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|Sean Garrity • 9/13/16|
The Short Version: The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center has served as a beacon for New York City’s LGBT community since 1983, providing outstanding social, cultural, and health- and wellness-based programming and currently welcoming 300,000 visits a year. Film screenings, theatrical productions, visual arts shows, and the like attract a diverse set of attendees, and social components are built into all of the events, providing great opportunities to meet like-minded people in a welcoming, safe place. If you’re looking to experience culture, learn something new, and get to know various types of people, The Center is the place to do it.
New York City has a long-standing reputation as the hub of arts and culture in the United States. By the 19th century, Broadway was the center of the country’s performing arts industry. In the 1920s, the city’s African-American community brought us the Harlem Renaissance. Andy Warhol hit the scene in the 1950s, ushering in the visual pop arts movement.
Today, New York City remains at the heart of American culture. The city’s vibrant community pumps the lifeblood that fuels its more than 1,200 cultural venues. Home to over 700 art galleries, 300 nonprofit theater and dance companies, and hundreds of museums, there is no shortage of activities for those interested in the arts.
Of the LGBT institutions offering arts and cultural programs throughout the city, one stands out as a model of community and relationship building. The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center has been bringing people together to enjoy the arts for decades. Since 1983, The Center has welcomed more than 300,000 visitors and continues to provide outstanding social, cultural, wellness, and health-based programming to the LGBT community.
With social components built into all of their activities, The Center offers attendees opportunities to connect with people with shared interests including film, theater, visual arts, and literature.
“No matter the event, whether it’s a play, an author talk, a music performance, a film screening, or a comedy show, people are looking for an opportunity to do the things they love,” said Robb Leigh Davis, The Center’s Director of Cultural Engagement.
And, for those in the LGBT community looking to share experiences with others interested in the arts, The Center provides an ideal, safe space.
“It feels good and comfortable to be in a space where you feel safe and 100% identify as yourself and meet people who are in the same mindset as you,” Robb said. “That’s what people enjoy about their experiences at The Center.”
The Center offers a host of activities where attendees can learn, have fun, and connect. Some of the most popular events include film screenings, theatrical performances, literary readings, and visual arts shows, but attendees often walk away with much more than just the enjoyment of the event.
“You can also learn about other things while you’re there,” Robb said. “There are people who’ve lived in the city all of their lives, but they either never had a reason to come in or they felt the building was only for social services. But they might have started attending the cultural program, appreciated it, and, as a result, attended another program. The outcome is people learning about all of the other things that are offered inside this building.”
With social components built into all of The Center’s events, attendees can come together and share their appreciation of the arts. Here are the top four venues where people can connect:
Film screenings are probably The Center’s most popular events. The Center has partnered with NewFest, an organization that presents year-round film screenings and events that include New York’s annual LGBT Film Festival. This partnership has proven successful, as The Center presents a new film each month. The Center also acts as the co-screening location for NewFest’s annual film festival.
Robb’s background makes him an ideal fit as The Center’s Director of Cultural Engagement. A theater major at Syracuse University, Robb has experience writing, directing, and performing in numerous theatrical productions. Coupled with behind-the-scenes creative work he performed for television and working for the Department of Education to bring the arts to children in communities where they were lacking — it’s no wonder The Center enlisted him to head their arts and culture division.
The Center regularly partners with New York City institutions, such as the New York City Public Theater, to bring audiences top-notch productions. These performances are the perfect places to meet new people and network in the performing arts community.
The Center holds literary readings and talks with authors on an almost weekly basis. These provide wonderful educational opportunities for attendees and work to foster engaging discussions during social hours after the events.
The Center has a gallery of artwork on their walls that rotates bi-monthly. The subject matter is always compelling and frequently addresses some of the larger social justice issues that the U.S. faces. Walking the gallery during openings is a great way to meet others and talk about the topics that matter to us most.
The arts and cultural events at The Center are exceptional and produced by some of the finest artists and performers in the city. What makes them even better, though, is their social aspect.
“Whether we’re showing the NewFest films, a theater production, or the art gallery openings, everything we do has a social aspect to it,” Robb said. “Socializing is an integral aspect to our events. Meeting and connecting with new people is a key part of everything we present. I make it a point that after every event there is a social hour.”
Attendees are able to connect and talk about the events they attend. They’re designed to encourage communication, which inevitably leads to new friendships and other connections. In fact, the events create a type of domino effect in connecting people.
“I’ve started to encounter people who have met through these events over the last couple of months, and they’ve established a friendship and made connections,” Robb explained. “They look forward to seeing that person at the next event and they introduce them to a new person. And so, I’m trying to build this notion of community building into everything we present.”
While all of the events are great places to connect, Robb notes that the NewFest film series has been remarkably successful in fostering conversation and engagement during social hours. The films in the series have strong social justice themes and pull in people from very disparate communities. And with 100 to 150 people attending some of these screenings, attendees are sure to find common ground and strike up interesting conversations with others.
Relationship and community building crosses generations at The Center’s events. Recently, The Center featured a talk with celebrated author Edmund White. White, 80, attracted an audience mainly composed of older people. There were young people in attendance, too, however, and what transpired was very exciting.
“You saw this kind of intergenerational connection develop that doesn’t always take root,” Robb said. “But I was grateful to actually see that happening and to see people from different generations sharing with each other and attempting to build community and bridges that often don’t exist between the generations.”
In 1983, The Center opened their doors to the LGBT community to provide programs focused on health, wellness, and community connection. Not long after, their first cultural program, Second Tuesdays, was launched by board member Diana Leo to bring some of New York City’s public figures in the arts to speak to their community. Since then, The Center has grown and offers an array of cultural programming that gives the community the ability to come together in a safe space to enjoy events and companionship.
The Center employs a very diverse staff of over 100 people who work in areas of social services, cultural affairs, communications, finance, fundraising, and more. The people The Center employs are reflective of those they serve, which creates a very welcoming experience for the community.
“People have grown up with The Center,” Robb said. “There are people who started out in the youth program who have been with The Center almost from inception. They find a family, a home, and a very strong community inside the building.”
Because The Center’s mission revolves around empowering and building a strong LGBT community, it is an ideal space for people to congregate and make connections.
“Gay spaces don’t exist in the way they once did, and I think that people are looking for an opportunity to connect with like-minded people in a location that isn’t necessarily a bar,” Robb said. “This is nothing against the bar scene whatsoever; it just gives people an alternative. Whether they’re coming to an author reading or a music performance, it’s just an opportunity to be in a safe space with people who share similar interests.”
Going forward, The Center is looking to expand their work in the community. They hope to continue to grow partnerships with the Public Theater’s Mobile Shakespeare Unit and NewFest and create a seasonal programming schedule.
The Center also intends to expand partnerships with schools and other social justice and theater organizations and aims to cultivate relationships with LGBT groups not located in Manhattan.
“We’re everywhere, so if there’s an LGBT center in Queens, it may make sense for us to go,” Robb said. “I would love for us to go have ‘A Night with The Center in Jackson Heights,’ or ‘A Night with The Center in the Bronx,’ and not lock into the notion that everything has to happen here. We can go meet the community where they are.”
The Center’s programs embody the reasons why New York City remains at the heart of arts and culture in the United States. Whatever their path forward, it is certain that The Center will continue to build relationships and community in the city and beyond.