By Ron Chew
For Northwest Asian Weekly
The arts can be an instrument for transforming individual lives, restoring communities, and remaking our society into a more tolerant and inclusive place for all.
Five years ago, in a report I wrote for Americans in the Arts, I described the emergence of community-based arts organizations. I wrote about how these groups now formed the “new center of gravity” in a rapidly changing arts field. <!–more–>
Growing up in an immigrant working class home, I thought of art – which I prefer calling “inventive pursuit” – as something that belonged to the outside world, not my own. It took me many years to understand that the arts belongs to all of us.
My father and mother endured incredible challenges raising a family of four. My father never made it past the eighth grade. He worked for 32 years as a waiter in a Chinatown restaurant, earning less than a dollar an hour during most of those years.
My mother, unable to speak English, likewise endured long hours at two separate garment factories, working from 7 am to 9 pm, six days a week. She barely completed a grade school education in China back in an era when women were not expected to aspire to any goals other than marriage and childrearing.
Growing up under these spartan conditions in the 1950s – and never once hearing my father or mother talk about the arts as a worthy pursuit – I turned my early ambitions toward finding a job at the Post Office or at Boeing. To me, that was the golden dream of a better life. I’m glad I never made it.
Growing up, we did have art in the home – sort of. Free wall calendars from Chinatown restaurants, grade school drawings by myself and my siblings were scotch-taped here and there in the living room. A few Chinese vases and a ceramic model of the Space Needle topped the mantel. We also partook in a few regular cultural outings. For lunar new year, we would go see lion dances in Chinatown and visit our family association, where there might be Chinese music playing on a tape recorder in the background.
One very strong childhood memory is of lying awake in the bedroom at night, listening to the singing of my mother in the kitchen. Muk ngwee is what the singing is called. It translates as wooden fish songs. They’re poetic fables born of the Chinese countryside. After making dinner for the family, my mother would claim the rest of the night and early morning as her time, singing these song poems. The lyrics spoke of epic tragedies and small daily sorrows, longing, truth, honor, loyalty and hope.
My American school-fed diet of arts and culture – the music class, the field trips to the Seattle Art Museum, Seattle Symphony and Seattle opera – left me feeling less stimulated. They had few connection points into my experience or any passions I might have freely pursued as an early arts “consumer.”
Writing allowed me to create a vocabulary for my teen imagination. From age 11 to 14, I produced “Think-A-Newspaper,” a publication I invented for the exclusive delight of my little brother. Written and illustrated in pencil on loose sheets of lined paper, the newspaper contained imaginary local and world news, jokes, comic strips, sports articles and clip-out baseball cards. I’m not sure he really enjoyed the weekly missive I foisted on him.
I was building the foundation of a journalism career that I would enjoy after my studies at the University of Washington. I returned to the Chinatown-International District community which had nurtured and raised me and began volunteering at a newly created ethnic community newspaper called the International Examiner. I was there for 13 years. As a journalist and community activist, I continued to feel anger about the strong divide between the world I experienced as the child of immigrants and the world of the make-believe American dream where I didn’t quite belong.
I was recruited to work as director of a small, struggling historical society called the Wing Luke Asian Museum.
It was here that I came to understand the power and importance of multi-disciplinary cultural work .
1. Develop programs that connect to today’s issues and needs
2. Embrace diversity
3. Invest in long-term relationships
4. Cultivate community ownership
5. Bring in the next generation
The Wing Luke Museum was facing a crisis at the time I arrived there in 1991.
The Museum had been established in 1968 in honor of Wing Luke, a Chinese immigrant elected to the Seattle City Council in 1962. The Museum operated without much passion as a tiny volunteer organization for most of its early years.
The mission statement I inherited talked about the Museum educating the public about Asian history, culture and art, and collecting and preserving objects. The new mission –developed in collaboration with community members – talked about “engaging” Asian Americans and others in “exploring issues” related to Asian American history, culture and art.”
I immediately cancelled several planned outside exhibitions that had little relevance to our new mission and launched on a bold experiment to develop a brand-new kind of exhibit for the Wing Luke. We created an exhibition titled, “Executive Order 9066: 50 Years Before and 50 Years After.”
The exhibition shared in very personal terms what happened to Japanese Americans when the U.S. government suddenly stripped them of their possessions, took away their freedom and imprisoned them behind barbed wire.
For many internees, it was the first time they had ever spoken to their own children about what had happened. The exhibition came at a necessary juncture in the healing process of the community.
The Wing Luke Museum, established in 1968, is located in the heart of the Chinatown-International District, a downtown neighborhood that’s been brimming with ethnic and racial diversity for a long time.
But diversity, as we all know, isn’t necessarily a quick pathway to harmonious relationships. First-generation immigrants tend to import ethnic rivalries from their homeland to America. Poverty also exacerbates frustration and conflicts.
For the first 25 years of its existence, the Museum chose to ignore the raucous diversity outside its doors by focusing on tepid, non-controversial displays of traditional Asia.n folk arts – textiles, pottery, baskets gathered from its dusty collection. These displays were geared toward a non-Asian audience that wouldn’t be interested in having their intellect – or their sense of the world order — challenged.
When I came to the Museum as the first Asian American director in its history, we began hiring Asian American staff and creating ethnically diverse community advisory committees to guide the creation of exhibitions and public programs.
In the realm of relationship-building, too often I had seen other museums, arts organizations and non-profits bring in community members, especially people of color, to serve on token advisory committees for projects where the power to make meaningful decisions was not really ceded and the relationship was created for a short-term journey.
As commitments deepen, participants find themselves feeling compelled to recruit others from their extended circle to join them at events and participate in programs. This kind of institutional loyalty – fostered through genuine long-term relationships – is pivotal to organizational strength and stability.
No arts institution is completely credible – or even viable over the long haul – if the community that it represents does not wholeheartedly embrace its existence.
For the Wing Luke Museum, the community stakeholders include those who live, work or do business in the Chinatown-International District of Seattle. It also includes virtual visitors as well.
Each of us lives in our own time. So how do we build bridges between our generations? How do we transcend our differences and find respectful ways to share knowledge, skills and perspective? During my tenure at the Wing Luke, we relied heavily on student activists committed to our social-change mission. We were consciously trying to cultivate the next generation of leaders. But balancing the spirited idealism of young people with the cautious pragmatism of older people was always a tightrope walk. We needed both visions. Sometimes, in the gulf between generations, we speak the same words, but we’re actually talking different languages. This can create problems.
Three years ago, my son, then in high school, asked me to help him with an assignment. Students in his class had been told to write a short letter to the author of a favorite book.
My son had never written a letter. He had made it to age 16 without ever partaking in a form of communication that was second nature to those of us who came of age before the Internet. For a few bewildered seconds, I grieved for the loss.
Of course, the absence of letters doesn’t bother my son or his friends. Why would you grieve over something you never had to begin with? Perhaps Gen Y will rediscover traditional letter writing in their own time as some quaint classical form.
So how will we define, teach and support the arts in a world that’s paradoxically becoming more connected, yet less intimate and more impersonal by the day?
And which organizations will successfully navigate the generational divide and find new ways of expanding participation, nurturing creativity, and renewing a sense of shared community values?
These are big questions for which there are no ready answers. (end)
Ron Chew is a community organizer and a leader in the community-based model of museum exhibit development.