What It’s Like to Navigate the Art World as an Asian American

Jul 12, 2020 | 360, AA, ART, CULTURE, Op-Ed

Inspired by Alex Garant & Gustave Courbet’s ‘The Desperate Man’ © Taylor Wang

Although America is waking up to the need for representation in media, one industry has yet to make major progress in this area. Art museums and galleries remain a staunch, traditional atmosphere, and as a young Chinese artist, I recognize that we have a long way to go.

When I published an article about my experience as a Chinese American artist, I received hate comments about how I was a “dishonor” to my family and I would be “better off going to medical school”. In an area like Seattle with a large Asian American population and huge STEM offering, young Asian kids continue to face mounting pressure to pursue a traditional path. This includes medicine or law, with the option of computer science recently added to that list.

Taylor Wang

A painting by Taylor will be included in the 2021 congressional art competition in DC/ U.S. Capitol.

This popular mentality is dangerously overlooked as parents simply wanting the best for their kids, a methodical approach that theoretically helps Asian American immigrants rise up in socioeconomic status. Also known as the Model Minority mindset, this belief stems from the idea that Asians prosper in the US because they keep to themselves and avoid the spotlight. The disastrous effects of this are numerous: lack of representation in the arts, on the big screen, in TV and media, and across entertainment industries overall.

Unfortunately, the stigma around these ‘risky’ careers extends beyond just the Asian American community. For immigrant and BIPOC children who often grow up in an environment where traditionally Western art is espoused as the norm, being interested in industries like entertainment or art as a career can lead to facing shame and gossip from their community. My mother once said it quite well: fine art is “white people work”. This inaccessibility translates into other spheres as well, particularly arts education, where non-Eurocentric art is seldom the focus. 

The effects of this disparity are enormous. In 2015, just 2% of curatorial staff active in the Association of Art Museum Directors were Black. 84% of museum staff overall were white. Five years on, the numbers have marginally improved — emphasis on the word “marginally”. In addition to this, although it may seem that more young girls are interested in visual arts throughout adolescence, fine arts remains a male-dominated industry with only 11% of art in museums being created by women. Whether you’re a creator or a curator, it’s important for everybody to recognize that the issue of equity has clearly not been addressed loudly and seriously enough by the professional art world. 

Towards the end of my 10th grade year, I sought to create an accessible space for all artists, a space that was encouraging of voices that aren’t normally heard. Although there were a couple organizations dedicated to uplifting artists in Seattle, none of them were catered toward young people specifically. I gathered with a friend, sat down in a Seattle cafe, and started Googling things like, “How do I start an art gallery? How do I gather funding? What is a utility bill?”

After that, we filed for a couple local grants, ran a Kickstarter, and sent out a call for entries for our gallery. On the last day of August, just as the summer was coming to an end, our first show debuted in Seattle. It had been raining the entire week, but that night, the sunset over Aurora Avenue was a brilliant shade of pink that lasted for hours. I invited all of my friends from school, fearful that they would feel alienated from this side of me they had never seen, but willing to take the risk.

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That day, I decided that I wanted to go into gallery work. My contribution to the world would be making sure that museum and gallery spaces, 46% of which have entirely white executive boards, are held accountable for their lack of representation and elitist attitudes towards younger artists.

Although it is terrifying, I want to venture down this path to make sure that nobody ever feels how I did scrolling through lists of staff members at the MET and not seeing a single familiar face.

In our increasingly interconnected, socially conscious world, representation means everything. Although America is more diverse than ever before, the art industry still acts like it’s in the 1950s. People are slowly waking up to the need for greater diversity in creative fields, but we have a long way to go. This change begins with giving youth artists from diverse backgrounds the confidence they need to succeed.

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