Several pioneering Asian American groups had started their activities in New York City in the 60s and early 70s, including Art Resources for Teachers and Students, Asian American Dance Theatre (now Asian American Arts Centre), the Chinese American Arts Council, Four Seas Players, and Basement Workshop (a group of artists, urban planners, and activists whose activities had begun in Chinatown in 1971). This was followed by another wave of groups in the 70s with organizations including Asian CineVision, H.T. Dance Center, Music From China, New York Chinese Cultural Center, Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, Yueh Lung Chinese Shadow Theatre (now Chinese Theatre Works), and others. However, the Asian American arts community as a whole lacked a collective body to represent the interests of its talented yet under-recognized members.
The New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA), the first arts council in the country, had launched the Special Arts Services (SAS) program in the late 1960s to recognize the contributions of groups of color in their neighborhoods. SAS had come to life thanks to community activism and support primarily from the African American and Latino communities. In 1983, Helen Cash Jackson and Barbara Ho, the staff at SAS who had been the main funders of several of the Asian American groups, convened a meeting to discuss the need for a central service provider in the Asian American arts community. A follow-up meeting ensued at the Basement Workshop, where community leaders, including Tisa Chang, H.T. Chen, Rocky Chin, Peter Chow, Sharon Hom, Fred Houn (now Fred Ho), Bob Lee, Corky Lee, Jack Tchen, Eleanor Yung and others came together to answer this need and launch the Alliance for Asian American Arts and Culture.
The Alliance received its first grant- and continued support to this day- from NYSCA’s Special Arts Services, and later started receiving funding from the City of New York Department of Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts’ now extinct Expansion Arts program (which had been modeled on NYSCA’s Special Arts Services program).
In its initial years, the Alliance operated informally out of the offices of Expedi Printing, Inc., on West 13th Street. The Alliance first started producing a quarterly Calendar of Events and developing a joint mailing list and membership brochure for the community. By 1985, the Alliance had expanded membership to include a number of organizations still in existence today including Asian American Arts Centre, Asian CineVision, H.T. Dance Center (now Chen Dance Center), Chinatown History Project (now Museum of Chinese in America), Four Seas Players and Music from China. Within three years of its inception, membership increased to more than 30 organizations and individual artists. In 1985, the Alliance worked with the Henry Street Settlement to co-sponsor its first month-long visual and performing arts event, Roots to Reality: Asian Americans in Transition. With the leadership of Fred Ho and Bob Lee, assisted by Yong Soon Min, the Alliance's first coordinator on staff, the event set out to celebrate and explore the unique identity, history, and contributions of traditional and contemporary Asian American artists. The first local Asian American multidisciplinary arts festival of its kind, the event drew more than 300 people and spawned a second incarnation the following year, Roots to Reality II: Alternate Visions.
The latter half of the 1980s marked a time of deeper stabilization within the Asian American artistic community. In 1988, the Alliance obtained 501(c)3 status, officially becoming a tax-exempt, non-profit organization. The Alliance set up home in its first official office on 339 Lafayette Street. With its move to a new physical location, the Alliance also adopted a new name, retiring the old Alliance for Asian American Arts and Culture for the more compact Asian American Arts Alliance. In 1988, C.N. Yee was hired as first executive director, soon to be followed by Karen Chinn in 1989. The Alliance began to offer workshops on topics such as marketing and funding opportunities and to host special events such as visual arts exhibits. The last major project for the Alliance in the 1980s was to publish a Directory of Asian American Arts Organizations in New York and New Jersey, a comprehensive guide to more than 80 groups.
The 1980s had marked a time of pronounced growth within the Asian population. No longer limited to East Asian countries, immigration in the 1980s and 90s began to trend towards both Southeast Asian and South Asian nations as well. Between 1990 and 2007, the Asian and Asian American population nearly doubled in New York City, growing to almost a million.
Correspondingly, the 1990s were a decade of huge growth and expansion for the Alliance. It began publishing the Dialogue newsletter to inform constituents about community arts events, advocacy issues, and funding opportunities. In 1991, the Alliance organized Defining Our Culture(s), Our Selves, a conference in partnership with the Asian Pacific Student Alliance at Hunter College. That same year, Amy W. Chu took over as the new executive director. Two years later, the Alliance organized the first national Asian American conference, Beyond Boundaries, in collaboration with the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, which brought together more than 250 artists, writers, activists, funders, and representatives from cultural organizations, advocacy organizations, museums, and academia nationwide.
June Choi was hired as executive director in 1992 and in 1994 the Alliance received a $325,000 multi-year grant from the Joyce Mertz-Gilmore Foundation to launch the Technical Assistance & Regrant Initiative (TARI), allocating cash grants and technical assistance to help stabilize Asian American arts groups in NYC. This would be the first of many regrant programs spanning almost 15 years. The Alliance continued to publish its monthly Arts Calendar and added a Corporate Funding Guide for constituents. It began publishing a Resources & Opportunities listing of jobs, workshops, resources, competitions and grant opportunities to complement the calendar. Also added to these resources was a directory of Asian American touring artists, Asian American Artists Ready to Tour!. In 1995, the Alliance moved to 74 Varick Street and in 1996, Lillian Cho was hired as the new executive director.
Looking to further expand services for the Asian American artistic community, the Alliance started a new program called Artist Series, a number of round tables and seminars about topics such as public art/public spaces, commissions, community-based teaching artists, and the impact of arts in education in the Asian American arts community. In 1998, the TARI regrant program completed its third and last round after having awarded a total of $204,789 in grants and thousands of hours of technical assistance to more than 25 organizations. In the same year, the Alliance began a new initiative funded by Chase Manhattan Bank for small Asian American arts groups. The Chase SMARTS Regrant Program provided cash grants of $2,000-$3,000 for projects or equipment which supported organizational development of Asian American arts groups. Chase SMARTS ran for 4 years and provided 34 grants, totaling $96,400. Next, the Alliance made another step towards more nationwide community building by publishing a new Asian American Arts Resource Directory, listing nearly 200 arts organizations and touring artists nationwide.
In the same year, 1998, the Alliance refashioned Dialogue into a magazine, to serve as a forum for expressing the views, ideas, and works of Asian American artists, featuring interviews, articles, and artwork. With the emergence of the internet, the Alliance moved many of its resources online, making items like the Arts Resource Directory and Arts Calendar available on the very first official a4 website. In addition, the Alliance continued to offer a series of technical assistance workshops and Meet the Funders events through a new program called Nuts & Bolts. At the close of the decade, the Alliance received increased support from Chase Manhattan Bank to continue its work.
The 2000s marked a period of great fluctuation for the New York City artistic community. All throughout New York and beyond, each individual was impacted deeply by the events of September 11th, 2001. Combined with the already escalating U.S. recession, the effects of 9/11 on personal lives and communities heightened the fragile financial situations of many individual artists and arts organizations. In order to ensure that the arts would continue to prosper within the New York City community, emergency funding and service organizations from across the United States came together to form funding consortia or foster other means of aid.
As a service organization, the Alliance acted as a steering committee member for the New York Arts Recovery Fund, a consortium effort headed by the New York Foundation of the Arts which provided funding, information resources, advocacy, and public programming to individual artists and arts organizations most affected by September 11th. In addition, the Alliance hosted its own series of roundtables with member artists and art groups to discuss the impact of 9/11 on their work and lifestyle and to assess artists’ needs. Through the September 11th Fund, the Alliance received funding to launch the Chinatown Arts Marketing Project (CAMP) to help redefine Chinatown as an arts and cultural destination for local New Yorkers and to increase attendance and patronage at local cultural events and businesses downtown. The Alliance also became part of C.R.E.A.T.E., a coalition of downtown organizations dedicated to finding a cultural space for the arts in Chinatown.
Thanks in part to the in-pouring of arts support post 9/11, the Alliance experienced another period of growth and continued to nurture its many other programs. In 2002, the Alliance received major support from the Ford Foundation to spearhead a research initiative on technology use within the Asian American/Pacific Islander arts community nationwide, ending in a report, Connect the Arts: An Internet Initiative for the Asian American/Pacific Islander Arts Community, which addressed the ways in which the internet could be best leveraged to build partnerships within the community. 2003 marked the beginning of a monthly series called a4 Salon which featured artist talks, panels, and presentations to encourage community networking. By 2005, the Arts Calendar had become electronic and the Alliance was reaching a record 4,000 subscribers to its eVOICE e-newsletter and online calendar. The Alliance began producing an annual Culture Pass booklet to broadcast events and shows going on within the Asian American NYC artistic community in an attempt to reach new audiences, distributing up to 10,000 Culture Passes a year. By 2006, the Alliance had expanded its staff and a4 membership had grown to more than 100 members. In 2007, the Alliance received a major grant from the Rockefeller Philanthropic Advisors’ New York State Music Fund to support local Asian American musicians at Soundfest, an all-day outdoor concert in Chinatown. As part of the ongoing CAMP project, the Alliance hosted a series of events and produced a short video, Creating Spaces for the Arts in Chinatown, to highlight key organizations and raise the profile of Chinatown arts and culture. In addition, it co-sponsored a holiday marketing campaign with Chinatown Partnership called SEE Chinatown – Shop, Eat, & Explore.”
In the meantime, the Alliance was able to strengthen and expand its regrant programming. Between 2002 and 2008, the JPMorgan Chase SOAR Regrant Program, a continuation of the previous Chase SMARTS Regrant Program, was dedicated to awarding cash grants to small groups. In 7 rounds, SOAR awarded $246,020 in a total of 88 grants. In 2003, the Alliance partnered with the Rockefeller Foundation to run Technical Assistance for Organizations (TAO), a special one-time regrant initiative awarding $72,000 in grants and technical assistance to support Asian American arts organizations struggling to survive post 9/11. Starting in 2006, the Alliance partnered with Harlem Arts Alliance, Association of Hispanic Arts, Queens Council on the Arts, New York Foundation of the Arts, Association of Hispanic Arts, Amerinda, National Museum of the American Indian and Bronx Council on the Arts, creating an unprecedented coalition to regrant funds to artists of color with the Urban Artist Initiative (UAI). UAI jointly granted more than $150,000 with the Alliance alone granting $68,400 to 46 individual artists over two years. Lastly, in 2007 the Alliance created the Chinatown Arts Initiative (CAI) which provided technical assistance and production grants to performing arts groups contributing to Chinatown’s cultural life. Through CAI, the Alliance granted a total of $50,500 over two years to 25 groups. Since 1995, the Alliance has granted a total of $761,609 to 105 different arts organizations and 56 individual artists.
The close of the 2000s was characterized by the massive crisis in the world financial markets, signaling a sustained downward spiraling of the international markets and a huge shift in the funding and employment of both artists as well as institutions throughout the U.S. By 2007, Asians and Asian Americans accounted for nearly 12% of New York City’s population, up from just 7% of the population in 1990. Asian America today brings together more cultures, histories, and artistic traditions than ever before. In the current socioeconomic atmosphere, and with the gradual elimination of its re-granting funds, the Alliance has thought strategically about new ways to serve its members and the Asian American arts community. Building upon its deep roots in the community, the Alliance endeavors to work as a connector, connecting people to each other and people to resources.
In late 2008, the Alliance embarked on a twelve-month research initiative to take stock of its constituents’ conditions in the wake of the recession. Among other major findings, the Alliance found that 60% of artists in the community were making less than $10,000 a year from their art and that 40% of artists were accruing up to $5,000 each year in debt in order to create their work. These and other findings culminated in the Alliance’s report: Asian American Arts in NYC: A Snapshot of Current Trends and Issues.
In early 2009, the Alliance launched Town Hall, a monthly series for artists, arts organizations, arts appreciators and funders to come together and show their work, share news, learn about opportunities and collaborate. In its first year, Town Hall brought together more than 600 people, including hundreds of individual artists across all disciplines and representatives of organizations with opportunities for artists such as Asia Society, Brooklyn Arts Council, Carnegie Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center, Joe’s Pub, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and New York Foundation for the Arts, among many.
After a stewardship of 13 years, Executive Director Lillian Cho left the Alliance and was succeeded by interim executive director Janice Won. In May 2010, the Alliance launched a4Hub, the online counterpart to Town Hall. Following in the long lineage of information hubs that the Alliance has created through the years, a4Hub is a fully interactive online platform that acts as a means for artists and arts organizations to promote their work and events and share resources with each other. Also in 2010, the Alliance created and implemented Brainstorm!, a series of lively case-study based themed discussions on the artist as producer. In August of 2010, the Asian American Arts Alliance welcomed Andrea Louie as the new executive director.
Written by Wendy Sekimura. Edited by Nico Daswani.
Special thanks to Tomie Arai, Rocky Chin, Lillian Cho, Barbara Ho, Fred Ho, Bob Lee and Corky Lee for their guidance and suggestions.
Other references include:
- Alliance archival documents.
- Chang, Alexandra. Envisioning Diaspora: Asian American Visual Arts Collectives. Beijing: Timezone 8 Limited, 2008. Print.