Through creative programs and much outreach, the New York City-based Asia Society has attracted a young, culturally aware Asian and Asian-American audience, according to this feature article commissioned by The Wallace Foundation. The organization works with other groups to offer artistic, cultural and political events to diverse audiences.

For eight days in July 2002, more than 7,000 people streamed through the doors of the Asia Society's New York City headquarters for the 25th Annual Asian-American International Film Festival. The predominately young, culturally aware Asian and Asian American crowd is not the kind of audience that the organization would have typically attracted five or 25 years ago. But it is just what the Asia Society had in mind when it set its sights on expanding its programs of traditional and contemporary visual, performing and literary arts.


Audience members enjoy a Chinese Puppet Performance.  Photograph by Rachel Cooper. 

Audience members enjoy a Chinese Puppet Performance.
Photograph by Rachel Cooper.  

Since its inception in (1956), the Asia Society has faced an ironic challenge. While the organization sought to raise the public's awareness of Asia through exhibits, performances and lectures, its primary audience was comprised not of Asian Americans-but middle-class whites. The Society, with its Park Avenue address, was having difficulty reaching large groups of Asians and Asian-Americans, especially those of younger generations.

Wanting to expand its audience, the Society introduced new programming, invested in strategic marketing, offered internships to draw in youth, and collaborated with grass roots and community organizations to entice young Asians and Asian Americans to learn more about their diverse backgrounds and what it means to be Asian American. With support from The Wallace Foundation, the Society has moved beyond its largely white, middle class audience, increasing membership of Asian-Americans to nearly 35 percent and successfully broadening and deepening both age and ethnic diversity.

"The film festival brought a mix of audiences-Asians, Asian Americans and others-from all walks of life-to the Asia Society," said Angel Velasquez Shaw, executive director of Asian CineVision, which sponsors the festival. "It also gave members of the Asia Society the opportunity to see works by Asians that they might not have otherwise been able to see."

Defining Asian American

As it redefines itself in face of a changing world, the Asia Society has deliberately focused on becoming a more inclusive organization, a goal that hinges at least partly on the task of defining what it means to be Asian American. According to Sunita Mukhi, former program associate at the Asia Society, with no cohesive language and no context for the plethora of immigration experiences, that definition means many different things to many different people.

"With 77 percent of the Asian population in the U.S. born outside this country, the very definition of Asian American has changed," she explained. "Some Asians don't identify as Americans at all while some feel cultural and political affiliations to both Asia and America. Even if we can't address all concerns, our goal has been to help develop an understanding of what it means to be part of an Asian community. These are complicated relationships, made more so by globalism and 9/11."

Following the September 11 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center towers, the Asia Society's initiative, "America's Crisis: Asian Perspectives," took a hard look at these complexities from a variety of angles. One program that explored Asian Americans and the political process was held at the Flushing Library in Queens, home to New York City's largest Asian population. Another program, "Woman, Muslim, American," explored how Muslim American women reconcile, negotiate, and are enriched by their religious beliefs at a time when Islam is demonized in our nation. "Afghanistan Between Three Worlds: The Journalists Role" offered a panel discussion of the media's responsibility to the future of Afghanistan and America's freedom of the press. "Us and Them: Race and Reconciliation," which examined how 9/11 reconfigured race relations in the forms of racial profiling, rise in hate crimes, and thwarting of civil rights, drew on historical lessons of Asian victimization in America.

According to Professor Gary Okihiro, director of the Center for Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University, who chaired the program, the composition of the crowd that attended the panel discussion reflects the Asia Society's growing ability to reach beyond its traditional white, middle class audience to a much more ethnically diverse, politically focused Asian American crowd.

"The program attracted many more people interested in responding politically to crisis," he said. "Like the program it previously held on immigrant Asian women workers in New York City sweat shops, this represents a pretty astonishing new direction for the Asia Society."  

Bringing Diverse Experiences to Light

As an organization that often works in partnership with other political and cultural organizations, the Asia Society offers artistic, cultural and political events on the local, national and even international level from a wide range of perspectives. Its 2001 presentation of "Forgiveness," co-commissioned with the Festival d'Automne a Paris, Flynn (Michigan) Theater for Performing Arts, Hebble Theatre Berlin, the Walker Art Center (Minneapolis) and the University Musical Society of the University of Michigan, exemplifies the ambitious range of its collaborations (see Forgiveness sidebar).

Through its work with community and grassroots organizations throughout New York City, the Asia Society has also brought a spectrum of Asian American experiences to light through the visual and performing arts-collaborations which benefit organizations on both sides, according to Shaw.

"It's wonderful for those of us in community and grassroots organizations to work with a larger non-profit and gain greater visibility, and it helps the Asia Society reach into different constituent communities," she said. "Each positive outcome helps make groups more open to working together the next time."

Programs that focus on social issues, such as those related to The Floating Box: A Story in Chinatown, a chamber opera developed by composer John Hwang during a three-year residency with local church choirs, schools, senior citizens and partnerships with such community -based organizations as the Museum of Chinese in the Americas, Music from China and the University Settlement House, attract a broader cross-section of Asian-Americans.

"We learned that we needed to begin to create a platform for artists, give voices to new issues, and develop the kinds of programs that cut across and bring diverse communities together," explained Vishakha Desai, senior vice president and director of museum and cultural programs. "If there is any one thing that unites Asians in the Diaspora, it's their American experience."

Before its focus on community partnerships and new programming, the Asia Society had a limited ability to recognize, reflect, and give voice to the complex issues of concern to Asian Americans. Quang Bao, executive director of the Asian American Writers' Workshop, which has also co-sponsored several programs with the Asia Society, has seen its commitment to audience development take root through collaborations with organizations such as AAWW. Bao now hopes that the Asia Society's more traditional audiences will be moved to attend the new programs it is offering.

"The collaborations are definitely bringing in new Asian American audiences," he said. "Now I hope that the traditional Asia Society audiences will begin attending the new events to the same degree."

Audience attendance has nearly tripled since the $40 million renovation of Asia Society's headquarters was completed in November 2001, which Karen Karp, vice president marketing & communications, believes is due not only to the new space and the kinds of shows and exhibits offered there and in other locations around the city, but also to the Society's new marketing and outreach efforts.  

Speaking Their Language

Exterior of the recently renovated Asia Society's headquarters in New York City.  

Exterior of the recently renovated Asia Society's headquarters in New York City.  

Working with a marketing firm, Admerasia, the Asia Society specifically targeted audiences in Asian American neighborhoods throughout New York City's five boroughs and New Jersey. Admerasia has helped to advertise such shows as the new building's inaugural exhibit, "Monks and Merchants," about the silk trade route that connected northwest China with western Asia, the Mediterranean and the Indian subcontinent during the period between the collapse of the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) and the rise of the Tang dynasty (618-906). For "The Floating Box: A Story in Chinatown," an opera inspired by oral histories of Chinese-Americans, Admerasia also created Chinese language posters aimed at local immigrant populations, with graphics designed to convey the complexity of the Chinese immigrant experience. (see Floating Box sidebar).


Chinese language advertisement for the Floating Box.  

Chinese language advertisement for the Floating Box.  

"We worked with Admerasia in order to reach Asian American audiences in their own languages and cultural idioms," Karp explained. "Reaching out to them in their own languages gives us access to both a wider audience and helps deepen our relationship to them." The Asia Society's internship program is another way it is connecting with its constituency of young people, serving as a resource for them as well as learning more about the issues that concern them.

Before her internship at the Asia Society in 1999, Aimy Ko, who was then a sophomore at New York University, wasn't even aware of the organization's existence. But during her time there, she not only learned about the workings of a large non-profit institution, she saw its effort to reach her generation through its work with local groups.

"My time at the Asia Society opened my eyes to how many community and non-profit organizations exist," she said. "I got a real feel for the diversity of organizations out there and what collaborations can produce."

National Recognition

Lunar New Year commemorative stamp.  

Lunar New Year commemorative stamp.

Another sign that the Asia Society has increased its public profile was its selection last year by the US Postal Service as the site for the annual launch of the Lunar New Year commemorative stamp. For the previous decade, this nationally publicized event has taken place on the West Coast, but last February, postal workers from Chinatown performed the Dragon Dance outside the Asia Society headquarters, heralding a new level of recognition as the premier cultural organization reaching Asian Americans in New York City, according to Karp.

"Being selected by the US Postal Service for the launch of the 2002 commemorative stamp was a real honor," she said. "It demonstrated how entrenched we are in the New York City Asian American community."

To learn more about the Asia Society,visit

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