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From a studio space in Port Richmond to an arts space in Chinatown, two artists traveled in mockup sculptural replicas of a corner store – complete with bullet proof glass and a rainbow variety of potato chip bags. As they rolled across streets and squares, they challenged passersby to interact with their performances as shop owners, the indispensable neighborhood functionaries of urban spaces everywhere. The journey was documented by photograph and video, to become part of an exhibition at the Asian Arts Initiative, along with the sculptural objects that inspired it.

Corner Stores, Take Out Stories, on view through August 22, is the brainchild of Keir Johnston and Ernel Martinez of Amber Art and Design. Together they wished to explore the microcosm of cultural exchange that the corner store represents, particularly between Asian American and African American community members. As such, the show acts as a perfect model-in-micro of the gallery’s original mission.

Founded in 1993 as an offshoot of the Painted Bride Art Center, Asian Arts Initiative formed as a response to the racial tensions that erupted in Philadelphia and across the country following the Rodney King verdict. A timeline in the gallery itself documents its evolution from the Bride, to the Gilbert Building, and finally its current location at 1219 Vine Street.

“The Asian Arts Initiative was created out of a desire to address those tensions through the arts and help to have a dialogue about them,” said Public Programs Manager Nancy Chen. “But when the group was convened to design what this would look like, they realized there wasn’t a specific space that focused on Asian American art in Philadelphia. So they thought the best step was to create that space before trying to create a bridge between different groups…it just kept on going after the initial project.”

After receiving nonprofit status in 1996, the gallery has come a long way from its offshoot roots, now fulfilling its goal of existing as a multi-tenant arts facility. Currently, they host an initiative of the Mural Arts Program and Philadelphia Playwrights, among others.

“It’s exciting, because the vision was to build a multi-tenant arts facility, with different arts, different nonprofits, creative work, and just feeding off of the energy of each other and collaborating,” Chen added.

Can you tell me more about the gallery’s mission?

Nancy Chen: I think it’s fairly different from other galleries around town in that we’re not a commercial gallery and we’re really focused on featuring work by Asian Americans and artists of color as the core goal. Different art forms that articulate the contemporary experience of Asian Americans and the communities they’re a part of. It’s also very community driven.

We recently received a grant from PEW to work with the Wing Luke museum in Seattle. They’re more of a history and cultural museum, telling the stories of Asian Americans all over the country, but particularly focused on Seattle. We as an organization have really admired them for a long time. Their curatorial model is CAC for short. They have Community Advisory Councils, where nearly every show that they do, the themes are shaped by a board. I know they just finished a Bruce Lee exhibition. But they’ve done everything from Asian Americans in fashion to the Hmong community in Seattle. For them the CAC is the center of deciding the themes and the actual artwork that will be in the show. The grant was to fund a continued learning exchange, where they would help us launch that model to build an arts exhibition. I think we’re aiming for fall 2015 to have an exhibition opening, in the months leading up to that we’ll have more youth programs. That’s the page we’re on today in terms of the gallery. We want to connect the gallery to our community based work.

The Social Practice Lab was a residency we launched in late 2011 where we invite artists and creative individuals from all backgrounds to do projects focused on the dynamics of this neighborhood, of Chinatown north of Callowhill. It’s open to any number of people who are doing creative work but don’t necessarily identify as artists. More and more we’re converging the neighborhood-based with exhibitions.

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Are you more hoping that the art engages the community, or are you hoping to enact some further change from your work?

I think both. We’re always trying to balance community engagement with the artistic process, and artistic excellence as well. Which is an ongoing conversation as far as what that looks like. But that’s what as an organization we’re most interested in.

You said that this gallery is unique in terms of the cultural perspective. But how do you see Asian Arts maintaining relevancy over the years with the Philadelphia arts scene blowing up?

I think that from my experience there’s enough art out there, both Philadelphia based and nationally, that is rooted in Asian American experience, that’s it’s a valuable cultural space that everyone is interested in. People ask: it’s Asian Arts Initiative, can I come? Which is surprising for me. When people come here, no matter what background, we’ve received comments over and over again that this is an inclusive place. So I think that as long as that’s our reputation, we’ll be in good standing.

There’s a huge audience for the 319 N. 11th Street building, and that’s great for this neighborhood. We would love to have that kind of consistent audience, too. They just happen to have 12 galleries in one building, and it’s kind of an established scene.

You can go there for First Friday and stay there.

And I definitely enjoy that experience personally as an arts patron in Philadelphia. I do think that Asian Arts Initiative as an organization collaborates and is in touch with almost every gallery on different projects. We have a huge event in September called the Pearl Street Block Party, where we try to highlight arts spaces in this neighborhood. I think for us we want to connect with the audience that exists for that building, but it’s a very specific audience. We want to connect, but we also see that we’re on a different page in terms of some of that work. But I think overall since we’re so invested in this neighborhood, it’s great that there’s a force that already draws people to the neighborhood for the arts.

If artists want to become involved in your programming, is there a way for them to submit their work?

Off the top of my head, we just released a call for artists for Pearl Street, which is a component of our neighborhood work. Pearl Street is the alley behind our building. We’re experimenting with whether it can both be physically and socially transformed, because it’s kind of a dingy alley that has sketchy activity at certain times of day, like after dark. One of our artists that we work with, Rick Lowe, became really interested in focusing on this space as one that people avoid or dread. But what about trying to transform it into a space filled with light and creative activity? It’s an experiment and it’s under way. With the call for proposals we’re specifically aiming for artists in this neighborhood, but it can also be citywide. It’s for either event-based or exhibition-based proposals. But in terms of getting involved generally, people are all the time reaching out to introduce themselves, and we’re very happy to meet artists locally and from out of town. That’s for me personally one of the best parts of working here, getting to meet and work with creatively minded people from all different areas of the city.

Do you have any other events coming up?

A new show is opening on First Friday in September, the Neighborhood Workshop show, and that is going to feature artists who either work in this neighborhood, or whose work has been inspired by or focuses on this neighborhood, Chinatown north of Callowhill. Another upcoming project, which is more performance arts based, is we’re the host for Consortium of Asian American Theaters and Artists (CAATA) for the National Asian American Theater Festival (NAATF), in October. Those are the big things coming down for the fall.

What is the most important reason that you think people need to come out and visit Asian Arts Initiative?

I think that, more so than any other gallery I’ve been to, it really is a place for meeting people. I’ve been here for many First Fridays. Most galleries you go into, you’re in and out and you don’t really talk to anyone there. But I think this is the kind of gallery where you can run into someone you didn’t expect to meet. I really do feel like – something about the environment or the nature of the shows – it really does invite people to engage in dialogue with each other. People go to First Friday not only to see the art but to be in the social environment and bump into other people who have creative interests. I’ve seen some great instances of people connecting through different receptions we have here, including myself.

Blythe Hoyle

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