Queens arts center looks to become one-stop shop for artists and community

Photo courtesy of Jamaica Center for Arts & Learning


After experiencing financial struggles amid an economic downturn, the Jamaica Center for Arts & Learning (JCAL) is restructuring to sustain its programming.

JCAL, created in 1972 to revitalize a section of New York City that was lacking cultural opportunities, has opened its doors to the community to inspire children to take an interest in the arts and to artists as a place to cultivate their work.

Tonya Cantlo-Cockfield, president of JCAL, said the restructuring was necessary to preserve the quality of the center’s programs and events.

“We’ve tried to sustain the programming at JCAL but we couldn’t continue in the manner that we were for the organization,” Cantlo-Cockfield said. “So we decided to restructure, which unfortunately resulted in layoffs from staff.”

Staff members received a “generous severance package for their service to the organization for many years and to the community,” according to Cantlo-Cockfield.

Executive Director Cathy Hung, who joined JCAL last year after working at the New York Chinese Cultural Center as executive director for almost five years, said this change would not affect the big plans they have envisioned for the center.

“Nothing has changed in result of the structuring,” Hung said. “In the process of setting up all the programs for next year, we are really, truly excited about the new upcoming season and we will share with the public shortly when this information is finished.”

JCAL’s headquarters recently underwent a $10 million renovation, which includes an array of art galleries, dance spaces, music studios, visual arts classrooms and a visitor’s center. The renovation was subsidized by the city along with the conversion of the Jamaica Performing Arts Center located three blocks away, which used to be a Dutch reformed church.

JCAL staff members work closely with schools in the area, specifically with principals, teachers and parent teacher association coordinators to curate in-school, after-school and summer arts programs.

The Art Center Workshops offer a variety of classes in dance, movement arts, drama, visual arts and music. At the end of each session, children present what they have learned at an annual student recital, which will take place this year on Friday, June 13.

JCAL also fosters local artists and allows them to use the center’s space for free, Hung said.

Artists Co-Op is a program designed specifically to give Queens-based artists a chance to produce and present their work at a respected gallery for free.

Artist residencies, which last from three months to a year, allow artists to work on their art in designated studios and showcase their work at any point of production. Once the artist is ready to show his or her work, JCAL is in charge of all the press and promotion.

The addition of the Jamaica Performing Arts Center allows for JCAL to exhibit “high-quality” performances for the community, Hung said.

The 400-seat auditorium hosts a variety of performances including opera performances, Shakespeare productions, dance productions and more. The dance residency was recently added to provide individual dancers, companies and choreographers a space to rehearse and present their work.

The annual Making Moves Dance Festival, which takes place this year on September 27, stemmed from an effort to make the space available to dancers, according to Hung. JCAL also commissions new work so that dancers can use the space to create a performance and receive compensation.

Hung said the center strives to become a place where the community can access affordable programs, educators and students can receive quality workshops and classes, and artists can utilize the space for all of their activities.

“Basically, we are the one-stop shop,” Hung said. “We really, truly have the capacity to realize that and to make it happen and we are slowly going to that direction.”


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