New Wing Luke Museum Executive Director Joël Barraquiel Tan aims to connect culture and community

In a Zoom chat with Joel Barraquiel Tan, who was moving from his home in Hawaii to Seattle to become executive director of the Wing Luke Museum starting April 15, Barraquiel Tan waved at the light pouring in from the window behind him. .

“I don’t even know if you can see what my exterior looks like, but believe me, it’s beautiful,” Barraquiel Tan said with a smile.

Barraquiel Tan joked that at one point he wondered if he had lost his mind, seriously considering moving from Hawaii. But as he prepares to take over as the museum’s executive director, succeeding Beth Takekawa who retired in July 2021 after 14 years in that role and 24 years at the museum, he knew how important the wing represented a unique opportunity.

“The Wing, for me and my generation of Asian Americans, is the beacon,” Barraquiel Tan said. “It’s the only Pan[-Asian], Asian American, Pacific Islander, Native Hawaiian organization, and it’s really kind of a movement museum. That’s why I often call it a “Bat Signal”, not because I have some crazy selfish thing about being a superhero, but when you’re called, you’re called and whatever if – well, look out.

During the interview process last winter, in the face of bad snowy weather in Seattle and the rise of the omicron variant of the coronavirus, he was offered the opportunity to virtually visit the museum. He declined, opting instead to make the trip to town. He knew that if he wanted to take this job seriously, he wanted to face all the realities that Seattle brought with it. “If you’re going to be the executive director of anything, you better be prepared to be the general manager as well,” he said.

Luckily when it arrived the sun broke through the clouds, perhaps a sign of things to come. Nor is it lost on him that this 54-year-old museum is only six months older than him, leading to similar thinking about life stages, development, and what it means to be 54 in 2022.

From a Board perspective, Co-Chair Jill Nishi said she was impressed with Barraquiel Tan’s inclusive and intersectional focus, his career-long commitment to social justice and his unique ability to see the connection between social justice efforts and the arts.

“The Wing has a long history in the community,” Nishi said. “It has evolved over time, but it has always been rooted in the community. … We were looking for a leader who could not only build on this legacy, but think about ways in which we could continue to expand our reach and impact in sharing these community stories.

Barraquiel Tan credits part of his artistic development to growing up in the Philippines under martial law imposed by Ferdinand Marcos in the 1970s. Amid military rule, Barraquiel Tan said he still saw art create themselves through things like community parties and carnivals hosted by trans performers. Eventually, his family immigrated to the United States, where Barraquiel Tan later turned to the underground club scene in California. There he saw imagination and creativity manifest in clothing, facilities and clubs, creating a kind of alternate world.

“You literally felt like you stepped out of The Matrix and into the real world,” he said. “So the way I define myself as an artist is my propensity and inclination towards mystery, towards the unknown, towards the liminal.”

Barraquiel Tan received his bachelor’s degree in ethnic studies from the University of California at Berkeley and a master’s degree in creative writing and literature from Antioch University. His career has since seen him serve as Director of Community Engagement at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, where he created the company’s civic engagement initiatives inspired by the community arts curatorial model. of the Wing, which seeks to center relationships with people in the museum community. , and empower this community to tell their stories and create exhibits and programs. While in Hawaii, he served as executive director of the East Hawaii Cultural Center, Kalani Honua Retreat Center, and Touching the Earth.

After moving to Hawaii in 2015, Barraquiel Tan also helped found Vibrant Hawai’i in 2018, which formed a collective aimed at increasing equitable opportunity in the state. He called his time in Hawaii a kind of executive leadership survivor audition, where he had to learn how to fundraise and navigate situations like installing an electrical transformer in a jungle.

He also credited his time in Hawaii with teaching him the steps to building deeper connections with cultures and communities. Often, he explained, immersing yourself in a community is mostly about people. But in Hawaii, that effort is centered on the land itself, its history, and the events that have happened on that land. From there, you can connect with people and cultural identity.

“It’s a lifelong process to reconnect with re-Indigenization,” Barraquiel Tan said, “because we’re all Indigenous from somewhere. It means not starting from the “I” or even from people. We are here to manage the land. If you start the investigation this way, it tends to go better because everyone seems to fit in there.

Although the wing calls itself a museum, Nishi noted that it also sees itself as an anchor of community development and an activist museum committed to social justice. As he considered the organization’s mission, Barraquiel Tan said, “I can’t help but think we need to make some good trouble,” echoing the famous words of Representative John Lewis. This means ensuring that the art in which the museum is involved is not simply transactional or part of an effort to develop a vision of excellence worthy of a museum space, but to involve an art that is itself community oriented.

Barraquiel Tan cited artists like Theaster Gates and Rick Lowe, who both combine art and social practice. The Chicago-based Gates started the Dorchester Art and Housing Collaborative, which purchased and renovated abandoned buildings to create cultural spaces for community gatherings. Meanwhile, Houston-based Lowe co-founded an arts and culture community called Project Row Houses, which took a block and a half of abandoned shotgun houses in one of Houston’s oldest African-American neighborhoods and transformed it into a site that now encompasses 39 structures. as a basis for community initiatives, arts programs and neighborhood development activities.

“They don’t think about whether or not this is world-class art or is this a community health center or is this a community lab where people – young people , black, indigenous, people of color – can start something and really have the tools to create the future,” said Barraquiel Tan. “And I would say I would look to the Wing for its own example because the [Chinatown International District] itself is arguably the Wing’s greatest exhibit because it was an active shaper of it.

As he prepares to join the Seattle community, Barraquiel Tan said the art center‘s role in a community is crucial in the face of increasing targeted hatred and violence, the upcoming mid- mandate and the ongoing war in Ukraine. Arts organizations can play a unique role as cultural producers, community activators and unifiers.

“The joy, wonder and curiosity that arts and cultural organizations champion, I believe is essential,” said Barraquiel Tan. “That’s exactly what we have in our quiver to address systemic and targeted violence and hate.”

About Carlos V. Mitchell

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