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Queens arts soared in ‘03

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World-class music, fine impressionist art, filmed memories of a World’s Fair, hip-hop’s hottest acts, a host of special anniversaries, a farewell in Flushing and the return of Satchmo all have one thing in common. They are some of the events, exhibits, films, people and music that touched our lives in Queens in 2003.

Though the attention was well-appreciated, the borough’s art scene started the year on an awkward note when our good name was tarnished on the small screen in the monster television flop “Queens Supreme,” which focused on a mythical courtroom that seemed, in practice, unfamiliar to even the most seasoned court reporters.

Fortunately, the boro rebounded with the opening of one of the greatest exhibits ever displayed on this side of the East River — “Matisse Picasso” at the Museum of Modern Art in Long Island City. The pairing of painting, sketches and sculptures by masters Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso drew thousands out of their Upper East Side comfort and shocked them to realize just what is happening in this borough’s burgeoning arts scene.

Let’s have a taste:

Film

Two films — one likely to be nominated for Best Documentary in this year’s Oscar race and the other a potential winner, though it has not yet been widely released — touched Queens this year.

The first is “Capturing the Friedmans,” a documentary made of new footage and home movies that shows the private lives of the Friedman family of Great Neck. In it we see how former Bayside High School science teacher Arnold Friedman and his son Jesse cope with charges of rape and sodomy stemming from incidents that were alleged to have happened in their Great Neck basement in the late 1980s.

The documentary is a chilling look at how the ex-teacher and his youngest son pleaded guilty to heinous charges without the slightest shred of forensic evidence in one of the first nationally publicized teenage sex cases in American history.

The second documentary is involved wholly in Queens. “Peace Through Understanding,” a documentary about the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, premiered at Flushing Town Hall in June to a standing-room-only crowd and has generated a buzz among borough residents. There is a great deal of anticipation building as the pair who made the film attempt to expand its release in time for the 40th anniversary of the fair this year.

Music

On any given Friday evening in 2003 Flushing Town Hall gave Birdland and the Blue Note a run for their money. With regulars like the Heath Brothers and the occasional surprise from Marion McPartland, the tiny venue that had once been a police station jumped with the greatest jazz north of New Orleans.

In the southeast end of the borough, Latin jazz, blues and R&B greats came together in the summer for the annual Jamaica Arts and Music Summer festival with such names as Illinois Jacquet and his Big Band, Roy Ayers and more gracing the various stages at the newly expanded festival.

And though he didn’t play in Queens, the man who sold more records in 2003 than any other hip-hop artist, 50 Cent, who finds himself nominated for numerous Grammys this winter, is from our own Cambria Heights. Of course, Nas, from the other side of the borough (in the Queensbridge houses), has continued to put out quality work, most recently an album dedicated to his mother.

Art

Besides the major venues — MoMA QNS, Sculpture Center, the Museum for African Art, Socrates Sculpture Park, the Queens Museum of Art and others — Queens is still growing into an artists’ mecca, attracting creative minds from all over the world to what is the most ethnically diverse boro in New York.

At the Queens Council on the Arts, one of the great focuses for 2003 was the cultivation of international folk artist — from Urdu poets and Mehendi painters to Masai textile workers and Ukranian egg makers.

Queens Council on the Arts also — quite literally — put Queens arts on the map in 2003 when it released the Queens Art Map, which highlights some of the bigger (and lesser) known locations throughout the borough to find fine, folk fusion art forms.

Theater

Valerie Harper, Sam Harris and many others trod the boards at Queens theaters last year, and the onslaught is far from over. Queens Theatre in the Park has a spectacular series lined up for this year, including Rene Taylor and Joe Bologna, and Flushing Town Hall will bring in a host of cabaret and Broadway actors to accompany its ongoing Smithsonian exhibit on the theater.

And speaking of QTIP, the theater’s resident dramatic troupe, the Outrageous Fortune Company, is in the midst of its 10th anniversary season and continues to focus on avant garde plays.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are dozens of comedies, musicals and dramas that were performed in Queens’ community theater venues in 2003, including some fantastic performances by Beari Productions, Douglaston Community Theatre, Theatre Time and more.

Come and Gone

The borough celebrated the opening of the Louis Armstrong House in Corona, bringing Satchmo’s voice, music and life back into the house his wife Lucille bought and furnished while he was away on the road with his band.

But while one famous Queens resident returned home, another left to find a new life. Jo-Ann Jones, co-founder and executive director of the Flushing Council on Culture and the Arts, left Flushing Town Hall this year. Many in the Queens arts scene credit her personality, drive and desire to bring the arts into the borough as the reason why Flushing Town Hall (which she helped secure form the city) is the success it is today.

The future of Flushing Town Hall now lies squarely on the shoulders of her successor, Harvey Seifter, who has a background in fund-raising for the arts. Judging by the slight changes that have gone on behind the scenes thus far, Flushing Town Hall seems to be in good hands.

The promise Seifter brings Flushing Town Hall is equal to the promise the arts have for this forgotten “outer borough.” 2003 was a milestone year for the arts in Queens. Whether it was the American Museum of the Moving Image celebrating 15 years, the Oratorio Society of Queens turning 75, the Queens Symphony Orchestra turning 35 or any other anniversary — even the second anniversary of the small gallery space at the Cedar House Cafe in Maspeth – it just shows that Queens has nowhere to go but up in 2004.

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