Uplift, amplify the work of, and create economic opportunity for those left behind in the Arts.
In the spring of 2020, our home of Jackson Heights, Queens was among the hardest hit in the pandemic, the so-called Epicenter of the Epicenter. In the face of crisis, with government help feeling distant or unlikely or untrustworthy, tight-knit communities like ours turned within for help. Among the most dire cries: artists and actors suddenly had no work and struggled to pay the rent. We were part of a network being activated as a matter of survival.
We (journalist S. Mitra Kalita and artist husband, Nitin Mukul) launched a newsletter (aptly called Epicenter) to amplify the need beyond our circle. We decided that each item in the newsletter should not aggregate or summarize as much as help a user take action or feel connected. We leaned into our “outer borough” identity and artsy, ascendant neighborhood vibe. And to ensure that we ended each newsletter on a hopeful, joyful note that truly centered us as we are, we turned to our audience of users and invited their participation. Each issue incorporates an artist – the work, of course, but also a statement of why and what and how. Our goals, besides the beauty of the content, were to pay artists, selectively curate and offer emerging, mostly BIPOC artists a platform. In 2022, we achieved all of that, paying $100 for each submission and achieving the power of collaboration with this community of creators.
How to be inclusive and selective? How to be accessible yet tastemaking? These were the challenges of Epicenter's "Last Word" feature. We believe we have achieved this balance thanks to the efforts of Epicenter co-founder and creative director Nitin Mukul. An artist himself, Nitin works to serve his community.
Example 1: Murals to bring the community together and support artists and businesses.
In our early days, small businesses around Diversity Plaza sought help. Working with nonprofit South Asian Youth Action and through a grant from Rockwell Group, we painted murals on the plywood and concrete barriers set up to enable outdoor dining, bringing a much needed refresh to the area. For many teens, it was their first reconnection outside family since lockdown.
As media outlets struggle to "engage" audiences, we believe art is a powerful form of two-way expression and a much-needed disruption to the standard article format.
How it works: We put out open calls for submissions, working with partner organizations across NYC. Nitin curates the submissions and works with artists to make statements and bios accessible but still unique and representative.
Example 2: Elevating an artist’s whole gamut of talent.
A sample from Nitin showcasing the artist Zeehan Wazed who submitted a mix of spray paint on canvas and murals : "He began to occupy his daily subway rides by filling countless notebooks with wild-style drawings, developing his aesthetic dexterity against the anarchy of the city’s public transit. By night, he trained himself as a dancer (via YouTube), eventually developing the courage to jump into a cipher (breakdancing battle) in Union Square. Before even graduating high school, Wazed had quickly become a champion dancer, a prolific graffiti artist and a delinquent darling among NYC’s radical underground community."
Example 3: Juxtaposing art with critical resources.
Our mission and purpose is at the intersection of our efforts. We are inspired by poetry on NYC subways to amplify the work of the artists who appear in the “Last Word" across the city. We have displayed artwork on vaccine flyers, tote bags, postcards. In doing so, we disrupt our own forms of committing journalism.
The long game:
What happens when we are no longer the Epicenter? What becomes of the pandemic news organization when there is no pandemic?
Even as some declare the pandemic over, this we know is true: our forms of journalism and art, and how we connect to each other have forever changed. Artists know this. It is reflected every week in their work as we begin to process not just what has happened but where we are going. In the same way we felt revolutionary two years ago, we are opening ourselves up to the disruption we represent and must continue to embrace to stay relevant and sustainable. Art leads.
The artists, workers and immigrants who define the Epicenter know better than anyone how to constantly reinvent ourselves and thus the space around us. There is no going back. From here, change emanates and determines—as anthropologist Roger Sanjek famously said—“the future of us all.”
136 artists integrated into the Epicenter-NYC ecosystem.
Created economic opportunity, connections and amplification for artists.
Uplifted artists, neighbors and businesses through new avenues - newsletters, podcasts, art shows, events, and resources.
Today, our strategy weaves art into every aspect of Epicenter. It started with the newsletter, but we interview creators for our podcast and host events with dancers and visual artists on Open Streets and Long Island City hostels. We hold behind-the-scenes events at museums and galleries. One of our events featuring submissions from Epicenter, an exhibition cheekily called "Of the Grid," was the first NYC debut for many of our artists. We did a version of speed-dating meets art salon when we asked eight of our artists to talk about their work in a local coffee shop. Before a standing-room only crowd, Jackson Heights resident Eung Ho Park and his intricate works on the top of bottle caps stole the show.
We are proud to report that our artist features on Instagram are among our most viral and they offer a boomerang effect of artists and their supporters also posting the work. We feel this long tail of content serves not just Epicenter but the artist as well. We now have started offering readers the chance to buy artist prints and/or silkscreen them atop bags for purchase. A portion of those proceeds go back to the artist. Thus, we believe the user generated content created here is sustainable for all parties involved.