents NYCXDesign in partnership with Villa Albertine on May 20, 2023. Blue Sandbags by John Vieweg. Photo by Alex Korolkovas.

By NINA MDIVANI, May 2023 

New York City is tough, but it brings out industriousness, perseverance, and resilience like no other place and helps to flourish individuals who have these qualities. Vida Sabbaghi is one of them. When I met Sabbaghi several years ago, I was dazzled by the number of projects she successfully implements at her 630 Flushing location, by the number of people she helps, and by the difference she makes to her community. The interview below highlights some of her projects while giving more insight into her larger goals and plans.

Please tell us about COPE NYC – a large, community-based program that you are running from 630 Flushing in Brooklyn. What types of programming do you support? Who is your community? 

COPE NYC (Creative Opportunities Promoting Equality New York City) is an organization that starts from within the community.  We support the community through rotating exhibitions, artist-in-residence programs, mentorship and internship programs, art and design programs, and fashion projects. All of these programs have local or international reach and annually we service over 5,000 people. Geographically our focus is on 630 Flushing Avenue (the former Pfizer building), Brooklyn, an interesting ecosystem, a commercial building that complements our mission of bridging communities through the arts.  In the building, we also run THE IW GALLERY (THE INCLUSIVE WORLD GALLERY) an ongoing project which affords opportunities to artists and designers worldwide. We are always evolving to support our growing community. By offering both onsite and virtual opportunities, we strive to make creative opportunities as accessible and equitable as possible.  

This includes but is not limited to all artists, students studying fine arts, art therapy, and art management, K-12 schools including D75 schools which specialize in students with neurodiversity, on the spectrum, intergenerational adults with neurodiversity, young women in Rikers, aging adult populations, and local and foreign students. We strive to connect with all the communities we work with. The current exhibition, Blue, is a model of how we achieve this.

Project Blue artist-in-residence Sara Zielinski’s interactive project. Photo by Manonce.

What are the main values and what is the mission of COPE NYC?

COPE NYC projects share a common thread in that they are site-specific, community-oriented, and connect to audiences through cultural and sustainable practices including innovative entrepreneurial participation. Experiential, academic, and innovative programming connects students, artists, art educators, gallery curators, and museum professionals. With a focus on functionality through inclusivity, and accessibility, these community arts projects are guided by my desire to promote social relations for all ages and abilities. They are intended to be playful and experimental. 

COPE NYC seeks to provide creative opportunities to communities that might not be exposed to the arts. I believe that the arts can foster new possibilities. Kurth-Schai and Green (2006) use the term “re-envisioning referring to a continuing process of imagining new possibilities; developing change-related knowledge that is social, systemic, and provisional; and bringing consensual possibilities into existence” (p. 41). COPE NYC does this by providing creative services through multiple platforms, such as fashion shows, art exhibits, residencies, workshops, and symposiums. These are safe spaces. Listening to each group to learn how to connect art in society and art in education, learning how to enhance self-reflection, and interpreting and resolving problems in new ways is critical. 

The work involves choreographing multiple entities and moving parts while fostering new relationships through creative endeavors and cross-cultural exchange of ideas by innovators. While the settings and stakeholders are often separated by discipline and other factors, COPE NYC encourages power sharing as a dynamic continual process necessary for achieving equity in the community, in museums, and classrooms. Simply sharing connected spaces between people and places is sometimes not sufficient for connecting across knowledge and differences. With COPE NYC’s work in bridging communities through community arts projects, all parties participate and become aware of each other’s contributions within a creatively linked community (Simon, 2010). Museum scholar, Nina Simon (2010), author of The Participatory Museum, gives an analogy of how these otherwise disparate entities could be connected. According to Simon (2010), a shared object, space, or event can become a social phenomenon that initiates or catalyzes some form of communication or response. To that end, the projects COPE NYC develops start within the community and afford unique and nuanced educational and artistic opportunities outside the classroom, which appeal to the academia, entrepreneurs, and museums. As the founder of COPE NYC, I have always been fascinated by how the arts can assist in building relationships. Visionary people, who have creatively developed ways to assist communities, inspire me.

Mathieu Bories, Mahrin, 2022. Detail. 

This year you are hosting the exhibition Blue presenting six American and international artists. I know this exhibition is a little different because it will have additional artwork included throughout the year. Please tell us about your vision for this exhibition and why you think it is important this year.

COPE NYC presents Blue, a striking presentation by six contemporary artists, Liam Alexander, Mathieu Bories, Byron Kim, Lino Lago, Sascha Mallon, and Federico Uribe curated by Vida Sabbaghi, is the first curated exhibition at 630 Flushing’s South Lobby Gallery, Brooklyn.  Blue emphasizes the emotional impact of this color while foregrounding its historical connotations. Throughout art history, blue has represented divinity, paradise, royalty, and power as well as a ‘blue collar’ working class. Since the discovery of lapis lazuli in the 13th century, blue has been associated with harmony, faithfulness, confidence, infinity, and imagination. Six artists from New York, California, Florida, and Canada are selected to look at various meanings and metaphors of this color through the prism of contemporary art. The exhibition is presented subtly throughout the interior, interacting with visitors at their own pace. Invited artists to come from diverse backgrounds, different career stages, and methodologies. We believe there is a need to introduce a color that for most is calming, and pleasing, in a public lobby where thousands of tenants and visitors pass by. 

Byron Kim, Sunday Paintings  1/7/01 – 2/11/18 . Photo by Manonce.

All the artists were selected for their distinct style and the introduction to blue was thoughtful. For example, starting in 2001, Byron Kim engaged in a project to make a single painting every week.  In this ongoing series entitled Sunday Paintings, Kim has looked upward and painted a patch of sky on a 14x14 inch canvas, inscribing a short journalistic entry in pen or pencil, and marking the specific place and time. Mathieu Bories’ use of Persian rugs has an old-world feel with its distinctive and decorative refinement. By painting striking female portraits on traditional carpets Bories intersects the sophistication of an old tradition and social activism as the portrayed girl is the creator of the weaved carpet.

As a professional involved in various educational, artistic, and communal initiatives in Brooklyn, where do you think these three directions intersect? What is the starting point for this intersection as you develop your programming? 

That is a great question. I work in a very rhizomatic way, and as a cultural producer, I intersect with all the various roles I have: director, educator, consultant, writer, curriculum developer, curator, community organizer, and designer. It goes back to the needs of our community.  For Blue, for example, as 630 Flushing Director of Exhibitions, I was asked to curate the renovated lobbies.  During that time, an organization that services intergenerational adults, with neurodiversity, expressed an interest in the exhibitions, so I created programs and tours in connection with the ongoing exhibition. As a cultural producer, I appreciate the fashion sector and approached a partner in fashion to help organize a three-day fashion event called, “Blue Wave,” to connect with fashion. Through a previous design event, COPE NYC organized, I met John Vieweg, who designs contemporary furniture, and commissioned him to create blue modular furniture, including the sandbags seat. Then Jean Shin, a renowned artist known for creative reuse, and a member of the Pratt Institute faculty, reached out and expressed she would like to resume a partnership with COPE NYC for her students in the college course Project in the Public Realm. Students have the option of being involved in a COPE NYC residency, an initiative I have been running for the past five years. COPE NYC provides students with the means to create projects, in this case, connected to blue, through their artistic practices, to invite local schools and community centers to engage in the work they created. Student artists in residence, Jimin Baek, Amanda Baker, Tommesha Holt, Sonja Petermann, Rodrigo Tafur Portugal, Nico Sun, Huey Zhao, and Sara Zielinski all created distinct works that incorporated blue.

COPE NYC Artist-in-residence Nico Sun, Hide and Seek (work in progress) Photo by Alex Korolkovas.

At the same time, Little Flower Children and Family Services of New York, including providing foster boarding home care, situated at 630 Flushing Avenue reached out, interested in expanding on a way to partner with COPE NYC to provide creative services. I immediately introduced the current Pratt Institute students in our artist-in-residence program to Little Flower, which led to a group of students creating works that incorporate blue in thoughtful ways, bringing color and joy to Little Flower. One student artist-in-residence, Nico Sun, decided to liven up the hallways of Little Flower with the characters that create the story, Hide and Seek, of which will be painted dominantly in blue.

COPE NYC Artist in Residence Nazli Efe Designing a Little Flower Family Meeting Room. Photo by Jean Shin

Lastly, a former Pratt student, and COPE NYC artist-in-residence, Nazli Efe, with whom we collaborated in the past on a project of transforming a public space, reached out to ask about any similar opportunities at COPE NYC. Nazli designed a family meeting room at Little Flower and expressed an interest in carrying out similar projects.

You have an extensive academic and curatorial background. Could you please briefly tell us about your starting point? 

At Pratt Institute I studied the following areas Industrial Design, History of Art and Design, and Art and Design education. During my last year at Pratt, for my thesis, I decided to bridge all three studies by curating the exhibition, An Inclusive World, which I involved all the groups COPE NYC works with. For my action research I simultaneously curated at the Queens Museum, and at Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning for my thesis, and since then, never stopped. The rhizomatic approach was evident then. At the An Inclusive World exhibition, I invited other cultural institutions, day habs, and community centers, small and large, who lead workshops for the diverse communities COPE NYC works with. This included people who are being serviced for mental, emotional, and physical needs; people with neurodiversity; and populations from community centers, local k – 12 schools, post-secondary schools, and their families.

What are the main lessons you have learned along the way and what are the main challenges? 

The main lessons I have learned along the way are: 

It’s important to understand the needs of each community and how to sustain support for each community. When you are actively involved in all the moving parts it can be difficult to articulate, to market, and to strategize what you need to do to gain support. 

I realize the importance of making the work I do through COPE NYC and the impact it has on people more visible. For example, during the recent printmaking workshop carried out by college students for youth in foster care, there were so many elements to make sure that it is carried out succinctly, and safely, working within certain parameters (many of which are needed), and meeting the needs for each partnership involved. 

I tend to act, and not wait for resources to be given to me. I am getting wiser in finding ways to get support. I do not have the resources to market, or honestly, the interest to advertise as vigorously as perhaps should be done, however, I realized you need to make what you do visible to sustain what you do in this case - bridging communities through art.

Blue Wave Event. Photo by Cristian Paez.

I also believe it's important to be patient when you face challenges like: Understanding where the diverse parties you work with are coming from. Using my own diverse background to help me to revisit things to see how I can improve in my professional practices. Learning how to be receptive to each person's needs is critical for evolving and growing. Remove myself if I see something does not align with my intentions to support the community. Taking time to think about the partnership: who is really benefiting from my work, and how.  Avoiding creating niches I cannot get out of including ageism. COPE NYC works with all ages, and we try not to get into the cliché that one generation is better than the another. See the good in all generations, if you do not, then you are already creating a niche that is hard to get out of, and you cannot grow exponentially.

Where do you see yourself and COPE NYC in five years?

In five years, I hope COPE NYC will continue to serve the community and will venture into other creative endeavors by listening to the community's needs. This month we have a new focus on design with the upcoming NYCXDESIGN Event at 630 Flushing. This event has multiple partnerships, including local, national, and international designers. It will set the stage where customized modular furniture by John Vieweg and artworks, designed specifically for "Blue" by Renee Philipps and Carla Goldberg, will be on view. We are also considering bringing in performing artists. WM

Nina Mdivani

Nina Mdivani is Georgian-born and New York-based independent curator, writer and researcher. Her academic background covers International Relations and Gender Studies from Tbilisi State University, Mount Holyoke College and Museum Studies from City University of New York. Nina's book, King is Female, published in October 2018 in Berlin by Wienand Verlag explores the lives of three Georgian women artists and is the first publication to investigate questions of the feminine identity in the context of the Eastern European historical, social, and cultural transformation of the last twenty years. Nina has contributed articles to Hyperallergic, Flash Art International, The Brooklyn Rail, JANE Magazine Australia, NERO Editions Italy, XIBT Magazine Berlin, Eastern European Film Bulletin, Indigo Magazine, Arte Fuse. As curator and writer Nina is interested in discovering hidden narratives within dominant cultures with focus on minorities and migrations. You can find out more about her work at ninamdivani.com


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