Rendering by Ben Volta of his potential installation at the electrical substation in the neighborhood. Image courtesy of the artist.

Rendering by Ben Volta of his potential installation at the electrical substation in the neighborhood. Image courtesy of the artist.

Asian Arts Initiative is a multi-disciplinary community-based arts center in Philadelphia. The organization’s current programs include a public performance season, a gallery exhibition series, artist residencies, and youth workshops that focus on telling the stories of Asian Americans and the diverse communities of which Asian Americans are a part. Prompted to relocate due to the expansion of the Pennsylvania Convention Center five years ago, Asian Arts Initiative is now in a new home at 1219 Vine Street, and developing its building as a multi-tenant facility to serve as an anchor in the development of the Chinatown North neighborhood.

ArtPlace’s grant will support Asian Arts Initiative to renovate the third floor of its building to create more artist studio space, as well as support the inaugural year of a Social Practice Lab through which Artists-in-Residence will work in partnership with a diversity of residents and neighborhood organizations to create projects – which could be at public sites including storefront windows, restaurant tables, an outdoor plaza, a viaduct tunnel, a parking lot—and contribute to shaping the vision of the neighborhood’s future.

ArtPlace interviewed Gayle Isa, Executive Director of Asian Arts Initiative, who first became active in Chinatown through working on a documentary film about the community’s organizing efforts when a federal detention center was proposed in the neighborhood in 1993.

ARTPLACE: What has been the thorniest issue you’ve faced to date? How have you dealt with it?

Isa: The thorniest issue that we’ve faced to date, even with the amazing luxury of having ArtPlace support to host artists-in-residence for (us) an unprecedented year-long span of time, is the question of how we can sustain our work and the relationships that we are building to create meaningful community change.

We are working with a cohort of seven artists-in-residence, each of whom are designing projects that are by necessity finite. In order to complete their responsibilities and claim their well-earned artist fees, they must propose and then implement some kind of artistic endeavor – whether it takes an educational, conceptual, physical, or other form.

Within the projects themselves, I think one of the challenges is how to structure each of them to maximize community engagement. So, for an artist who is interested in fostering dialogue about what name is most appropriate for this diverse neighborhood, or another who wants to collect oral histories from local residents, or even one who is offering to teach photography or music composition skills, what is at stake that is going to make potential constituents want to participate?

An additional challenge that I anticipate is, for those projects that will take place at physical sites outside of Asian Arts Initiative’s building, how will we get the formal permissions that might be required? For instance, artist-in-residence Ben Volta has been inspired by the presence of an electrical substation that occupies two halves of a city block — and that many neighbors feel is an eyesore — in the midst of Chinatown North. Exploring the theme of “energy” – electrical energy as well as creative energy and other sources of human or manufactured energy – he wants to work with local community members and youth to design a work of public art that could transform and/or beautify the surroundings of the substation.

However, the electric company which controls the substation, while open to discussion, has already indicated hesitations about whether it can allow the project to take place at the site, due in part to concerns about liability. While we continue the conversation with them, the competing perspectives remind me of echoes of our experiences with Chinatown In/flux, Asian Arts Initiative’s exhibition of site-specific installations throughout our neighborhood, including a constellation of handmade lanterns inscribed with stories about immigration and the theme of “home,” which artists Jonathan and Kimberly Stemler proposed to hang from the ceiling of a dark viaduct tunnel to literally light the way for the expansion of Chinatown North. In their case, the company that controls the viaduct refused to grant permission, and instead the artists’ project became almost a “pop up” that inspired impromptu gatherings beneath the night sky of the tunnel before the lanterns were removed.

Rendering by Ben Volta of his potential installation at the electrical substation in the neighborhood. Image courtesy of the artist.

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