By Brian M. Rafferty

For the last 24 years the name JoAnn Jones has been synonymous with the arts in Flushing.

At the end of June the woman who founded the Flushing Council on Culture and the Arts, the woman who saved Flushing Town Hall from demolition, the woman who brought ethnic diversity to the forefront in the arts in Queens will retire.

Jones, of Bayside, announced a few months ago that she is stepping down, and though her successor has not yet been named, she is confident that she is leaving her affairs in good order.

“I actually thought of retiring two or three years ago,” Jones said in an interview last week, “but we were in the red, and I couldn’t, in good conscience, leave like that.”

After all, the Flushing Council on Culture and the Arts will always bear her name, and she could not stand to leave it in anything but the best shape she could.

For a woman who has no children of her own, the council and Town Hall have been her babies. She suffered the labor of birthing them and has worked for more than two decades raising them, turning them into outstanding members of the community, educators, advocates and friends.

In the spring of 1979, Jones was singing with the Oratorio Society of Queens and helping its musical director David Close do some fund-raising. At that times the Oratorio Society had just completed its 50th anniversary season, and it seemed that community support for the group — and arts in general — was waning.

“You could say that was when I had a seminal moment,” Jones said. “I realized that we needed to establish an organization that could raise the profile of arts in the borough. We needed to create and advocate for the arts.”

So Jones got to know Aaron Weiss, who at the time was the head of the Downtown Flushing Development Corp. She explained her idea and volunteered her own services to get the ball rolling on an arts group.

“I had no real credentials,” Jones said. Prior to this she had worked in a Manhattan office for Union Carbide and left that job to be a full-time homemaker.

Jones ended up with a basement office on 39th Avenue next to Genovese with a desk a phone and her electricity all donated by the Downtown Flushing Development Corp.

“We stayed under their umbrella until 1983, when we got our on 501(3)c,” she said. The council then got its first in a string of city and corporate grants and moved its offices into another basement — this time on 41st Avenue near the Flushing branch of Queens Library. There was a small gallery on the first floor.

“When we started there was no profile for the arts in Queens,” Jones said. “People would laugh at you if you suggested that Queens was rich in culture. That didn’t understand what there was to offer.”

In response, Jones started the Culture Calendar, typewritten on a single sheet of paper and then photocopied.

“We had to get the word out about what was out there,” she said. “Looking back now we can see that there was tremendous growth and a change in peoples’ attitudes about arts in Queens.”

And what was out there was something a bit off from what people in the mainstream thought of as art.

Flushing had a quickly changing population, with Asian immigrants changing the face of the neighborhood. At a time when many complained about the ethnic change, the council embraced it.

“The first thing we did was bring the Korean-American Chamber Ensemble to different houses of worship in the area,” Jones said.

At that time, the borough still had the annual Queens Festival, and the council made sure that Asian countries — and their cultures — were well-represented.

Asian culture in the borough gained a toehold at the Queens Botanical Garden, Jones said. “They were really the pioneers in promoting Asian culture. Now they have their own arts leaders.”

After establishing itself and reaching out to the spectrum of queens ethnicities, the next step for the council had two parts. The council needed a home to call its own, and somebody had to save Flushing Town Hall from the ravages of time.

The building was constructed in 1862 after the first Flushing soldiers left for the Civil War. It served as Town Hall and later a police station and even in supper club. Through all its incarnations the Gothic exterior remained intact, but wear and tear on the inside was making the building less usable. In 1967 it became a city landmark and it was listed to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.

But now the revered structure was just becoming a city-owned eyesore, so a group of community organizations fought to wrest control of the building from the city. On June 28, 1989, a judge ordered the building to be put into the hands of the Flushing Council on Culture and the Arts, and saddled the group with the task of restoring it.

Within six years, and with Jones wielding the growing power and influence of the council, Town Hall was renovated and reopened as a center for the arts.

Ever since, Town Hall and the Flushing Council on Culture and the Arts have been synonymous. From the quality of programs to advocacy for the arts, the legacy of JoAnn Jones stands as tall as the building — with spires pointing high into the heavens — and is as widespread as the path the hall’s trolley makes through the borough, letting everybody know about the building on Linden Place and Northern Boulevard and the organization inside.

With all that has happened in the last 24 years, Jones is now ready to take her next leap forward. Not as an office worker or a homemaker, but on as a consultant for the New York State Council on the Arts.

And she has enrolled in Saturday classes at the French Culinary Institute.

“I just want to take some time off,” she said. “I’m not ready to jump into another full-time job quite yet. I don’t know where I’ll end up, but for now I know I’m ready to make my exit.”

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