BY SAMI ABU SHUMAYS
On June 6, Flushing Town Hall will present the first annual “Jo-Ann Jones Award” to Claire Shulman and the second annual “Howard Graf Award” to architect Emily Lin.
In 1979, Flushing Town Hall, a city landmark constructed in 1862, was an abandoned eyesore on Northern Boulevard when Jo-Ann Jones was starting her new nonprofit organization, the Flushing Council on Culture and the Arts (FCCA).
Jones had a vision that Queens needed a new arts organization that would celebrate the different cultures being brought to the borough by different immigrant groups, and she dedicated her fledgling organization to the mission of “intercultural exchange.”
Little did she know how much Queens would change over the next several decades and how much her vision would become a reality.
In its first decade, FCCA presented Asian dance festivals in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, began a relationship with the Matinecock tribe of Long Island, and started programming jazz.
FCCA’s real break came when the leaders of Flushing decided, in the late 1980’s, to save historic Town Hall.
Then-borough president Claire Shulman had a vision to put Queens on the map. Entering office in 1986 during a period of urban decay, she was determined to do hatever she could to revitalize the borough.
With the members of Community Board 7, she fought to regain possession of Flushing Town Hall from its private leaseholder, who had let the building fall into a state of disrepair with boarded-up windows, graffiti, and trash.
Eventually, Justice Phyllis Flug ruled in favor of the city, which repossessed the building, opening the door forFCCA. Jones proposed transforming the building into a cultural hub, helping to revitalize Northern Boulevard in the process.
Shulman agreed, and over the next decade devoted more than $8 million to its restoration. In 1992, architect Howard Graf became Chair of the FCCA Board of Directors, thereby ensuring that the organization would effectively manage the renovations, a role he played until stepping down from the board in 2017.
Since the 90’s, Flushing Town Hall’s programs have expanded and diversified even further, with concerts like the Global Mashups series bringing together bands representing different countries to jam together in an exhilarating set of spontaneous improvisation.
Past highlights have included India meets Brazil, Haiti meets China, and Afrobeat meets Latin Boogaloo.
Flushing Town Hall’s celebrated jazz programs continue. The Queens Jazz Orchestra celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2018, and every fall some of the greatest living jazz legends, like Jimmy Heath, come together for the NEA Jazz Masters concert.
The last decade has seen a major expansion of education and family programs, including multicultural field trips, arts residencies, workshops, and after-school arts programs, presented by master teaching artists in many different disciplines.
Flushing Town Hall programs serve nearly 60,000 annually.
“Claire played such a crucial role in saving this beautiful landmark, making it possible for us to be here today,” said executive and artistic director Ellen Kodadek. “We’re also really excited to be presenting the second Howard Graf award to Emily Lin, an architect who has made her own mark on Queens and generously supported many community organizations through her Lin and Loveall Foundation.”
Tickets, tables, and journal ads saluting the two honorees can be purchased at flushingtownhall.org/gala
Sami Abu Shumays is deputy director of Flushing Town Hall.