In reaction to the ban on mass gatherings as one of the measures to stop the spread of coronavirus, many individuals, organizations, and companies had to shift holding events from the offline environment to the online world. We, at Foreigners, did it, and so the Czech Center New York (UPDATED on December 11: link removed – website not found), an institution introducing Czech culture to the audience in the most populous city in the United States.
Our PR & Marketing Manager Lucie was an intern in the Czech Center New York just before the outbreak of coronavirus became world-wide. Therefore, she personally witnessed the last days when the Czech Center was operating as usual before the Bohemian National Hall in Manhattan had to be closed.
We bring you an interview with Miroslav Konvalina, the director of the Czech Center New York, who has been managing the activities of the center literally across the ocean with his team being partially settled in the Czech Republic and New York. What has been challenging for them? What is the current program of the Czech Center and when their events become real-life again?
America has played an important role in Miroslav Konvalina’s life. First, he studied journalism and politology at the University of Missouri, later on, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Washington. He was also the director of the American Center in Prague for seven years. The Czech Center New York has been in his charge since spring 2019. „Those who arrive in New York first after the coronavirus crises will be the adventurers devoted to the city from the bottom of their hearts,“ he says.
Miroslav, what did bring you to the Czech Center New York, and who are your co-workers?
I was dreaming about doing public diplomacy for Czechs in America for many years since I did it for Americans in the Czech Republic for quite a while. I have been very lucky to bring together a dream team. I work with four amazing colleagues who complement each other and they enjoy the work as much as I do. Moreover, all of them excel in their own artistic disciplines, such as fine arts, photography, or translating. Last autumn, we hosted the legendary Czech folk ensemble Spirituál kvintet, representatives of the National Museum in Prague, or popular Czech actors performing in the famous Václav Havel’s play Audience. We proved that we are able to provide both smaller and bigger events while still running a Czech library and providing Czech lessons for foreigners. The opportunity of using the wonderful rooms of the Bohemian National Hall for our events is a big advantage that turns the Czech Center into the gateway of Czech culture further to America.
Which events did you make to happen in the first third of 2020, before the coronavirus outbreak in the US?
Knowing nothing about the pandemic being born far away from us, we prepared an ambitious program for this year, including pretty big jazz, rock, and traditional concerts, more than five exhibitions and complex multigenre projects: naming the one about Leoš Janáček with the Metropolitan Opera New York or The Mad Silkman project of the Museum of Applied Arts. There was supposed to be a large fashion show by the students of the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague followed by a jewelry exhibition.
We managed a lot until mid-March, mainly we hosted a gala evening to celebrate the 75th anniversary of WWII in Europe consisting of an exhibition, banquet, and concert. Invited by the city of Pilsen, liberators of respectable age over 90 arrived together with their families; there was a grandson of the general Patton and they all enjoyed a festive evening. Then we enjoyed also the concert of the popular Czech singer Michal Hrůza, a tribute to the Czech director Vojtěch Jasný or the poet Ivan Blatný, two Science Cafés with Czech scientists. Narrowly, we hosted the Echoes of Ji.hlava festival with the directors from the Czech Republic and Romania in February.
When specifically did the coronavirus pandemic with its restrictions and bans hit the Czech Center?
We were alert immediately after the state of emergency was declared in the New York state in mid-March. Together with the General Consulate of the Czech Republic and expatriate organizations in the Bohemian National Hall, we needed to react properly and in time to avoid any risks. Once we saw the first speeches of the New York Governor Mario Cuomo we knew that getting mouth caps and disinfection won’t be enough. On March 12, we prepared a grand exhibition opening with the guests from the Leoš Janáček Memorial in Brno. We had wine provided by the Metropolitan Opera New York in our refrigerator and I was on the plane from Prague in a hurry so I wouldn’t miss it. During several hours, we decided to cancel the exhibition, originally meant for a hundred people. Instead, we took out a camera and live-streamed the opening on Facebook. It was our first event of this kind and we’ve got more than two thousand viewers so far. The next day, we started to send artists, interns, and some of our employees away from New York, and the Czech Center was closed for public.
Have you foreseen something like this coming?
I am probably not the only one having small children later in life and family members who are old at the same time. That makes me think about global issues. Last year, I read that according to scientists mankind passed an imaginary border when nature is still able to heal itself and come back to an acceptable stage. I have been traveling around the world for 30 years. I visited quite many places thus I can compare and predict better. I watch news and discussions taking place in the United Nations New York where they often speak about climate changes and its impact that is already noticeable. I read The New York Times and see how incorrigible we are. When the big civilizations underestimate something and there is no way back it starts to ruin them. The experts say there are other viruses coming, there are more drought and weather extremes coming which is gonna put mankind under heavy pressure. I have no doubts that we will adjust, that we will manage but the price will be high and we will be getting lessons from nature until we are aware of that. Each of us will realize once it affects their family, village, city, or country.
How do you work as a team now when part of your crew is in the Czech Republic while some of them stayed in the USA?
We have considered that New York will go through an exceptional situation that we are not ready for. Therefore we decided to close as all the important cultural institutions, sports organizations, and universities did, too. Besides working from home, we are on two continents so we had to set up clear rules of attendance, communication, and reporting in order to avoid procrastination and chaos. We successfully jumped into online programs, without a transition period. As we go, we learn about new technologies, audience targeting but also a personal discipline and staying in the flow. What I know from other European cultural centers, we are a bit ahead and leading with our ideas of new content and formats. Moreover, now we can conquer entire North America. We are not waiting for the guests to come to the Bohemian National Hall anymore. We are waiting for online participants from Houston, San Diego, Miami, St. Louis, or Montreal.
What is your marketing strategy then?
Culture will be essential for us to recover once this period is over. The most important for us is to empathize with Americans who are going through this with us and give them hope; show them the options that artists in the US and Europe put forward. We haven’t stopped bringing the best from Czech culture but also from other fields such as science, technologies, and innovations. Repeatedly, we presented how the Czech Republic has been sewing mouth caps and how Czech scientists have been trying to develop face masks, shields, and robots for those working in the front line. Each week we send a newsletter where the subscribers find not only our online events but also messages from artists who keep New York and America on their minds.
How did this project of the interviews with artists become alive?
New York is the place number one for many artists because the most crucial things are happening there. The city is a magnet for both artists and non-artists. Some come for a year and stay for a decade or the rest of their life, while others just return regularly. It is interesting that on the first journey back home from New York many people notify what this visit has given them and that they want to come back again and again. In the health crises we are facing now, we first asked fine artists and then musicians to share their feelings with us. How they cope with the situation, how it affects their work and life. I meant to do these interviews to present New York through the people that are close to us. The interviews are done by my colleague Marek Milde and they are dearly inspirational.
What about the artists who were supposed to come to the Czech Center? Do you cancel on them or shifting to online? Do you address new people?
It is individual. Some of the artists offer a fully online version of their performance immediately, others send a sample and they are eager for the real event. With some of them, we agree on postponing their flights or discussing the matter later when we know better what the coronavirus will allow us to do. Besides a few exceptions, there is no communication about new events taking place in our building in Manhattan. That is completely understandable because there is a lot of unknown indeed. In the future, we will put the safety of the artists, audience, and our employees in the first place, followed by the economical situation. We will see what options we have after our partners start cutting the expenses. There will always be a way to present Czech culture, though. Those who arrive in New York first after the coronavirus crises will be the adventurers devoted to the city from the bottom of their hearts.
Where are your current online events available?
Facebook has been reborn. Instagram is also popular for its video sharing. We’ve got used to the ZOOM app pretty quickly but I don’t think these are the final options on how to stream live, speaking mainly about discussing programs. There are 25 Czech centers in the world and each one of them is slightly different. For example, we will probably use various platforms for podcasts.
For whom do you stream? Is it more for Czechs in America or Americans here in the Czech Republic?
Our online events are meant mainly for people in the USA, or Canada. What matters is if they have Czech roots or they are somehow connected to the Czech Republic.
How does the public get to know about your program?
I have to say that targeting the audience we want, the schedule, and communication with the public is challenging for us every day. Even though using wide options of social media, sending newsletters, and having a fine website it is not easy for us to find interested people without going over our limited budget. We know that those who love the Czech Republic and its culture will find us no matter what, and we let go of those who don’t feel that way. We want to reach those who will say themselves: „I would love to see that movie or the exhibition or the concert, it is really appealing.“ The Czech Center is famous for its exhibitions, movie festivals, concerts, and other events. But every one of them is different and so is the audience. On the other hand, we cannot ever survive without the kind support of our expatriate organizations and the embassies whose favor adds to our shine.
When you reckon you will hold events in the „old“ traditional way of people arriving in the venue?
We will organize real events with the real audience after careful consideration. First of all, it must be allowed by New York State and New York City. Second, we have to be sure that we can comply with all demands given by the new situation. We will have to find out which artists are able to come and what they can perform considering the restrictions. Only then we will ask if people are willing to join the events as they used to do. Therefore, we will continue in our online programs if we still have resources and capacity.
What about the rest of the scheduled events – let’s say, those you were planning to organize in autumn and later. Are they gonna happen?
We have to decide until the end of June if we use the flight tickets for Czech artists that are already bought. There are two projects scheduled for this autumn that we haven’t canceled yet. One of them is a dancing event prepared together with the ballet of the F. X. Šalda Theatre from Liberec which may be done online, and then it is the European Literature Night with our colleagues from the European Union National Institutes for Culture (EUNIC). Unfortunately, it seems that we have to call off big concerts, a fashion show and some of the exhibitions. The reasons are not only related to health but also to economics and logistics. We provide two or three online projects per week now and that will carry on.
Which events have been thwarted by coronavirus? Did you manage to reschedule or they simply won’t happen?
For more than a year, we were preparing a tour of the cimbalom music Harafica from Uherské Hradiště which would be hitting Chicago, Iowa, and New York. In the end, people could see only a record on the Internet. We postponed The Mad Silkman exhibition indefinitely. And the traditional North-American film festival Czech That Film runs online since nor directors or actors can get to New York. And this is just a sprinkling. My wish is to project a few dozens of movies on the rooftop of the Bohemian National Hall this summer, at least, as we did every year with goulash and beer.
Is it possible to estimate the damage the pandemic caused you? Not entirely in a financial way but more like the time and energy you invested in all the plans. I can imagine that the preparations and logistics of something which didn’t happen after all cost you a whale of a time.
In general, we plan two years in advance. The solid dates for the next year are set from October. It takes hundreds of working hours of five people, thousands of emails, saved files, sheets, projects, both economic and program plans, many hours of meetings and consultations, phone calls. I would say that we lost about a half a year of continuous intensive work.
Do you see how these unexpected conditions inspired you and the Czech Center for the future way of working?
We are at the threshold of a new era. We have a chance to do things differently so let’s do it. I have been in public diplomacy and media for more than three decades. I was working for Czechs, Americans, ministries, public-service organizations, car industry,… So I know that crises are the breaking points. New things arise faster, people are willing to step out of their shelters, learn to save themselves. They are more assertive. That creates novel dynamics, fresh brilliant ideas, and procedures that are coming up, new technologies to use. Only those who accept the new situation and take advantage of its opportunities will succeed.
Our colleague Lucie was one of the interns at the Czech Center New York when the coronavirus pandemic started and so she had to finish her internship earlier than it was planned. Will you be hiring new interns when this is over?
Volunteers and interns are an important part of our team. Since they change every quarter of the year our team is a bit different each time and we never stand still. Our interns are always exceptional young personalities who enrich us incredibly. We teach them how to do public diplomacy abroad and how to spread Czech culture in New York while they spill new blood in our veins. We learn from them a lot about the young audience and how to communicate via photos, videos, social media. Our guests get fond of them as well. I hope the new interns will come this summer already. The Czech Center New York wouldn’t be whole without interns. We realized this when the last three of them were leaving in March, nearly crying.
How much are you aware of the current affairs in New York?
I keep myself updated via media, friends, artists, and also expatriates. I receive a lot of news but coronavirus pushed us all to our shells. Every one of us lives in a certain bubble and many times we can’t imagine what is going on around us. That’s why the testimonies of people working from home or those quarantined with their families differ so much although they live in the same city. People who are not in the first line have no idea what’s happening there.
When you think you will fly back to the Big Apple?
I would love to say I will get on the first plane once it is possible and go back. But it is more complicated. There is no point to come back to the situation we ran from; it will make sense only when the Czech Center New York is open to the public again; when it is safe to work with my team in person and when we can welcome first guests.
What are you looking forward to the most after your return?
Coronavirus was the second tragedy that I have experienced this year. The first one was the loss of the closest family member. I was going through difficult times from January to March and many friends supported me when I was in New York, alone without my family. Some of them are my friends for a long time, from 9/11, other ones became close to me later on. So I look forward the most when they see me again in a good mood and they laugh at my stories from traveling around the world and America, too.
Similarly to the Czech Center New York, we offer an internship in PR & Marketing. Wanna give it a try? Find more details here.
Photo source: Czech Center New York