Emma Chen ’21 Reimagines What Counts as Art

In AAI’s current gallery exhibition, Abolition Now! Photo by Cole Sansom.

This summer I am working at the Asian Arts Initiative (AAI), a multidisciplinary arts organization and community gathering space located in a beautiful building in the Chinatown North/Callowhill neighborhood of Philadelphia. AAI itself is housed on the first floor of the building, which includes a gallery space for seasonal exhibitions, a theater space for performances and gatherings, and a classroom for the Youth Arts Workshop, with staff offices scattered here and there throughout. Because AAI is a multi-tenant facility, the 2nd floor is rented out to a variety of different organizations whose purpose aligns well with AAI’s mission. The 3rd floor is a massive event space, open for rentals. Apparently, it was once used as a wedding venue.

My first job as an intern was to learn about the history of AAI, which is now in its 26th year. In my first week, as I worked my way through  literature detailing past AAI projects, cultural plans, and gallery exhibitions, my definition of what exactly constitutes a work of art was dismantled and rewritten. The idea of art as a product, something found in a museum gallery, had been firmly ingrained in my brain. However, in the minds of the socially-engaged artists whose past residencies with AAI were the subject of my readings, the process a community-engaged project was just as important—if not more important—than the piece that it culminated in. In many cases, the conversations that a project elicited and the connections it cultivated among members of the community were themselves the product. Through this discovery, my conception of what an arts organization can do was transformed. This understanding has informed and enriched all of the work I have done this summer.

At the Philadelphia Asian Performing Artists Mini-Residency Showcase, hosted by AAI, the audience circled up to discuss Asian-American identity and social justice. This was part of artist Daniel Park’s piece.

Over the past year, AAI has been running a pilot program called Shared Spaces 共享空間, which offers a variety of facilities and venues (including event space and studios within AAI’s own building) for use to arts and cultural groups for little-to-no cost. Chinatown is notoriously cramped and is growing costlier by the year—for local artists and community groups, finding cheap space to practice, rehearse, and perform is important, but also pretty difficult. The idea for this program grew out of People:Power:Place, a neighborhood cultural plan that itself arose from a yearlong process of intentional community engagement and conversation between many local organizations and residents. As an intern, I help staff Parks for Chinatown, a weekly event that is run in partnership with two other local organizations which activates public spaces around the Chinatown North neighborhood using arts activities and games, with the goal of encouraging local residents to see these spaces as a resource for their own personal needs. 

One of the many perks of the internship: all AAI employees (interns included!) got to attend an advance screening of The Farewell, before it opens nationwide in August. By far the best movie I’ve seen this year.

Building upon what I learned about AAI’s history, I have been working with a couple of other summer interns to conduct research on major historical events that have shaped the spatial, geographic and cultural environment of Chinatown North. This research will culminate in a gallery exhibition in the fall. This research can also be converted into content for AAI’s Facebook page or Instagram account. I work on generating content for #throwbacks and also current cultural events going on in the greater Philadelphia area. AAI is big on supporting and promoting other cultural organizations, so whenever employees or interns attend an arts- or culture-related event, it will get a shout out on the Instagram story.

In addition to college interns, AAI hosts high school interns over the summer from two different programs: Vietlead and Bloomberg. I have been overseeing their work on a long-term video project, as well as facilitating weekly reading groups, each centered around various topics related to the diverse Asian and Pacific Islander experience in the American context.

One of my favorite parts of the internship has been staffing the events that AAI hosts. I have had the privilege of meeting artists whose work is displayed on the gallery walls, and attending performances by the Philadelphia Asian Performing Artists, among others. AAI makes a true effort to create a safe space for a diverse community of artists and community members to come together and celebrate each other. While working the front desk at these events, I have received feedback from many people marveling at the beauty of this community. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to work in such an environment every day this summer.

Written by Emma Chen ’21, English major, environmental studies minor

Edited by Emily Dombrovskaya ’19