Art Works Blog

Spotlight on Asian Arts Initiative

"[A]rtists interested in socially-engaged work should give before expecting to receive, which they can do by sharing what they are genuinely passionate about." -- Gayle Isa

While many arts organizations can claim to be located in certain neighborhoods, not all of them can claim to actually part of the neighborhood. That's not the story, however, at Philadephia-based Asian Arts Initiative (AAI), which takes its mission directly from its Chinatown community. Started as a project of the Painted Bride Art Center 15 years ago, AAI has since become a nationally recognized arts center in its own right. One of its projects is the Social Practice Lab, an artist-in-residence program, which recently received an NEA Art Works grant. We spoke by e-mail with AAI Executive Director Gayle Isa, who shared with us why the community is at the heart of AAI's programs, the evolution of the Social Practice Lab, and how art works in Philadelphia's Chinatown. 

NEA: What's the mission of Asian Arts Initiative?

GAYLE ISA: Asian Arts Initiative is a multi-disciplinary community-based arts center in Philadelphia that engages artists and everyday people to create art that explores the diverse experiences of Asian Americans, addresses our social context, and imagines and effects positive community change.

In our curtain speeches we say: Asian Arts Initiative is a multi-disciplinary community-based arts center that believes in the power of the arts to tell the stories of Asian Americans and the diverse communities of which we are a part.

NEA: What's the origins story for Asian Arts Initiative?

ISA: Asian Arts Initiative started out as a project of the Painted Bride Art Center in 1993, following the Rodney King verdict and the Los Angeles uprisings, in response to racial tension between Asian Americans and African Americans that were being highlighted in Philadelphia and across the country. The Painted Bride convened a group of community activists and artists to help shape an initiative that would seek to address the friction through the arts. When this handful of individuals met, though, they recognized that there was a need to first create a space that didn’t yet exist in Philadelphia to explore the diversity of pan-Asian American cultural experiences, prior to facilitating dialogue with another racial group.

NEA: AAI just received NEA grant support for the Social Practice Lab. What was the genesis of that program, and how does it work?

ISA: Our Social Practice Lab represents a natural progression and extension of the community-focused projects Chinatown Live(s) and Chinatown In/flux that we previously organized (from 2004 through 2009). Chinatown Live(s) was an oral history project with interviews and photo portraits of a diverse array of Chinatown residents and workers, emphasizing that the neighborhood is not only a place to eat and shop but also a place where people live and work. For Chinatown In/flux we commissioned artists to create public art installations with the similar goal of shifting perspectives on the neighborhood, and especially--after we relocated to the even more racially diverse part of the neighborhood that we call Chinatown North--trying to expand the notion of what “Chinatown” means and who gets to define our community. Following these projects, we wanted to engage even more deeply with local community members, and conceived of our Social Practice Lab as a long-term residency with flexibility for artists to collaborate and experiment with socially-engaged projects that could have positive social outcomes for our neighborhood.

The residency structure now involves an artist-in-residence (or artist team-in-residence) to be engaged for 12 to 18 months with Asian Arts Initiative and our neighborhood. We frame the initial phase, up to three months, as a research period, in which artists are asked to spend time on-site at Asian Arts Initiative and in our neighborhood doing volunteer work, attending community meetings, and/or using other strategies to gain familiarity with the physical landscape and build relationships. Following the research period, artists submit a proposal that outlines the project(s) they might want to pursue and receive feedback from Asian Arts Initiative staff and our committee of local and national advisors to refine their ideas. Artists then implement their project(s) during the remainder of the residency. Our national advisors are experienced practitioners and scholars of contemporary socially-engaged arts practice, and our local resource team includes stakeholders and leaders from the neighborhood. Throughout the residency, artists attend and participate in regular check-in meetings with each other and with Asian Arts Initiative staff. We have continued to refine the structure of Social Practice Lab as we enter into its second cycle and regularly solicit feedback from artists and community members about how to improve the residency structure and its impact.

NEA: Why was it important through SPL to facilitate this type of relational experience between artists and your community? What are the benefits to the community? To the artists?

ISA: The relational experience we offer between artists, staff and the community through Social Practice Lab (SPL) embodies several of our organization’s core values: Community mindedness (to support and nurture artistic work that is community-driven); art as a means for making social change (to create, through art, greater equity and opportunities for access to power); dialogue and learning (to foster active learning and exchange among diverse constituents by creating a dialogue via art); and leadership by Asian Americans (to create leadership opportunities for Asian Americans, while maintaining openness to participants of all backgrounds.)

SPL benefits our community because we strive to create relationships across different groups and individuals from differing socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, and actively encourage our artists-in-residence to aim for social good to the community through their creative work.

SPL benefits artists by providing them a space to grow and stretch their practice--many of the creative individuals we worked with in the inaugural 2012-2013 cohort did not identify as contemporary art ‘insiders’ or experts in social practice, but all of them throughout the residency expressed an appreciation for the opportunities and advisory support that the residency provided for them to experiment in social practice.

NEA: What are some of the lessons learned through SPL?

ISA: We’ve learned a great deal from each of the artists-in-residence and their respective projects. For example, through Dave Kyu, who designed Write Sky to invite diverse community members to compose messages to be typed by skywriting planes in the sky as a “common ground” above our neighborhood, we gained insight into the different subcultures that co-exist and that each claim this neighborhood of many names as their own. Through his project, too, we were reminded of the value of a “poetic gesture” which can inspire people with pride or creativity or joy.

NEA: What's your advice for other community organizations that might want to institute similar types of projects?

ISA: The successes we have experienced through SPL are connected with choosing artists-in-residence who, regardless of their primary creative discipline, possess a willingness and commitment to socially opening themselves to the community. Another key has been building and maintaining relationships with community members both formally and informally, and structuring a local resource team representing a wide array of neighborhood organizations--including non-profits, artist collectives, schools, churches, a community development organization, social services organizations, fellow arts organizations, and galleries—who serve as points of entry in guiding artists to gain deeper connections and responsiveness to the neighborhood.

NEA: What's your advice for artists who would like to incorporate deep interactions with their communities into their art practice/art making?

ISA: The advice will not be very surprising—they should get to know the community first, while being honest with themselves about their comfort zones. Also, artists interested in socially-engaged work should give before expecting to receive, which they can do by sharing what they are genuinely passionate about.

NEA: At the NEA, we use the phrase "Art works" as a type of shorthand to mean art works themselves, the way that art works on people, and also to reinforce that making art is work. What does the phrase "Art Works" evoke for you, particularly in terms of the Social Practice Lab?

ISA: When it comes to Social Practice Lab, a lot of the discussion we have with our artists-in-residence and with our local resource team members focuses on the social dynamics and politics that exist within the neighborhood.  The phrase “Art works” reminds us that, at the end of the day, as we strive to foster a dialogue and create positive social outcomes through our work, we are an arts organization first and foremost, and can best serve our community and best address the social issues and challenges we encounter by approaching from an angle of artistic excellence. In the words of some of our national advisors who remind us of this approach from time to time, “we should not neglect the poetics.”

Want to read more about artists and arts organizations with community-centered art practices and programs? Check out our next issue of NEA Arts coming later this summer.

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