Hub Stories: My Life as an Arts Curator

(Image Credit: Bill Russell)

[Name]: Kevin Chen

[Areas of Expertise]: Art for Social Change, Jazz, Graphic Art      

[Memory Lane]:

“He decided to create a website where all his personal information would go up online: he would be completely transparent and try to prove his innocence. He posted all his bank transactions, posted all of his telephone logs, and wore a GPS bracelet so you could track him at any particular time in any particular place. He’s been on the watch list for seven years, and he’s only one of two people that we’re aware of that has been that interrogated by the FBI that hasn’t landed in Guantanamo for being a potential terrorist.”  

Every immigrant to the United States dreams of making a better life for his or her children. Kevin Chen, program director at Intersection for the Arts, may have been a puzzlement to his parents. “When I was little kid, I wanted to grow up to be a garbage collector… Back then, I actually had a pretty strong interest in recycling. I remember my first project for the science fair in third grade was about recycling. This is back in the late 70’s, when recycling programs didn’t really exist throughout the country yet.”

Some of us had a moment that defined whether or not we were meant to pursue art as a serious academic endeavor (mine came when my ninth grade Ceramics teacher, Mrs. Jensen, removed my lumpy clay coil pot from the kiln, held it up to the class, and shrieked “Whose piece of $*#! is this?!”) But Kevin, who grew up in New Jersey, did not fall so easily into the math/humanities dichotomy.

“In high school, my biggest academic strengths were in math and science, but when I went to college I did a full 180 degree turn to humanities,” he reveals. “At that point I was very interested in unanswerable questions. Math and science have such a wonderful point A to point B, you just have to find out how to get there. But I think when I went to college, I was more interested in open ended ideas… which drew me to humanities. ”

Kevin later found his home in the San Francisco arts community when he moved to California from his home-state of New Jersey in 1994, in a popular wave of “California dreamin’.” But while arts provide the medium for his personal and professional expression, Kevin has never quite left the numbers game. “The biggest struggle for us, as a 46 year old nonprofit organization, is finding sustainable ways to support the work that we do,” he says. “Finding new sources of support for arts and culture is difficult, whether it’s for educational opportunities for school kids or programs that educate us as adults about the power of arts and culture.” Difficult, but powerful: art can address ideas, issues, problems, in very different ways than other fields can.

Kevin has noticed that American culture dictates that when budgets get tight, arts education is the first thing to get cut. He notes that many schools in the San Francisco Unified School District no longer have active arts, music, or performance programs. Over the past two decades, Intersection has stepped to help fill that role by supplementing (and sometimes being the sole provider of) arts education for young people in San Francisco, but Kevin remains concerned about our country’s failure to recognize the connection between art and achievement:

“It’s been scientifically codified that if you can teach a young person music, it helps their math and science skills,” Kevin argues. “Figuring out different visual solutions from the tools and techniques you learn from drawing can help with spatial relationships and so many other academic studies.”

At a time where our country ranks close to the bottom internationally in terms of student achievement in just about every field, Kevin (a jazz aficionado) believes there’s an argument to be made for looking at the lack of arts and cultural education.

Intersection works closely with Larkin Street Youth Services, a nonprofit program that serves homeless and transient youth in San Francisco, to increase exposure to art as a productive form of self-expression and alternative to violence. “These are young people, 20 and under, who’ve just had the hardest time in life. Broken family structures, sometimes substance abuse, etc. For many of them, they’re not necessarily in school. For us to be providing this kind of education, through workshops we do with them, is really important.”  (Check out the video from KTVU news on Larkin Street Youth creating art from plastic waste).

Making art is a way of communicating what otherwise might be difficult to swallow (youth homelessness, for one) and effectively showing personal relationships to the complex political realities of our country. Art for social change allows individuals or groups to communicate personal truths using imagery, exaggerations, and irony. As a curator for the visual arts, literary, and jazz exhibitions at Intersection, Kevin selects exhibits, and has brought in several politically poignant shows this year.

One show called attention to government surveillance and transparency in an increasingly digital world. Kevin’s impetus was a desire to find out what we really know of other people, even though we’re supposedly in tune with each other with Foursquare, Tweets, and Facebook wall posts. He elaborates:

“We just had a very successful show on surveillance with an artist named Hasan Elahi,” he recounts. “In 2002, Elahi was coming back from an exhibition in Senegal and mistakenly got identified as an Al Qaeda operative. He was pulled aside by INS at Detroit International… which is really kind of strange to begin with because INS really is only supposed to deal with non-U.S. citizens. They gave him nine back-to-back lie detector tests, asking him the same questions just to see if he would flip. He finally got cleared, and when he walked out of the office, the FBI agent handed him a card and said, ‘Hey, next time you have to leave the country, just give me a call so you won’t run into hassles when you come back to the states.’”

Thus begun a seven month relationship with the FBI, but after six months Elahi came up with an idea to take matters into his own hands. He decided to create a website where all his personal information (bank transactions, location, phone calls) would go up online. He posted everything he did, and wore a GPS bracelet so you could track him at any particular time in any particular place. In 2004, before the reign of Facebook and Twitter, Elahi began to prove his innocence through complete and utter transparency.

“The website today still gets hits from .mils and .govs and he’s even had a couple hits from, which if you type it into your browser, nothing will pop up because it’s a back-ended site– it’s the Executive Office of the President,” Kevin explains. “He’s been on the watch list, and he’s only one of two people that we’re aware of that has been that this intensely interrogated by the FBI that hasn’t landed in Guantanamo for being a potential terrorist.”

The other person was a man named Steve Kurtz, who interestingly is also an artist. Elahi’s creative digital art form, in this case, may have saved his life.

Perhaps even more timely is Intersection’s Chico & Chang exhibit, which looks at how the growing Asian and Latin populations are affecting the face of California. But you won’t find any Virgins of Guadalupe, Geishas, or cat-dolls in this exhibit. Kevin was cautious to stay away from stereotypical tropes, preferring instead to showcase pieces that address some of the state’s most pressing political issues including immigration. Chico & Chang provides an open-ended platform for the complex and varied issues affecting Asian-American and Latin-American communities, and subsequently the state of California. This includes the Asian and Latin diaspora and, of on the flip side, immigration.

“California is the first state in the whole Union that is a ‘minority majority’ state,” he points out, “We all have to understand and embrace the changing demographics, because the future is already here.”

The exhibition’s opening was timed with the release of the 2010 census results, but Kevin was in some ways even farther ahead of the curve. Earlier this week, Jose Antonio Vargas committed a brave act of truth in releasing this emotional article in the New York Times revealing his status as an undocumented immigrant. The article made a splash in the national immigration debate, but Kevin– whose own parents immigrated to the states in the 1960’s from Taiwan– already had his eye on the target.

“One of my favorite works in this show,” he says, “is by an artist named Favianna Rodriguez. She’s got two large block prints and a video, which she produced by working with a group of young people based in Los Angeles- they call themselves ‘The Dreamers.’ They’re undocumented youth, kids, that were brought to this country by their parents when they were three, four, five, six years old. Whether they came here illegally, or by other means, they don’t have their paperwork to document them as U.S. citizens.”

As Kevin points out, a lack of documents creates a problem once the Dreamers get through high school, because the way the current law stands, you can’t get any kind of government-based loans to help pay for college, or find a regular job without providing proof of citizenship. Instead, young people (like Vargas) are forced to forge documents or take odd jobs that pay under the table, in order to conceal their “illegal” status. Sometimes, they get lucky and are able to dodge repercussions. And sometimes they’re caught. Rodriguez’ work depicts deportations of young people from the United States from the 1980’s until today.

Now, they’re speaking out. “There’s a whole community of young people now,” Kevin notes, “that are coming out and publicly admitting that they’re undocumented. These are kids that didn’t necessarily have any choice as to where they were, in terms of where they grew up, but are now being punished by the system…   in terms of not being able to achieve their dreams, and not being able to be successful just because of their status.”

The DREAMers’ bravery is one part of a statewide attempt to advocate for reforming the policy of the Dream Act, a bi-partisan piece of legislation Obama promised would come into fruition when he came into office over two years ago. (Last December, Senate rejected the DREAM Act).  The strategy of “coming out” to show the personal consequences of such legislation is one that hearkens back to Harvey Milk and the movement to stop Proposition 6 (a proposed state law that would mandate the firing of all gay teachers and public school employees) in the late 70’s.

Honesty is particularly risky, in this situation. As Kevin points out,

“If these students get followed up on by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and prosecuted as undocumented ‘illegal immigrants’ in this country, they’re getting sent back to a country where they don’t speak the language, they maybe don’t even have any relatives there anymore!”  

Several high profile cases here in San Francisco led to young Asian students and young Latin students being sent halfway around the world to a place where the language is as foreign to them as it is to an American-born citizen. Talk about a nonsensical measure: how can we send a person “back where they came from” when in fact their very ability to remember or survive in that place is put to challenge?

It’s an interesting dilemma. “Immigration is a very complex and contentious issue in this country,” Kevin admits, “Some people feel we shouldn’t be taking away resources from American citizens to accommodate the growing immigrant populations. But ultimately if you’re not providing young people the opportunity to succeed, how is that going to reflect on and impact the larger society of this country?” Chico & Chang is about calling attention to, and celebrating the diversity of, who our state is comprised of, and providing a platform to talk about some more complex issues.

Another of Kevin’s favorite pieces in the show addresses the ubiquity of labor issues in our supply chain. “There’s one really amazing piece,” he claims, “which is really subtle. It’s the main table in that space, made by artist Charlene Tan. If you walk by it, you might not think much of it. It looks like a high end designer table you could buy from West Elm or CB2 or something. But you have to take a really good look at it.”

The table in question is hand-built by the artist, and is placed on a mirrored pedestal such that you can see its underside. “The table is based on a story from the artist’s childhood,” Kevin relays,

“Her family moved into a new house when she was fourteen and they got a big new dining room table from a family friend. She and her younger brother were crawling around beneath the table one day and noticed all these fingerprints on the underside. They started comparing their own fingerprints to those fingerprints, and realized that they were smaller than their own. It dawned on them at that point that kids their age had built this table over in China.”

Kevin admires how the artist took the symbolic essence of individuality, in the form of fingerprints, and embedded it in the lacquer of this table. “It’s kind of the hidden residue of child labor abroad,” he poses, “and undocumented labor here. She recreated the table, and embedded fingerprints on the bottom, just to call attention to stuff in our own home… even though we might feel pretty removed from the immigration issue on a personal level, it’s surrounding all of us and we can’t really escape it.”

Whether it’s child labor abroad, or undocumented labor within U.S. borders, Intersection for the Arts is providing an important platform for the communication of big ideas in the Bay Area. While the Hub has the business angle covered, using enterprise to address social and economic problems, Intersection has our back with a high-resolution artistic lens through which to look at these same compelling issues.

“That’s always been our hope,” Kevin articulates,  “If we can get artists, and entrepreneurs, and scientists, all talking about similar issues, everybody will have a better understanding of the creative ways to look at and solve problems. Many of the Hub’s start ups and companies are looking to solve or create some social change. It’s the same way with many of the artists that we’re working with: we’re trying to create social change through artistic practices.”

Drop in to say hello to Kevin, but don’t be surprised if you leave deep in thought. Kevin’s a friendly guy with an arsenal of ideas to ponder. Be ready to hear some interesting musings on the topic of jazz as an indigenous and accessible art form. And if you haven’t already, take a good look around  the gallery next time you’re at the Hub– you might just find a story there that’s worth seeing.

Thanks for reading,

Samantha, Your Hub Stories Correspondent    






 Samantha is a staff blogger for the Hub Bay Area. She designed and launched the Hub Stories Project in January of 2011 in an attempt to capture the unique narratives of Bay Area change-makers as they help to build a better world from within the Hub community. She also writes a travel blog and is currently based in Tel Aviv, Israel. 







Filed under Hub Stories

6 responses to “Hub Stories: My Life as an Arts Curator

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  3. Margaret

    Thanks for this article. I really enjoyed reading it and learning more about the issues that artists are addressing through innovative methods. Keep up the good work, Kevin!

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