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On the Ground: Asian Arts Initiative sews together the city's cultural fabric

Asian Arts Initiative

Asian Arts Initiative

Pearl Street

Asian Arts Initiative

In November, Flying Kite's On the Ground program landed in a storefront on Pearl Street, the grateful guests of Chinatown North's Asian Arts Initiative. On the surface, it might be easy to make assumptions about the organization's work, but a conversation with leadership reveals themes that are harder to grasp, but just as important for the whole neighborhood.

Executive Director Gayle Isa and Senior Program Manager Nancy Chen, two of nine staffers (not counting the group's many teaching and resident artists), took some time to shed light on the complexities of the group's mission, and why it applies to everyone, not only people of Asian descent.

Isa, a Los Angeles native, says she never thought much about her racial identity growing up on the West Coast, surrounded by Asian and Hispanic people. She first came to Philly in 1989 to attend Swarthmore College, where she "was really culture-shocked by the lack of other Asian Americans." 

She points to a dominant East Cost racial narrative that is primarily African American or Caucasian. That conversation is shifting, but Isa still finds the lack of visibility for other ethnic groups a prominent part of life here. 

"[It] caused me to feel a need to connect with other Asian Americans on campus, and seek opportunities to connect with Asian American communities in Philadelphia," she says of her college days. 

Isa began to volunteer with the group Asian Americans United (soon to celebrate its 30th anniversary), and eventually interned at the Painted Bride Art Center. As she puts it, she wanted to focus on projects that "proactively bring communities together, and not just wait for something bad to happen and respond."

She helped organize Philly's first-ever Asian-American Arts Festival in spring of 1993. It was around that time that a group of artists concerned about the violence in Los Angeles following the verdict in the Rodney King case approached Painted Bride. They hoped to mount a project that would soothe tensions between the local Asian and African-American communities.

Asian-American artists contacted by Painted Bride argued that to engage in a lasting dialogue, it would be good to have "a pan-Asian presence or space that would give our community a chance to figure out our own cultural voice," recalls Isa. 

Asian Arts Initiative was born as a desk at the Painted Bride.

After gaining 501(c)3 nonprofit status, the organization had a stint in the old Gilbert Building at 13th and Cherry Streets. That structure was demolished to make way for the Convention Center expansion. Thanks to dollars from the William Penn Foundation, Asian Arts first rented and renovated, and then purchased, its current headquarters at 1219 Vine Street. The space features offices, galleries and a theater space on two floors; the organization leases out the rest of the building to other arts groups. 

Isa helped launch Asian Arts as an intern and when she graduated in 1993 became a part-time coordinator, eventually transitioning into the role of managing director, and then, several years ago, executive director.

She explains that the Asian Arts mission has always been two-fold: "Tell the stories of Asian Americans through the arts, and also build bridges and dialogue between the even more diverse communities that we're part of."

Chen, a Wynnewood native who began at Asian Arts almost five years ago as a program assistant, is inspired by the organization's commitment to "cultivating and encouraging Asian-American artists to be in positions of leadership when it comes to community conversations."

Chen helps to manage everything from community artist residencies to art exhibitions and performances, and partnerships with other nearby nonprofits like the Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission. (For a peek at one recent project by Asian Arts' Social Practice Lab, check out our story on Singapore-born resident artist Meei Ling Ng.)

"The value of our space is not necessarily that we host any specific event," she continues, but that they're a home for artists of many disciplines to connect and convene. "They won't meet in other contexts that aren't specific to supporting Asian-American artists with contemporary practices."

That contemporary practice piece is important, too. Many people assume the organization promotes traditional Asian-style arts, and reach out when they're looking to mount something like a Chinese New Year celebration and need a traditional singer or dancer. Some Asian Arts participants certainly fit the bill, but that's not the group's core mission -- they're a lens for cutting-edge contemporary arts through the eyes and leadership of Philly's Asian artists. 

And there are still more layers to the organization's work.

The Social Practice Lab, made of up yearly cohorts of artists in neighborhood residencies digging into community needs, will soon be rebranded as the Chinatown North Arts CO-Lab (the "CO" standing for "creative organizing" or maybe "community organizing," explains Chen). That program is not limited to people of Asian descent.

"Social Practice Lab is something that we're still working very hard to cultivate," says Chen. "I think being able to position Asian-American artists and people of color in leadership roles, to bring the community together, and through their art, make connections, and make stories more visible, is a very powerful thing."

Fair representation of minorities is an important piece of the puzzle. As a parent, Isa finds this especially vital as her daughter consumes mainstream American media. 

"Even though my work is so much about being able to see Asian Americans onstage and having people of color tell our own stories…it just doesn't exist in the mass media," she says. "You can't be neutral -- you have to put extra work in to be able to counter that dynamic."

"I don't think it's always a conscious, pernicious thing," Chen says of the lack of representation. "Working here has contributed to changing my personal perspective…I'm definitely more conscious of the need for leadership by Asian Americans in all kinds of contexts."

Defining and practicing a mission that is Asian artist-centric while also serving the broader Philly community can be challenging.

"Definitely we're very welcoming and inclusive," says Chen, but "sometimes people hear our name, and whether they're Asian American or not…they wonder, 'Is that for me?'"

That may be because there's no such thing as a single Asian-American identity. In Chen's case, as a Chinese American, "there's no assumption that I have something in common with [for example] a South Asian person." 

However, "the solidarity is real," she argues, and it's part of what Asian Arts Initiative aims to foster. "When we do what we do well, it's kind of like there is a platform [for] seeing shared cultural experience, and for actually taking pride in that."

All in all, the Asian Arts mission runs deep, even as a lively debate about the nuances of the work continues. The organization's programming increasingly reaches beyond the realm of arts into community-embedded initiatives. 

"I hope it's a productive tension," concludes Isa. "[We're] challenging ourselves to think more expansively about what an arts organization can be and should be." 

Follow all our work #OnTheGroundPhilly via twitter (@flyingkitemedia) and Instagram (@flyingkite_ontheground).

On the Ground is made possible by the Knight Foundation, an organization that supports transformational ideas, promotes quality journalism, advances media innovation, engages communities and fosters the arts. The foundation believes that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit knightfoundation.org.
ALAINA MABASO, a Philadelphia-based freelance journalist, has landed squarely in what people tell her is the worst possible career of the twenty-first century. So she makes Pennsylvania her classroom, covering everything from business to theater to toad migrations. After her editors go to bed, she blogs at http://alainamabaso.wordpress.com/. Find her on Twitter @AlainaMabaso.
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