Founding and Finding Asian American Arts and Culture

A Conversation with Robert Lee

Robert Lee and Eleanor Yung (2016) by A4Asian American Arts Alliance

Robert Lee

The movement that led to the formation of A4 and the documentation of the importance of Asian American arts and culture involved many talented and determined individuals, including Robert Lee, co-founder (with his wife Eleanor) of the Asian American Arts Centre (AAAC) in Lower Manhattan. A4 sat down with Bob and asked him to share his memories of those early days.

It started at Basement Workshop on Elizabeth Street, where Eleanor and I met in the early ‘70s. Many projects formed under Basement's umbrella, [and] some spun off to focus on their respective, individual projects. Eleanor's activities in contemporary dance led her to spin off in ‘74, when we got together to form Asian American Dance Theatre (AADT), which later became AAAC. Established at 26 Bowery, by the early ‘80s the visual arts program I developed under President Johnson's CETA program became part of AADT after CETA [Comprehensive Employment and Training Act] ended. Having studied art and art history, I started regular exhibitions focused on Asian American artists, and an artists’ archive to document what was happening at this time.

In 1983, Helen Cash and Barbara Ho of the New York State Council on the Arts Special Arts Service division gathered at AAAC with representatives of five nonprofit arts organizations to propose the need for an Asian American arts service organization. These nonprofit arts organizations were chosen at the behest of Helen Cash and Barbara Ho. Those present included Tisa Chang of Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, Jack Tchen of the New York Chinatown History Project (forerunner of the Museum of Chinese in America/MOCA), H.T. Chen of H.T. Chen & Dancers, Peter Chow of Asian CineVision, as well as myself and Eleanor.

Epoxy Artist Group (1985) by Robert LeeAsian American Arts Alliance

Members of the Epoxy Artist Group standing in front of Henry Street Settlement during the Roots to Reality exhibition.

At the first public meeting, we issued a formal statement and structure for the formation of an alliance, many groups arrived with enthusiasm and membership checks in their hands.

However, given the difficulty of pursuing arts as a non-profit, it was not long before most of the founders left. Soon it was just me. I hired Chuck Lee of the Coalition of Asian Pacific Americans (CAPA) as a staff member. We developed grant giving programs, awarding funds to groups for their proposed projects, and we teamed up with Henry Street Settlement House and Susan Fleminger in 1985 to mount the [first] “Roots to Reality” event, with the second one in 1986. The AAAC artists archive was accessed to choose the participating artists in ‘85. The following year, ”Roots to Reality” was more of a joint collaboration with several groups involved.

The Association of American Cultures (1988) by Robert LeeAsian American Arts Alliance

A board meeting of The Association of American Cultures in 1988. From the left is Evonne Colman Rory, Kimberly Camp, Alec Simpson, Barbara Bayless, John Paul Batiste, Barbara R. Nicholson, Eliud Hernandez, and standing is Louis Leroy.

In the mid ‘80s, I joined the board of TAAC – The Association of American Cultures, a national arts advocacy group for people of color, and was with them until 1993. I was inspired by TAAC, people of color in the arts who shared so much with each other. The warmth I experienced was like no other at their Open Dialogue conferences. That’s how I came to see the necessity for a local service provider for Asian American organizations & artists. Later I participated in NYC’s Cultural Equity Group, and more recently, the People’s Cultural Plan.

Asian Tactical Theatre (1972) by Robert LeeAsian American Arts Alliance

The Asian Tactical Theatre group, a part of Basement Workshop.

Contemporary Asian American visual artists were my primary focus, maintaining an annual exhibition program in our gallery in Chinatown for twenty six years. Eleanor's choreographed contemporary Asian American dances were some of the first works of their kind. AADT, our initial organizational name, also maintained a second, traditional dance company. They performed in many venues around the country and also held dance programs in many public schools at a time when there were no such programs offered. Our Saturday community school for dance and art has taught many children for decades.

AAAC Art Class (1982) by Robert LeeAsian American Arts Alliance

AAAC started an art class for adults and children. On the left is Bob Lee with his daughter. On the right is Evie Lee, one of the art teachers.

Roots to Reality Program (1985-10-11) by Courtesy of A4Asian American Arts Alliance

The program from the Roots to Reality Event.

Roots to Reality (1985-10-11) by Courtesy of A4Asian American Arts Alliance

Roots to Reality (1985-10-11) by Courtesy of A4Asian American Arts Alliance

Recently we mounted an art exhibition with Think!Chinatown called “Heartmind.” It is based on the extensive Asian American art collection AAAC has gathered over many years. [By teaming up with three younger-generation curators], we have chosen many art works from the collection creating a whole new, innovative vision of what Asian American art is. That is the question the young curators and I started with that led us finally to "Heartmind." And that is the question I started with in the late ‘70s - What is Asian American art? For over two decades I have featured art and artists who created such work. Such artworks reflect our concerns as a community, our feelings as people, and the complexities of transitioning from one culture to another. To understand ourselves is far from easy, yet as Asian Americans we embody every day how Asia and the West are coming together. Soon images of the works in “Heartmind” will be accessible online to see and you will be able to ask for yourself a different question - what is Heartmind?”

To find out more about “Heartmind,” take a look at Bob’s statement below;

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