Founder and executive director Klaudia Ofwona Draber came to New York to open an art gallery but developed a concept that goes beyond art as a commodity—Ofwona Draber’s nonprofit KODA supports contemporary, mid-career artists through residencies and creative projects.
Ofwona Draber has led art and digital projects in Europe, Africa, and the U.S. She previously served as a consultant to the British Council Arts, worked at UBS, and mentors creative entrepreneurs at the New Museum’s NEW INC program. During her studies at the Sotheby’s Institute of Art, she built the business plan for the nonprofit she later brought to life together with her classmate Nadine Braquetti, now KODA’s program director. “A team is the most important aspect in building a company,” Ofwona Draber says, “you can’t do things on your own. Once you have the team together, innovation takes a life of its own.”
The institution is an art community without a physical space—it only exists in partnership with others. We spoke with Ofwona Draber about her organization’s nomadic nature, partnerships, and social change in the art world.
AWT: What was the reason you founded KODA?
Klaudia Ofwona Draber: To support artists, it’s very, very simple. It emerged from my interests. Too often the focus is on the artworks, which are seen as a commodity. But what’s really valuable to me is the artistic process, the creative practice, the creative expression, and the work in progress. I’m really curious about supporting studio work, seeing how artists come to realize their ideas, how concepts emerge. There is a little bit of magic in how these concepts manifest—experiencing the process is just something very tangible.
Artists don’t have enough support, especially when it comes to professional development. They’re basically entrepreneurs who are on their own when it comes to artistic and professional growth.
Community manifests in so many ways, and we really are making it a part of everything we do. We work on gathering communities, especially around the artists and the socially engaged topics of their work.
AWT: Is being able to follow the work in progress and the growth of artists more closely the reason why KODA’s work is directed toward mid-level career artists?
Ofwona Draber: The direction came from research. I started working on KODA during a graduate degree at Sotheby’s Institute of Art New York and it took around two years to create a cohesive business plan. Through conversation and market research, it came to my attention that mid-career artists are those who don’t get enough support. They’re just purely overlooked by the art market and by the art world. The focus is too often on the complete novelty or on the artists that are most established. But when you’re in the middle of your career, people have expectations and they often expect the same thing. Part of KODA’s mission is to allow for experimentation. We also ask the artists ‘what do you need?’ and we find ways to take their career to the next level. We look for what might have been blocking them for years sometimes, or how the artists can realize even more of their potential, or just to be able to share their ideas with the world.
AWT: Can you speak about your definition of mid-career artists?
Ofwona Draber: It’s broad. It’s really broad, but we’re looking for artists who have been working for at least 10 years and have had a solo exhibition or two. And, most importantly, we are interested in supporting artists who make social justice-related work.
AWT: Can you tell us more about the two artists in residence you have at the moment, Lina Puerta and Hidemi Takagi? How long is the residency program and how did you find the two artists?
Ofwona Draber: The residency program is three months long. We offer an honorarium, a studio space and/or studio visits, public engagement opportunities, and a curatorial and production consultancy. The first two artists were invited into the program, but we’re designing our first open call as we speak.
Lina Puerta’s work was introduced to me by one of my friends and colleagues, a few years back It was the Botánico series. I fell in love with these extremely elegant and powerful fake plants, and started following her career. We’re planning a survey exhibition with Lina next fall. In preparation for that exhibition we have offered her a residency.
Lina was raised in Colombia. Her work focuses on migration, nature and femininity. One of her intentions for this residency is to continue working on bringing in indigenous perspectives. How does indigenous culture relate to nature and food growth? How does it differ from our Western ways? Lina is an incredibly socially conscious artist constantly and boldly advocating for nature preservation.
The second artist is Hidemi Takagi from Japan. She moved to New York in 1997. Her work advocates for racial justice. She does photographic community-based work in minority and immigrant communities. She invites people to be in the spotlight through her oversaturated, greatly colorful photographs. It is just amazing! During her residency we’re printing a catalogue of an exhibition organized earlier this year. The book will include essays by Eva Mayhabal Davis, Jim Furlong, and Saijah Williams, one of the models in the Bed-Stuy Social ‘Photo’ Club project—a project for which Hidemi photographed her neighbors, the vibrant community of long-time residents of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.
AWT: I understand that community is an integral part of KODA’s work: you offer residencies and you have an educational program. But how is community embedded conceptually?
Ofwona Draber: It’s multidimensional. Community manifests in so many ways, and we really are making it a part of everything we do. We work on gathering communities, especially around the artists and the socially engaged topics of their work. For example, during Lina Puerta’s current residency, in collaboration with New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA), we are organizing an event on October 21 about women’s suffrage, funded in part by Humanities New York with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). We aim to encourage especially Latinx communities to vote as their voices have been under-represented in previous elections.
As a nomadic organization, we don’t have a physical space yet, and as such we only exist in partnership with other people and through building connections with other organizations, especially those community-based. Partnership is one dimension conceptually and, you know, even the name KODA has a dual meaning: the meaning of friendship [friend in Dakota Sioux], but also the meaning of a nomadic traveler or, in fact, a traveling tree [Ehretia Acuminata]—it traveled from Africa to Australia back in the day when the continents were connected.
To me personally, when growing up, community centers were the safe places allowing for free expression, creative work and movement. It is very important, especially in under-served communities, to create those safe spaces where artistic expression is encouraged and where intellectual endeavors can be undertaken from early ages.
AWT: Tell us more about how and where you grew up.
Ofwona Draber: Being half Polish and half Kenyan, I grew up in between continents and cultures. I was born and raised in Poland but visited Kenya for the first time when I was six years old. It was a life-changing experience, and the first and only time meeting my grandmother—the person who is the greatest inspiration to this day. She was doing experimental and entrepreneurial work already in the 50s. As a woman, in Africa! She was educated, she directed theatricals for Maendeleo Ya Wanawake, a Women’s Progress Movement, and she raised 11 children, and they all grew up to be loving and socially-conscious people.
AWT: You mentioned that partnerships are an important asset. Can you speak more to how you look at partnerships and how you develop them?
Ofwona Draber: We definitely spend a lot of time building partnerships. The most important thing is, of course, the alignment of the missions of the organization because collaborations are demanding, and at the same time very rewarding. They require clarity—a clear definition of expectations and role definition. And over time, as we work on projects together, we build more trust, we understand one another’s work styles, and we learn to create together.
One of our partners is FiveMyles, a nonprofit in Crown Heights, near the Brooklyn Museum, an exhibition and performance space where art and community connect. The founder Hanne Tierney and I, we both come from Eastern Europe, and we accidentally both have great appreciation for Kenya. When we first met, we probably already knew that we were going to work together. Working with FiveMyles has been an inspiration for staying true to our values, prioritizing artists, and nurturing a sense of community. There’s that—that something you can’t really explain, what makes a partnership work.
AWT: Where do you see KODA in five years? What kind of change do you want to see?
Ofwona Draber: More focus on the artists! That’s it. Supporting artistic practice. And you know what is really needed is the focus on the long form, contextualizing, we don’t have to do so many quick things as a society. We have three survey exhibitions planned ahead with Lina Puerta, Ewa Harabasz, and Renee Cox. Through survey exhibitions, KODA focuses on one artist at a time and finds ways to show different perspectives to honor the years and years of the artist’s work and thought.
View KODA’s current viewing room: