OTTOnomy: Fulbright Alum’s NGO Works to “Restore the Social Fabric” in Albania

OTTOnomy: Fulbright Alum’s NGO Works to “Restore the Social Fabric” in Albania

Through connections and knowledge gained during her Fulbright Scholar grant to Albania, Dr. Lori Amy co-founded the non-governmental organization OTTOnomy to preserve, restore, and re-imagine a historic villa in Tirana. Below, she describes in her own words the origins of the undertaking, its growth and development, and her vision for its future.

Headshot of Lori Amy

Lori Amy

The opportunity to work with an Albanian on a vision for a Regional Center for Cultural Heritage and International Center for Art, Culture, and Education has been the most important opportunity of my life. Starting from the understanding that the parallel processes of expropriation and the development of a gulag system constitute the original scene of the crime of communism, and that this crime continues today in the property disputes of a failed privatization, we understood that we needed to bring a public trust to Albania that can buy, restore, and safeguard an important cultural heritage patrimony and return it the country as a center that can work for mutual understanding, reconciliation, and healing. This is the core of what we mean with our motto, to restore the social fabric. Once the Public Trust is able to acquire the historical monument, our first step is to restore it – and this restoration is both literal, for the building and premises, and symbolic, as the center restores a social fabric sundered by a half century of brutal communist dictatorship and a quarter century of a turbulent, troubled transition.

A large historic villa in Tirana, Albania

The exterior of the villa today

Our model for a social enterprise that reinvents a cultural heritage site as a home for the vibrant creative intellectual life of the city and as a life-giving patrimony for the country and the region is very exciting. The upstairs – the most historically preserved part of the villa – will be restored and turned into a cultural loft, hosting an art gallery and exhibition space, a library, a public access media center, and a common area that leads into and intersects the creative, artistic, intellectual energies of all three.  When the property was first privatized, the owners rented it out as a restaurant, and we’ll keep the downstairs and part of the garden area as a restaurant/ bar-kafe that works on a social business model to support the activities of the cultural center. Founded on a slow food, locally grown ethic, the restaurant presents food and drink as crucial elements of community and is intentionally designed as a site of physical, emotional, and spiritual sustenance.  The historic restoration of the cultural loft guides the conscientious renovation of the restaurant bar-kafe, providing an intellectually engaged cultural space that nurtures body, mind, and spirit.  Additionally, there are 8 rear apartments that will be rented as nightly and monthly lodging for cultural heritage tourists and as studio space for artists and scholars in residence. We will gain significant revenue from renting the restaurant, courtyard, and upstairs spaces for events (conferences, workshops, international organization and embassy events, private events such as weddings, etc.). The generous courtyard will host artisan and craft fairs, farmer’s markets, and cultural events that promote cultural heritage and sustainable touristic and economic development.

As a self-sustaining cultural center, OTTOnomy reinvents social entrepreneurship in Albania as both literal and symbolic restoration – our holistic model of sustainable economic development and urban transformation builds communities that support the individual and in which the individual works for the community in a shared vision of restoring the social bonds that hold us in common. Working with artists, musicians, public intellectuals, scholars, and youth throughout the Balkans and Southeast Europe, our Center will serve both as a site through which to build a critically reflective public sphere and as a cultural anchor that provides a sense of place and a model of sustainable economic development. The cultural loft will be very important to local university and civil society users who have very few spaces that provide research database access, computer facilities, and the opportunity for quiet reflection and study.  We have weekly programs and activities designed for local youth and families, and a large partnership with International organizations and local civil society (embassies, the UNDP and OSCE, local NGOs) who are eager to rent event and conference space. As a regional center for cultural heritage, OTTOnomy will bring in musicians, artists, film makers, producers, playwrights, authors, public intellectuals, and a whole range of cultural workers from throughout the Western Balkans to showcase and discuss their work, cultivate relationships and networks between Albanian and regional cultural workers, and to develop stronger ties between people in the Western Balkans. We are also partnering with universities to create an internship program that will give students hands-on experience working in the arts, public education, and the cultural sphere, and these interns will play an important role in staffing the cultural loft for extended-hours access.

As the only fully integrative historical, arts, culture and education space in the region that is self-supporting, we are thus poised to become a model of sustainable economic development and a cultural anchor in the Western Balkans that builds community leaders, in partnership with regional actors, in a holistic approach to community development and economic resiliency. Culturally, the center returns historical patrimony as a space for the arts, public education, and cultural activities. Economically, the center provides the only comprehensive cultural heritage tourism destination site in the capital city. Our financial plan predicts that, within 3 years, we will be self-supporting. Within 5 years, we will be able to develop an internationally recognized name and become a model of social entrepreneurship that brings cultural heritage back to life as a living patrimony for the country and region. In the longer term, we aim to become an example of sustainable economic development and peace-building and to bring this model to other sites in Albania and the region.

When I started this work in 2015, I did not fully understand the time, sacrifice, and risk that this work would involve. We were up against the richest, most powerful people in the country – people who had a great deal of money to gain by demolishing this cultural treasure and building a high rise in its place. But, because I was working in support of an Albanian who wants to heal his country, we insisted on working, from the inception, as a force of overcoming divides and healing. Rather than being trapped in a “fight” – a doomed cycle of responding to threats, bribery, and intimidation with accusations, public denouncements, and a “fight-back” response that polarizes everybody – we took a dialogue approach. We worked quietly, one-on-one, with local and national government, the developers, the people on the title to the property, to explain the vision of the Public Trust and the Cultural Center. We got international support — first from the Pivotal Places Program of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, then from the United States Embassy in Tirana and from the UNESCO Chair for Interculturalism and Mediation in the Western Balkans.  We registered the foundation OTTOnomy, intended to function as a pubic trust to preserve this important heritage site and build a Regional Center for Cultural Heritage and International Center for Art, Culture, and Education.  And the Mayor of Tirana, Erion Veliaj, stepped in at a crucial juncture to preserve the historical monument status of the cultural treasure OTTOnomy has saved.  We built a stellar international board of directors, including experts with the German Marshall Fund, Bloomberg Law, and a former Ambassador to Albania. We ran our first projects on dialogue and reconciliation, and Elvis and I were both trained by the Nansen Academy for Peace and Dialogue as dialogue facilitators – in the long term, we would like to bring a Nansen Network to Albania. We partnered with Cultural Heritage without Borders to craft a plan for restoration and adaptive reuse of the historical monument, and with Yunus Social Business to develop a business plan, and we have recently partnered with Creative Business Solutions Albania, who will provide technical support for the Public Trust and its operations. In the three years of building the Trust, we have garnered over 100 partners in Albania and the region – from civil society, universities, international institutions and organizations in the areas of peace and conflict resolution, culture, and the arts. We have 3 years of projects in the pipeline and ready to launch, including a Public Trust Art project that will work with university students and creative cultural workers to understand how legacies of the communist past continue to effect people today and to find ways to work through those legacies and forge the bonds that hold us in common.

Aerial view of the historic villa

Aerial view of the villa

With all of this support, we were able to achieve a consensus amongst all parties to continue with the center. Having transformed a situation of crisis into a network of partnerships, we are now looking for the partners that can work with OTTOnomy to purchase the historical monument from the owners, bring it into the Public Trust, and launch the Center. This is a substantial investment, especially as the historical monument we have saved is in the heart of the most lucrative real estate in the country. To raise the combination of philanthropy and social impact investment that we need, and to explain the critical importance of creating a center that can work for peace and stability in the Western Balkans, we also built a base of allies in the United States. In particular, we reached out to Senator Christopher Murphy’s office. Senator Murphy has been a consistent and passionate voice for rethinking the strategic importance of the Western Balkans, and, as Albania has great potential for functioning as a stabilizing force in the region, his office’s understanding and support has been a great boon.

The monument we have saved and that will become home to the Center has a special place in the city’s history. It was built in 1837 by the Toptani family, a ruling clan under the Ottoman empire.   Over the last two centuries the house has served the community as Tirana’s first library, as the first American Legation in Albania, and as the allied base of operations in the second world war. Recently, we tracked down the surviving relatives of the first Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Albania, Ulysses Grant-Smith. He is important to us as he was in charge of the US Diplomatic Mission when it was housed in the cultural monument we have saved.  It turns out that Grant-Smith is the second cousin of President Ulysses S. Grant’s wife, Julia Dent, and, among his many accomplishments, he negotiated and signed the post-WWI peace treaty between the United States and Hungary.  His great-niece, Emsie McIlvaine Parker, is a woman of extraordinary passion and exquisite sensibility, and we are working with her to inventory Grant-Smith’s Albania documents, with the goal of organizing an exhibition about this historical monument as the first U.S. Legation in Albania and Grant-Smith’s work here.

These are just the highlights of what my Fulbright Scholar fellowship made possible for me. Every bit of this work – every single piece of it – came from my Fulbright Fellowship that brought me to Albania. This, I believe, is a very significant return on a small investment – an investment in developing relationships across our borders that can work for the mutual good of all of us.

—Dr. Lori Amy

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