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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 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 is your elevator pitch when you describe your project to people?

The ArtPlace grant will help us to renovate the third floor of our building to create more artist studio space, as well as support the inaugural year of our Social Practice Lab to host a team of artists-in-residence to explore and enliven community connections in the Chinatown North neighborhood. We anticipate that artists-in-residence will work in partnership with a diversity of residents and neighborhood organizations to create projects similar in many ways to our previous Chinatown In/flux installations – 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: How do you expect to increase vibrancy in the place you are working?

Cleaved from the core of Chinatown when the Vine Street Expressway was built in the 1960’s, Chinatown North has a reputation as an underdeveloped industrial area, but has been home to a diverse and constantly changing community throughout its existence. The neighborhood has become an informal “arts district” with loft-style condos and apartments being built, and a new park atop the abandoned Reading Viaduct that has been proposed. For us, it is important that improvements and plans for the neighborhood can equitably benefit people from a range of racial and economic backgrounds.

We believe artistic projects create important opportunities for listening and sculpting a shared vision, to imagine how space can be utilized and place can be defined in a neighborhood. As part of our most recent Chinatown In/flux exhibition, artists Kikuchi + Liu painted a parking lot (on Vine Street two blocks from Asian Arts Initiative’s building) with the Glidden-brand color Chinatown Orange to draw attention to a site in need of change—that is now being developed by the local community development corporation as a long-desired Chinatown community center.

Another example includes the sets of sightseeing Binoculars that artist Rebecca Hackemann installed overlooking the Vine Street Expressway. Through workshops with local school-aged youth and architecture students she developed alternate views for the community to literally “see” how the landscape could be transformed if the Expressway was to disappear. With the little red string, artists Kimberly and Jonathan Stemler similarly transformed a dark viaduct tunnel into an alluring environment for public gatherings by hanging lanterns that symbolize the night sky and light the way for the community’s expansion in Chinatown North.

In addition to the public art projects that we support, Asian Arts Initiative’s physical location contributes to the redevelopment of Vine Street as a civic corridor, and allows us to serve as an anchor institution inspiring visitors to cross the historic barrier posed by the Vine Street Expressway and bridging the commercial core of Chinatown with the Chinatown North neighborhood. Our presence has already and will continue to generate increased foot traffic, streetscape improvements, and a greater sense of investment and vibrancy in the neighborhood.

PHOTO: the little red string by Kimberly and Jonathan Stemler (2009), photo courtesy of Jeff Reeder.

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