Meet Executive Director of Queens Center Of The Arts- Adrienne Whaley, MBA, MS.Ed
We’re bringing a multicultural, all-inclusive red carpet event to Jamaica, Queens as the home base where everyone can show off their talent, network, laugh, cry, and appreciate the work of so many other talented people from various genres and categories. — Adrienne Whaley, MBA, MS.Ed
Adrienne Whaley, MBA, MS.Ed., is the Executive Director Of the Queens Underground Film Festival, aka Queens Center Of The Arts based in Jamaica, Queens, NY. With a career, which began in Corporate America segueing into entrepreneurship prior to working as an Educational Evaluator and Administrator, Ms. Whaley returned to her love of the arts some 4 years ago. In between, she has remained the eclectic artist and entrepreneur: she designs much of her own wardrobe, enjoys painting on silk, making natural soap and landscaping. She also holds Certificates in Aromatherapy and Herbology. Some 20+ years later, the family only uses the soap that she makes. Having sold at street fairs for several years, the physicality of street fairs after having made and bottled the products lost its appeal she opted for only making soap for family and friends. From many secretarial temp jobs to Citibank on Park Ave, to Columbia University to the Insurance Department for the NYS before being promoted to a Supervisor at the NYS Nursing Home in St. Albans, Adrienne opened up the video store which was midway between work and home. As a single parent with a young son who received speech services in and out of school, she decided to return to college and finally complete the degree program. Once in, she came out 3 degrees later and moved into education as a special education classroom teacher to a SEIT (traveling special education teacher) before deciding to return to school once more to earn a dual masters in special and general education. After a few years in education, something was missing and Adrienne returned again to earn her school principals license and moved into administration where she was a school director and also a supervisor of special education teachers for an agency. She found more creative people as educators and assistant teachers than she had found in other careers. The more she saw the talent and frustration; she knew something had to give. Finally one March, it did. She quit with the determination to take all she had learned, had done, had felt and create a way for artists to have something of their own, again, especially in Jamaica, Queens, NY. Decision made, Adrienne and son, Christian, a cartoonist (a third generation artist with few creative job prospects), opened an art studio in their neighborhood where they offered Poetry Nights, Jazz events, Movie Nights and a Pop-Up shop. Also renting to other artists, performers and entrepreneurs the events outgrew the space and the duo realized that the need for a hub for all genres of creativity and small businesses was definitely substantial. Taking a risk, after a friend suggested — but did warn that she’d be of no assistance at all, Adrienne created the Queens Underground Film Festival — the first of its kind with Movie Shorts, Music, Poetry and Dance Videos, Web Series Episodes, Small Business Commercials, Community Awards, live performances and a Pop-Up Shop featuring small businesses, Organizations, chefs and designers. Featuring a Red Carpet entrance, submissions average 12 countries and many filmmakers fly in from other states. The community rallied around, volunteered, attended and emailed. Finally, after decades of being “underserved”, disenfranchised and suffering through jobs, which didn’t quite meet the needs — they were able to offer a platform with something for everyone. Unlike most events or creative endeavors, she has shown that it does not have to be one or the other, either, or and maybe one day… Minority and women filmmakers, singers, dancers, poets, musicians, web series producers, documentarians and small businesses with commercials or wish to vend can be in the same place with Community Organizations, Community Leaders and the Police Department, all dressed up for the Red Carpet. Her motivation was simple. Having attended art school as well, but forced to find jobs in other fields, one day it simply became unacceptable that regardless of the genre, resources, opportunities and platforms continue to remain sparse for minorities in the arts. While it is also a mega challenge for minorities who dare to open and maintain a creative businesses or organizations, if we don’t remain determined, proactive how much talent will we lose along the way? We deserve to have quality platforms, conferences, resources for all of the arts and film producers; and we are most certainly capable of designing and supporting our own unique platforms. Offer three annual themed Film Festivals (October, February and April), which are also mobile and virtual. Still hoping to attract sponsors, receive grant awards, donations and volunteers or interns during the week, Adrienne runs everything solo during the week while her son helps out one day a week and several judges chip in two months before the next festival. All self-funded she is ever grateful for several friends and two family members who loan their credit cards when needed. Still finding time to be active in the community, she is a member of the Queens Chamber Of Commerce, sitting on the Entertainment Committee; L.I. African American Chamber Of Commerce; NAACP; Vice President of the Greater Jamaica Merchants Chamber Of Commerce and an Honorary Board Member of the Humanity Coalition, sitting on the Entertainment, Education and Social Justice Committees. She smiles, “if someone had told me that it would take this long, would be this hard and would not net revenue for a few more years, let alone, that Covid would take us from almost 500 capacity down to a restriction of 20 people — would I still have done this?……..Yes, because I do believe that your path is your path and if not for all of the other experiences — this would be very scary and I would never take such a chance.” These days she is responsible for developing and managing the organization where hosting a film festival is an eight-month process for a team, producing all of its content — videos, graphics and the new Internet TV Station with multiple channels as another platform for creative and businesses with commercials to access all year long. “Had Covid not hit us so hard, we had a few amazing ideas for this year’s festival; fortunately they will not only keep, we have more time to outdo ourselves next year.
Now if we can, I’d like to go way back for a little while. Where did you grow up?
I’ve lived in Jamaica, Queens in the same house since age 5 and have raised my son here, prior, we live in Canarsie Brooklyn before living on Midwood Street, in Brooklyn as well.
What inspired your entrepreneurial journey?
I’ve always been into various creative arts and growing up I did not know of anyone who held a creative job, simultaneously I understood the basics of business at a young age and according to a cousin, at age 14 I said that I wanted to own a business — who knew it would take almost 30 years to make that happen.
Tell me about what problem your platform solves?
This Platform meets the needs of all Genres and Categories of Creatives (Filmmakers, Poets, Singers, Dancers, Talk Show Hosts, Web Series Producers, Business with Video Commercials), Entrepreneurs, Performers, Visual Artists, Chefs/Bakers, Community Groups, Community Leaders in that all can walk the Red Carpet, Participate, Celebrate what each group has to offer, network and bring “tourism” to Jamaica Queens.
What do you define as failure?
Giving Up, not being able to find within the so-called failure — that you learned that piece and now its time to take it and other pieces into the next rung on the ladder. I also define failure as listening to negativity spouted by too many people who have never done what you’re doing, are not risk-takers, not visionaries, and are without real frames of reference. You can end up failing yourself as you can by comparing yourself to others. Your vision is your vision and you have the self-responsibility of research, seeking professional advice from professionals, understand that trial and error, flexibility, and adaptability are part of the process and it may take a lot more experience, knowledge, and strength to reach your goals than you realize.
What have you felt you have failed at? What might you have done to prevent those failures?
Everything that I tried for the first time and sometimes — the second or third times as well. I don’t think that you can avoid failure, nor do I believe that one should. Cicely Tyson said that she learned more from negativities than she did vice versa. I can personally attest to that — it grows into “I know because I know that I know and I am sure that I know”. When you run a business, there are times you have to make quick or unfamiliar decisions, especially where finances and contracts are involved. You must have frames of reference to base it on and not be afraid to say “never mind, let me get back to you, or I’m unsure at this moment”. If you do make a mistake, you must know how to fix it quickly. If you were wrong, apologize, if the other person was wrong — remain humble. One of the most important things that one can do is to learn professional verbal, written, and in-person professional behaviors — faux pas can’t always be rectified and can remain a long-term, far-reaching failure.
What kind of impact do you want your event to leave on your attendees?
The fact that we’re bringing a multicultural, all-inclusive red carpet event to Jamaica, Queens as the home base where everyone can show off their talent, network, laugh, cry, and appreciate the work of so many other talented people from various genres and categories — and we’re the 1st ever to do this — this is what I want people to feel — warm and welcome into all of the arts and various types of community members/groups that their minds open up to the other arts and important causes and they feel part of a new artsy community who’s all about sharing and celebrating in Jamaica, Queens.
What is your why? Why you did you start your journey?
Could be because in Elementary School, my father who was an artist looked me hard in my eyes and said he would only draw a book report cover for me one time (I still have it) and after that, I had to figure out how to draw on my own. That was perhaps the catalyst for the essence of me — I will figure it out on my own, get it wrong and keep going until I get it right. I am a completely roll up your sleeves type and self-taught in many areas.
What hurdles did you personally face and how did you overcome them?
Without going into details a lot of unpleasant things happened to me a child. I also grew up in a family of police officers and attended an art high school during a time where minorities and especially minority girls were not encouraged to pursue the arts. My first business failed and it was after that that I returned to school to learn and earn a degree. The second business did well, but I didn’t have the staffing and was a single parent by that time. Tired of being miserable at work, as well as bullied, I was by that time able to self-fund an art studio in my area, which started out as one thing that didn’t work and I switch over to live performance and rental space which sort of worked, but not well enough and segued into a film festival with live performances, our pop-up shop and care for community groups, etc. and like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, all that I had done, learned and cared about — become one unit that has been accepted in a manner beyond my greatest dreams that is now international. I overcome things because I don’t feel that I have a choice, I can’t give up and truly believe your destiny is your destiny and if you deny it, it haunts you in so many ways in every area of your life that the dream simply “won’t give into that good night”.
Do you feel your product met the needs of the market at the time of conception? Does it still?
Yes, we meet a great many needs due to the lack of similar platforms that are totally focused on minorities, first-timers and those who are not sure of what they’re interested in or can do. I spend a lot of time mentoring filmmakers, poets, singers dancers — those who’ve never submitted to a film festival before or feel that because they don’t have expensive equipment or professional team members (cast and crew) — they’re not good enough. Yes, also because I come from the area of Queens which was once the most famous and now most young people and new residents are not aware of the rich history — ours and several other community groups are focused on retaining the history and ushering in a revitalized reputation for being “Home To All Of The Arts”, our motto is “From History, For History”.
When did you realize entrepreneurship was right for you?
When it would not leave me alone, no matter how many times and for how many years, I tried to have a regular 9–5, which again, may have been at age 14 or before.
Why did you choose entrepreneurship?
Who else would understand, develop, deliver and grow my vision but for me? I have a time with a shared vision and each person in his or her own right is also a Creative and additionally has goals of their own. Also, there is no other festival like this one, and the ideas and plans that I have — no one else would have the passion to work unpaid 6 six days — 12 hours per and be as physical, technical and run 8 departments single-handedly. Just because you’re an entrepreneur, does not mean revenue comes immediately.
What advice do you have for entrepreneurs and small business owners who may not be achieving their goals?
Take a moment and rethink everything. Talk to professionals who do the same thing or similar. Write it down, write it over, question yourself –don’t feel rushed, scared, or intimidated. Reflect often, talk it out, talk with total strangers. Then start over until you know what you know because you know and still be prepared to go back and edit or revamp. Every step of the way you’re asking yourself if you are meeting needs and if not, what else can you do. Challenge and compete with yourself — be different — there are too many repeats of common businesses and you cut down the market share especially within one zip code.
What would you say is your most driving motivation to keep doing what you to do?
I want to get it right. I want as many people to feel happy, feel valued and have opportunities that do not typically exist for many of the creative genres and newcomers. If knowledge is power and sharing is caring — and I know that without “Creatives” we’d still be living in Grass huts, dirt roads, and no inside plumbing, electricity, and no gorgeous décor or clothes, then I’m driven to make sure more people realize how important and valuable creativity is and here are the creatives…. As a former educator — creativity breeds hands-on abilities, skills, and mental magnitude, resourcefulness, determination while lessening the effect of peer pressure. I used to advise parents that not every child will want to be a broke shrugging artist, nor will every child become a famous rapper — it’s about developing skills, character, self-development, understanding of how the parts make the whole, having hobbies for health and mental health and feeling a necessary contributor to their community and world around them. Not only that — save money and make it yourself if you can. I’m driven to help the arts and the artists become more recognized, appreciated, and valued where we don’t have to “starve”.
What are you most excited or passionate about? (In both business and life or both)
The 2 Film Festivals that we run annually and the two others that I want to develop and how it all connects with the 100 channel Internet TV station that I’m building. I get to bring talent to the world and other talented people — fun job — people are happy, dressed up, networking and feeling the Creative Vibes, enjoying the live entertainment, shopping with the vendors, and learning more about the community groups and leaders. We’re mobile and virtual — so a lot more is coming to make people even happier — that’s where my passion lies — if hurt people hurt people — then conversely — happy people make people happy. There’s a lot of horrible things that happen every day, so much to worry about, do and plan for — Creativity is that outlet to relax, regroup, plan and have the strength for the next day. Also, I know that Business Commercials make a great category for Small businesses and organizations especially to get the word out. As a small business owner myself, the fact that a business owner can walk the Red Carpet and sit in the audience while their Commercial is on the Big Screen helps them promote, network, and add the film festival laurel to the flyers, ads, and inside of the business. With the Pandemic, it is vitally important to let the world know that you’re still open, expand your reach locally, nationally, and internationally and tap into others looking for your Product or Services. Most of my entrepreneurial friends are focusing more on online sales, including chefs and bakers.
What are the goals you most want to accomplish in your business? What are the goals that you hold personally?
Business Goals are to keep growing and expanding the film festival similar to Tribeca, Cannes, Sundance and the Hip Hop Festival, and the American Black Film Festival but keeping our own unique twists on things. My goal for this year is to attract large sponsors, HBO, Tubi, and a few other distributors. My goal while I ran the art studio has been to have LL Cool J (also from the same neighborhood) attend along with many of the other famous and still living legends from Southeast Queens. I want us all to take pride in what we had, have, and can build while finally putting the Arts first as one unit and not either this or that- it doesn’t have to be such a huge struggle with so much suffering and being put on the back burner because the arts are not thought of as essential, worthy or urgent. I want to leave something behind that my son, the artist who could care less about business, will be proud anyway; for my community, which deserves it, for all the others Creatives where it’s about time and for those who did not know about specific artistic disciplines, were afraid to try or have been told to give it up, those who don’t feel that they can showcase on a professional level — these are my personal goals — that there’s no “glass ceiling” and no one else can tell you who you can’t be
Did you have any key mentors or people who deeply influenced who you are, what you believe in and what you’re committed to in your work and life? Tell me about them.
I’ve been mentored most by those who have been mean, negative, etc. Every step of the way, we as human beings get to make an important decision — is what this person did or said –going to change me? Can such alter my character, behavior ethics? Do I let them do me in, age me before my time or do I wish them well, wish them far away and count my blessings? I count my blessings. Positive influences have been from my mother — Saint Ruth as I call her behind her back — not that I always agree or will listen, but she and Mother Theresa are the most forgiving people that I know of. I have watched and followed other business owners and/or leaders from afar-it’s better that way. I am without question predominately influenced by father –he and I were the two left-handed artists in the family and birthdays two months apart. Both parents and even my son have an innate sense of justice, multi-cultural — fully diverse and living the quality life of your choosing. My father graduated from high school, went into the service, became a housing cop and the brilliant mind and almost physic abilities were either innate or self-taught. He didn’t believe in limitations, responsibilities yes, but not limitations, and both parents always stood by my side for right or wrong and corrected intellectually — in fact my father used to make me say what I did wrong and offer several alternative responses for the future.
What’s next for you in your brand? What can readers look forward to from you?
We held that February 2020 film festival at the Jamaica Performing Arts Center with submissions from 12 countries, 8 states of filmmakers flying in, another few driving/bussing in — we packed the house and had 4 Red Carpet Talk Show Hosts, politicians, the 103rd and 113th precincts, Community Group Leaders as Volunteers and attendees, 10 live performances, 15 vendors and movies, music, dance, poetry videos, web series episodes and business commercials in one festival — October 2020 was held outdoors and virtually due to covid and February 20, 2021 will be a Virtual “watch on with the team” and it continues on April 16, 17, 24 and 25 with all of the above and the addition of a Filmmakers Panel as both an In-person outdoor event and airs virtually. We hope that venues will be open in October 2021, but if not, we’ll be Outdoors again and Virtual.
Is there anything else you would like to share with me?
Yes, our website is: QueensUnderground718.com and people can follow on Instagram @queensundergroundfilmfest. Tickets are on the Website for a new set of Films, Documentaries, Videos, Episodes, and Entrepreneurial Commercials from 14 countries, most from the US for each day in April.
How can people help support the Creatives and our ability to keep it going?
We are a small, but powerful non-profit who creating a new type of festival in our neighborhood to bring people together from all over the world and include every category, genre, and type of consumer from age 15 up where the newcomer, professional, and curious are welcomed. We do accept sponsors, partners, collaborators, and donations on the website: Queensunderground718.com. And if anyone has LL Cool J’s number, please call him and tell him about us — I lived on 204th and Hollis Ave.- the library is still on the corner — my first apartment, but seriously, he is the consummate creative and we’d love to have him as a guest speaker along with Senator Comrie, Queens, 14th District whose office sponsors the Community awards (they know each other well, but?..) His voice would help give the Arts a voice and face. I’m cute and elegant, but not famous.
Find out more about the Queens Underground Film Fest by visiting Queensunderground718.com.
Media Outlets and Sponsors please contact the Festival via email Queensunderground718@gmail.com or via Phone (718) 658–3881 during regular business hours M-F.
The Festival has multiple dates: February 20th Virtual only and it continues on April 16, 17, 24, and 25