Andrew Gounardes is the Democratic state senate candidate for District 22, encompassing Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights and beyond, stretching all the way to Marine Park, Gerritsen Beach and Manhattan Beach. Recently, local artist and arts advocate John Avelluto sat down with Gounardes to discuss the candidate’s Arts platform.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
How do you define arts and culture, and how is it important to a community?
Arts and culture is such an expansive concept and idea, and my understanding of it definitely broadened as I got older. It’s not just drawing or music or painting; it’s so much more. It’s the intersections of all these ideas and expressions combined. It has a huge impact on what it can do for a community. It brings like-minded people together and diverse communities together to celebrate. We saw this with the Arab–American festival on Shore Road. So many people from different backgrounds came to celebrate Arab culture through song, dance and food. This was a great example on how we can build a sense of community. We can form a new community from this amalgamation and intersection. This is a great centralizing and organizing point that I feel is often overlooked, and the more we can tap into that creative energy, the stronger the fibers of a tightly knit community.
Look at the Go Gold campaign. Putting up a gold ribbon isn’t what we traditionally define as an artistic venture, but I feel it was certainly an artistic expression similar to Christo and Jean-Claude’s The Gates project in Central Park. It was transformative. Art’s potential is to create communities both temporary and permanent.
These things aren’t created by an individual artist but by a community of hands. I think that’s exciting in light of the lack of funding and attention our communities in the south of Brooklyn have fallen victim to against the backdrop of what is arguably the center of the arts in the U.S.—New York City. As an artist myself, with an MFA from Brooklyn College, I’ve noticed there isn’t a single public space for the visual arts and beyond.
There is so much more we could be doing to promote the arts in our community that we aren’t tapping in to. A community art space would be ideal: a space for performing arts, visual arts, studio spaces, a place for schools to participate—for the whole community. There are so many neighborhoods that could benefit from this. It would be a great way to expose the diversity of our community through the smaller cultures marginalized within it. Admittedly I would have trouble identifying non-Western art work, and that’s something that we could improve upon through a space for showcasing, displaying, understanding and experiencing what we all individually identify with within a community.
We can also use the arts to drive economic activity, as well. We witnessed this with the SAW. [The author was a cofounder of the Fifth Avenue Storefront Art Walk.] It’s a no-brainer. Promoting small businesses, local artists, and merging the two in a way that creates something of greater value. It’s definitely a missed opportunity that we should be taking advantage of. I’d love the chance to work with BIDs to get it off the ground. Going back to diversity and the immigrant nature of our neighborhoods, it’s a great way to get our immigrant-owned businesses in all the corridors of this district to showcase and highlight art from different backgrounds.
I think we need a lot more to increase arts education in schools and afterschool programming. My mother was a public-school music teacher. That was my first exposure to the arts. I was fortunate to have that, but we see all too often with budget cuts and high-stakes testing that arts is the first thing to get cut. This is a shame. Not everyone is good at math or science, and the arts allow students to tap into their more creative sides and their potential, outside of what is traditionally quantified through a test.
As an avid reader, I want to support literacy. I would love to start a neighborhood reading challenge. What a powerful statement would it be to say that “Southern Brooklyn read 10,000 books this month”? I think there’s a lot of potential in something like that, in terms of using it as a catalyst to draw more attention to the broader conversation around arts and culture.
On the legislative side we can focus on funding, as we saw with the WPA, to help support the arts. And even though the DCA is the largest government grant-giving organization for the arts in the country, it still pales in comparison to the totality of economic opportunity that is created by the arts ($114 billion in revenue… $46.7 billion in compensation). I want to look at increasing the funding, not just for art groups but for individual artists, in order to encourage and incentivize their growth and profession.
At the state level we can ensure that artists are being fairly compensated for their works, whether it’s in a sellers- or secondary-market. It’s frightening how laws are interpreted around the country, and there’s definitely an opportunity to use the law in a way to help incentivize, encourage and protect artists. I think a lot of candidates don’t talk about this because they don’t understand. Part of that is because there’s still this idea that the arts aren’t a policy area worthy of attention, and I think it’s important for the arts community to come together and advocate for itself and make this an issue. It’s incumbent on artists to organize politically and put this on politicians’ agenda. I’m really excited about this; I think I’m the only candidate that has an arts-and-culture platform, and I want to advance that conversation in government, outside government, combining government and community in many different ways.
What were the times that art touched you or you had an emotional response to art?
My [experience] of art has been very traditional. The classical Renaissance, Greek statues—that’s what I was brought up with. It’s only recently that I’ve begun to open myself up to the visual arts as a way to [having] an emotional response. It’s actually music that has been my creative outlet. I’m a terrible musician but listening has been my connection: appreciating and studying the poetry of music, looking at lyrics from big band music of the ‘40s or old-school hip-hop lyrics.
I have to credit one of my law school professors, Paul Butler, because he opened my eyes. He wrote book called Let’s Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice, and the first day of criminal procedure classes he played a few hip-hop songs and said, “Listen to the lyrics. This is about peoples’ experience with the criminal justice system,” and it blew me away. Now I try to really listen to and, moreover, contextualize what people are trying to say in music. You can appreciate it on multiple levels: the surface and superficial, then the level of what it’s trying to convey, and that takes on another level of beauty.
I find this happening the most for me in opera. A few years ago I got into the genre. My mother was a music teacher, so I grew up with classical music, but I never understood it. You can appreciate the formal aspects of it, then the way the foreign language interplays with the music and then you translate it and understand how it all works together.
So what’s on rotation in those earbuds?
In the middle of a campaign, I’m looking for inspiration, so there’s a lot of the Hamilton soundtrack. Lots of Kendrick Lamar. His latest album, DAMN., was really good. I’m listening to this Somalian artist named K’naan, from Mogadishu. I’m a sucker for Bobby Darin, who went to Hunter College, Bronx Science; he’s a New York City guy, and “Mack the Knife” always puts a smile on my face. I’m all over the place, but that’s on the top of my Spotify playlist.
I did want to talk about this neighborhood’s history. To say that there’s no history, culture and art in Southern Brooklyn is to not know or understand this part of Brooklyn, and we need to make the case for it before it’s lost.
As a history-buff and a past-president of the Bay Ridge Historical Society, local history is very important to me. This folds into culture and arts, and we should think of it as a way to promote the neighborhood. There’s a rich history here from colonial times to Civil War times through the Industrial Revolution. Markers, walking tours and the arts can be used to illustrate this. There’s plenty of mural space here; how can we use it to speak to the diverse past of Southern Brooklyn?
Often a conversation about history, politics and art can become very controversial, because of the history that gets told and, more importantly, the history that doesn’t get told.
I pity the historian that has to sift through thirty billion tweets to piece together a narrative. Years ago there was a battle, people died and the survivors got to tell their stories, and that’s the only thing we knew. Today, it’s different. We have so many ways of recording that we can paint much more sophisticated images. There are so many ways to tell that story rather than a one-track, linear narrative. As it should be.
Election Day is Tuesday, November 6, 2018.