Building Communities and Early AAPI Media Arts in NYC

A Conversation with John Woo

John WooAsian American Arts Alliance

John C. Woo

John is a founder and president of Woo Art International, a creative services and visual communications firm. He is Executive Director for Asian CineVision (ACV).

How did you connect with A4? How is it a part of your organization’s history?

So ACV moved across the street to 32 East Broadway and was operating out of there. And so I was - after Basement closed - I was volunteering as the graphic designer and doing their posters and newsletters, and it was there that Corky introduced me to the Art Alliance’s first director. Her name was Karen Chinn, and I knew her and her family. She was from Seattle. She unfortunately passed away, maybe 20 years ago. But that was my first introduction to the Arts Alliance. And the idea was that this would be a kind of aggregator of Asian American arts activities in New York City, the sharing of resources, and things like that.

But at that time, it was not a great time to launch a nonprofit because, for one, there was no kind of nonprofit administration network where you could actually actually learn how nonprofits could survive. And it was all community-based or run. People had to make things up! So Karen, Corky, and one of Corky’s best friends - who was ACV's editor at the time - Bill G; we were [all] really interested in making things. Corky, of course, was a photographer. Bill was a writer. I was a graphic designer. And, so we went on to found Sy View, which still exists at ACV’s media arts journal. So that was my first experience with the Arts Alliance.

Tell us about Asian CineVision. How/why was it established?

Asian CineVision was started in about 1974, and it was part of the Basement Workshop - everybody that you're gonna talk to in our New York social activist network, they have roots in Basement Workshop. If you look at CPC [Chinese American Planning Council]; all those people, at one time or another, passed [through] the Workshop. The first [time I] was introduced to the Arts Alliance, it was by Cora Lee and Corky. You've done some programs on Corky. He was a local hero, and he claims to have founded everything and passed away from COVID like a year ago. He was a founder of Chinatown Health Clinic. He claimed to be a founder of ACV and had his fingers in a lot of things.

But I was, when I first came here, I was working as a visual artist… running their gallery. And around 1975, there was a split. Basement Workshop eventually evolved its identity into being a multidisciplinary cultural arts organization, where artists from around the country and around the world could come and compare notes. It was the biggest culture space, art space, and

John Woo and Arlan Huang (2016) by Gil SeoAsian American Arts Alliance

John Woo and Arlan Huang at an A4 Gala.

Do you have a fond memory of working in collaboration with A4 that you'd like to share?

Well, Basement turned 50 this year or last year, but the founding was recorded in 1971. I got there in 1976, pretty much at its peak, where basically it had a 8,000 square foot loft on Broadway and Lafayette; they had a dance class, a sound studio, they had a workshop. Like I was mentioning, there was no kind of infrastructure for startup nonprofits. And so, at that time, a lot of the funding for nonprofits came from the government. The NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) was a big provider of funding. And this was up until like 1980, when Reagan came in in the early ‘80s. Reagan threatened to dismantle the NEA. So what he did was - and it worked as a benefit - he cut the NEA’s budget, but they distributed the funds to the state organizations. New York was the biggest artist state in the country. And so it got a lot of money. So that was kind of a kickstarter for the New York State Council on the Arts, and then the money filtered down to the city. There was a combination of federal money and state money. And there was no corporate philanthropy at that time. What Reagan did, he went to his friends in tobacco companies because they were the biggest in the early ‘80s, the big consolidation of, mergers and acquisitions were the big tobacco companies, all their future diminishing because of tobacco regulations. And they started buying up all these other brands; they tell you with a matter of their survival to extend their region to buy existing brands. So, what Reagan did was say, “you guys need to start supporting culture.” This was the first time when you saw [large corporations] starting to support - in big ways - culture and philanthropy. And so, that was it. Both Basement and ACV; they didn't start collecting corporate sponsorships, and there's [a] difference between getting a government grant and getting a corporate sponsorship, because corporations, all they wanna know is like, “how big is my logo gonna be” or “who are the movie stars that I can have my picture taken with,” and that's fine. But that was the involvement then.

When I first got to ACV, they were getting most of their money [from grants] and the National Endowment of the Arts budgets weren't as big as they are today. So when Basement closed, it was in 1984, and I had left. I was working as a curator at the Basement gallery when we moved from 199 Lafayette to 22 Catherine Street.

So the origins of Asian CineVision were [when] they started out collecting video stories to create a 30-minute program every year to post on cable television. And at that time, it was the birth of cable television, because nobody had cable and nobody knew what the possibility was. The first cable network was a collaboration between Warner Brothers and American Express called the Warner AmEx Cable Network. It really started out to be a utility because what people understood at that time, if you control the ins and outs of the information into people's households, that you could eventually [control] what they buy, what they see and, and that's their reality now.

That was when they started the Manhattan Neighborhood Network, because you had to have a public access channel in each one of the markets. And so, when CCTV (Chinese Cable Television) was making these programs, they could get them on the air. So they used to need to create a 30-minute program. And so they put it up on Manhattan Neighborhood Network, but the people who they wanted to see were the flat out workers, the waiters, and the recent immigrants who were coming to town. And they were working, and nobody had cable, and you had to pay for cable. So what they did was they put out a press release to all the Chinese language newspapers that said, if you wanna see this show, then come to ACV’s headquarters, and then they would do screenings.

And they also used that as a recruiting tool for Chinatown kids to learn how to make a television network. It was great because a lot of these people who went to the East Coast schools, they came to New York City after they graduated; all the filmmakers, the writers, and the communications people, they landed at Basement. And so a lot of these people who we are still familiar with, and who are still in the industry, and they're all over the world now, they still exist as part of [ACV’s] network. So that is kind of the evolution frommid ‘70s to where we are now.

What are some challenges you see the community facing?

Well, the last two years have been, as you know, have been pretty traumatic for our communities. And so the first time that Trump was saying that the Coronavirus was created by the Chinese military, in a lab and released to America, and started stigmatizing the virus as the “China Virus” or the “Kung Flu,” then the anti-Asian violence, which has always been prevalent throughout our communities, but the media [finally] started talking about it. And here was a function to use the media as an organizing tool. People were saying, well, “what is ACV’s position on the anti-Asian violence?” so people would come to us and we would do a lot of panels.

When it comes time for us to be together, when it comes to electing our politicians, or helping Asian entrepreneurs, or businesses, then this is where we can all come together. And this was kind of like how we mobilized in the last two years, because we said, if we're not gonna do live gatherings, then how are the Chinese businesses, how are they going to survive, and carry on until things clear up? So we did most of our cross promotions and most of our live events last year with Asian owned businesses.

To learn more about Asian CineVision or support their programs, click here;
https://www.asiancinevision.org/

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