Four questions for Philadelphia’s Asian Arts Initiative

Four questions for Philadelphia’s Asian Arts Initiative

By Natsumi Yokura


Philadelphia’s Asian Arts Initiative has been promoting cross-cultural dialogue since it was founded in 1992. Over email, I asked the organization about its mission and role within the city.

What are the Asian Arts Initiative's goals?

Asian Arts Initiative is a community anchor organization in the Callowhill/Chinatown North neighborhood. We serve a diverse constituency of emerging and established artists, residents (of both our immediate neighborhood and Philadelphia more broadly), activists, educators, and youth from low-income immigrant families. Through exhibitions, performances, and community projects, we provide an inclusive gathering place for conversation and exchange of ideas, and a platform for action and community change. Our programs include artist residencies, exhibitions, a diverse presenting season, the Youth Arts Workshop, and neighborhood engagement.

As a meeting place, an idea lab, a support system, and an engine for positive change, Asian Arts Initiative strives to empower communities through the richness of art. We believe in a universal human capacity for creativity, and we support local art and artists as a means of interpreting, sharing, and shaping contemporary cultural identity, with an intrinsic commitment to equity and social justice.

What role does your organization play in Philadelphia?

One of Asian Arts Initiative’s core strengths is our ability to flexibly and intuitively engage communities, a feature of our organizational DNA that has been shaped by accumulated insights from over two decades of multidisciplinary community arts engagement. This has ranged from our past Artists in Communities Training (ACT) program, our apprenticeships for youth, and, more visibly, public projects such as our Chinatown In/flux exhibitions and our current Social Practice Lab residencies and neighborhood-based work.

Our greater role in Philadelphia is shaped by our work as an incubator and platform for local visual and performing artists to further their practice in relationship to our mission. Additionally, our neighborhood-based work serves as a community anchor for the Chinatown neighborhood and a model for arts and neighborhood action in other Philadelphia neighborhoods.

What are the major challenges and opportunities facing Asian Arts Initiative?

Looking forward, our work will reflect a refined mission statement and a re-commitment to framing our work in the arts with specific attention to advancing racial justice and social equity. Related to this, we are committed to a greater emphasis on the issues and themes that we select for our gallery exhibitions each season to be threaded through the other elements of our programming—such as the curriculum for our Youth Arts Workshop, dialogue and selection of artists-in-residence, and curation of public programs and events.

We are also seeking strategies to sustain our neighborhood-based work. Currently, we have the privilege of leading a neighborhood cultural planning process, People:Power:Place, which has allowed us to leverage the relationships that we have built within Chinatown North and Callowhill to bring together diverse stakeholders. We are also trying to assess where we can realistically make meaningful impacts and effectively broker partnerships for equitable community development.

We would also like to further our investment to increase Asian Arts Initiative’s visibility as a thought leader in fields such as social practice and creative placemaking or placekeeping. 

How can city governments or other power structures help organizations like yours, both in the sense of achieving their particular missions and in supporting cultural organizations in cities more generally? 

Governments at all levels (city, state, federal) need to be proactive in recognizing the impact and value of the arts, and in advocating for arts funding and support. Additionally, city governments need to recognize and develop the flexibility to address the immense cross-sector potential of the arts, especially community-engaged and neighborhood-based arts initiatives.

Our understanding of the arts is enriched when we make space for culture to intersect with education, economic development, housing, health, infrastructure, public safety, and other departments that are traditionally thought of as separate.

Top image: Screen shot from “Good Food Where You Live HD” YouTube video, produced by Asian Arts Initiative

Documenting Toronto's changing Chinatown

Documenting Toronto's changing Chinatown

Art and activism in Manhattan's gentrifying Chinatown

Art and activism in Manhattan's gentrifying Chinatown