The Lithuanian Alliance of America (LAA) is the oldest continuously operating Lithuanian organisation in the world. It was founded by Lithuanian immigrants to provide economic assistance to newly arrived countrymen, in the form of insurance, health benefits, mortgages and loans. Later, after acquiring a four-storey building in Manhattan, the organisation became an important cultural centre, which also housed the editorial office and printing press of the newspaper Tėvynė and other LAA publications.
Aistė Marija Stankevičiūtė (AMS): It’s a strange feeling to talk to an institution that started 112 years before I was born. Most cultural organisations turn into ghosts after a decade, but the LAA is alive and kicking. I would like to start our conversation from the present moment: you recently celebrated your 130th birthday in Manhattan, where you’re based. I am particularly interested in the first floor of the building: can you say what’s been going on there lately?
Lithuanian Alliance of America (LAA): Yes, the LAA has a long history. That’s why having a Lithuanian corner in New York is so impressive and meaningful.
The LAA is a cultural centre that puts on lectures, concerts, rehearsals, theatre events, film screenings and exhibitions. The exhibitions change monthly, so we have twelve a year. We didn’t even stop during lockdown: we exhibited online. A year ago, we came up with the idea to display not only Lithuanian art, but to connect exhibitions with artists from all over the world living in New York. The result was stunning! The most interesting people filled the LAA Art Space. We befriended one of the oldest working art galleries in New York, called Pen and Brush, which was founded to expand women’s art. Visitors and artists from the gallery visit our exhibitions and become interested in Lithuanian art and culture. A sculptor from Korea, Haksul Lee, who had a show in our space, said: ‘When I got to know the arts of different cultures, I got to know the essence of humanity more clearly.’
We think that spreading Lithuanian art and culture while maintaining friendly bonds with foreigners is the real work of the LAA Art Space. Art collectors have started visiting us: we’re hoping that more and more Lithuanian art will find its way into our visitors’ homes.
Last autumn, we had a visit from Gitanas Nausėda, the president of Lithuania, and the first lady Diana Nausėdienė. We were pleased to show our activities. The Lithuanian minister of culture Simonas Kairys visited this year to commemorate 16 February.
We had an exhibition called ‘Uncontested’ until the end of April, attended by 14 women commemorating Women’s History Month.
AMS: It would be interesting to know how the LAA’s ways of working have changed in the face of both a changing America and a ‘shrinking’ world. After all, the editorial office and printing press of the newspaper Tėvynė were once located in your premises, and most of your work was in providing assistance to people who had come to America from Lithuania. You now seem to be more focused on spreading culture and education. What difficulties and achievements have you experienced over time?
LAA: I’d say that the activities of the LAA have not changed, but the world itself, and at the same time our activities, has ‘mutated’. It’s similar to phones: once we could only call from home, and now we’re able to communicate while on a plane.
Once upon a time, printing a newspaper on the LAA premises was modern; now we work in digital format. Now you can read the 60-year-old Tėvynė on the LAA website from anywhere in the world. We are now scanning more than 100-year-old issues of Tėvynė in order to make them available to everyone. This job is not easy, it has to be performed carefully, using special equipment. I think the newspaper Tėvynė has matured to perfection. We have its oldest issues, so the LAA archives have been enriched, it continues to come out, and is now available to a wider audience.
When it comes to helping citizens coming from Lithuania in the old days and now, I think the nature of the assistance has changed. Today, some Lithuanians come on holiday, some come with job offers, and others come to study or expand their business.
The Art Space provides facilities for various organisations and groups. Gintarė Bukauskas, the leader of the Lithuanian community in New York, organises most of the cultural events and meetings with visitors from Lithuania. There is also the rapidly growing group New York Lithuanian Professionals, led by Justinas Adomaitis. He and others organise lectures and meetings. Lithuanians get the help they are looking for from these and other similar groups. I’d say our world is expanding! We support the traditions left by those who built up the LAA as a Lithuanian home.
All LAA board members and the LAA Art Space curator Francine Rogers are volunteers. We want to do as much as possible, but we also have our lives and jobs. We try to devote our time to the organisation productively.
AMS: What is the LAA’s connection with contemporary Lithuanian culture? Do you get involved in projects with contemporary art galleries and represented artists?
LAA: The LAA Art Space is a cultural centre in New York. We’re not only a contemporary culture centre or an art gallery, our activities are very varied, starting from Lithuanian folk dance rehearsals and ending with contemporary art exhibitions celebrating Women’s History Month. The life that goes on between these two fits into the LAA Art Space. In other words, we are not focused on one style or cultural furrow, our events and exhibitions are diverse, mixed, and therefore the connections with Lithuanian culture and art are also different.
Most people from Lithuania come to present new projects. We recently heard the lecture ‘A Difficult Age: Vilnius 1939–1949’ given by the art historian Professor Giedrė Jankevičiūtė. Later, Viktorija Mickutė, a virtual reality documentary filmmaker, visited us and showed some extracts from her films. We also organised a meeting with the film director Artūras Jevdokimovas. As for artists from Lithuania, we have exhibited works by Rasa Vaišvilaitė. We’re planning an exhibition of work by the photographer Živilė Narkevičiūtė in May, which has been postponed for the last couple of years due to cancelled flights. In the autumn, we will have an exhibition of work by Antanas Adomaitis.
Bringing art from Lithuania to New York is not easy. It all depends on whether the artists are given funding not only for expediting the art, but also for the exhibition and living expenses. In view of these difficulties, we are very grateful that exhibitions come to us, and we hope to continue to strengthen our ties with Lithuanian culture and art.
AMS: Hearing how much action there is in your spaces, I get the impression that behind the facade of the four-storey house lies a constantly growing city. How do you not get lost? What landmarks help you find your way, the direction you go in next? Just looking at the exhibitions you organise, the artists and the themes look very different. Is it important for you to define clearly who you are?
LAA: There’s a lot of action, the energy of New York also contributes to this. In other words, this city draws you like a magnet to rise and do something so that the results are big. And the mission of the LAA helps not to get lost, to maintain a vibrant American-Lithuanian organisation serving the community as a centre of culture, history and information for all who are interested in the Lithuanian heritage and contemporary developments. We would like to attract more young people in the future who can contribute to our cultural activities. The mission of the LAA defines the activity quite clearly, but the word ‘defines’ itself has its own limits. I would not like to define it in words, but to work to ensure that a corner of Lithuania continues to breathe in the centre of Manhattan.
AMS: It seems that you should be receiving quite a lot of project offers, considering the city you’re in. How do you attract young people? Do you organise residency programmes?
LAA: A lot of energetic people are needed for the LAA Art Space to flourish. But not everyone has the time to volunteer, so we aim to get financial support from the city so that people who can help us get at least small grants. Because many organisations are asking for support (especially now that many art spaces have been closed for so long), the grant has not yet reached us. But we will not give up, we hope very much to get funding to be able to consider residency programmes in the near future.
AMS: Who are you giving most thoughts and plans to at the moment?
LAA: We spend a lot of time looking for funding to expand the LAA Art Space. We have the coolest curator, Francine Rogers, who is very good at finding grants. We are thinking about how not to lose the variety of events, how to stay active, even if the world around us is collapsing.
A new LAA council will be elected this autumn. I hope very much that the elected members will come to the LAA armed with enthusiasm and creative energy!