Chinatown North Social Practice Lab

Asian Arts Initiative

Funding Received: 2012
Philadelphia, PA
Funding Period: 1 year and 5 months
September 14, 2012

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 do you have to do really (really) well to achieve success with your initiative? How do you expect the community to change as a result?

Isa: What we have to do really, really well is to honor and build relationships—among the Artists-in-Residence, and especially among local community members in our neighborhood. Fortunately, Asian Arts Initiative has a strong history of partnerships and collaboration, and tends to approach all of our work in a way that tries to engage a range of people.

As part of our early work in Chinatown, we conducted an oral history project to help ourselves and a broader audience to understand that Chinatown is more than just a place for tourists to eat and shop, but that it is also a place where people live and work. We did a series of interviews with about two dozen diverse workers in the neighborhood, and created a photo exhibition and book that highlights Chinatown Live(s).

Several years ago, as part of the public programming for our Chinatown In/flux exhibition, Asian Arts Initiative hosted a public “visioning session” focused on the future of Chinatown North. Over a hundred people came out to participate on a work night, and I thought it was particularly significant that a number of them utilized the simultaneous translation services that we provided so that folks could listen and speak in languages beyond English only.

Another significant moment from that night, I thought, was during a particularly contentious discussion about competing ideas of what should be done with the abandoned railway viaduct that some advocates want to see transformed into a park similar to New York’s Highline, while other community leaders feel the land should be used to fulfill the pressing need of affordable housing in the neighborhood. One of Asian Arts Initiative’s youth alums, who has grown up and spent his whole life in Chinatown and is incredibly active and passionate about the neighborhood, raised his hand to ask a question: “What’s a viaduct?” His query underscored for me the importance (and the relative rarity) of bringing diverse people into contact with each other.

Structurally, as part of our Social Practice Lab, we’re in the process of convening a Local Resource Team comprised of neighborhood representatives who bring key knowledge and relationships that they can share with Asian Arts Initiative and our Artists-in-Residence. So far we’ve invited the chaplain from the homeless community shelter around the corner from us, a teacher from one of the nearby charter schools, a staff member from the neighborhood community development corporation, as well as folks from other arts organizations and some running businesses in what might otherwise be called the “Loft District.”

Our hope is that in addition to providing input and helping to shape the Artists-in-Residence’s specific projects, we’ll be able to convene Local Resource Team members for a series of larger conversations about their individual and shared visions of our neighborhood’s future. And perhaps use the results as a platform for continuing to advocate among developers and policy makers to help us make equitable change happen in our local community.