America’s Newest Creative Class: Asian Americans

Maya Lin's "2x4 Landscape" at Henry Art Gallery in Seattle. Image by chad_k on Flickr.
Maya Lin’s “2×4 Landscape” at Henry Art Gallery in Seattle; Lin may be the most visible American artist of Asian descent. (image via Flickr user chad_k on Flickr)

OAKLAND, Calif. — I’ve encountered a number of articles and statistics about Asian representation in the United States in fields such as education, technology, and medicine. A recent report in the New York Times pointed out that “Asian-Americans constitute 5.6 percent of the nation’s population but 12 to 18 percent of the student body at Ivy League schools.” Asians occupy the majority of tech jobs in the Bay Area, and there are a growing number of Asian doctors in the United States.

But one tidbit I hadn’t encountered was that Asians also occupy 6.1 percent of creative jobs in this country. That doesn’t sound like a lot (and the definition of “creative” includes science and technology), but according to a recent article in the Huffington Post about Richard Florida’s book, The Rise of the Creative Class, Revisited, that’s nearly half of the Asian American population. In the HuffPo piece, Youyoung Lee points out that industries like fashion and food have seen a rise of Asian names, like Thakoon Panichgul and David Chang of Momofuku.

But what about the fine arts? Names from mainland China have certainly been seeing considerable press lately, but except for the occasional show about identity, Asian Americans are a rarer breed on the national and international stage.

“Look at the curators, executives, and boards of major U.S. arts institutions,” noted former assistant curator at the Museum of Chinese in America and Hyperallergic contributor Ryan Wong, “they do not at all reflect the diversity of America today, especially in big cities. If these institutions want to remain relevant to a diverse America, they need leaders who can speak directly to diverse experiences. This will take years of recruitment and training, but it needs to start now.”

“Galleries and institutions should only focus on promoting intelligent art that brings a new voice and perspective,” wrote Margaret Lee in an email interview. Lee heads up 47 Canal Street, a contemporary art gallery in New York’s Chinatown. “Whether or not those voices are Asian American is not as important, though it will probably be more likely since they provide experiences shaped by contemporary and global socio/political/economic conditions.”

Minority artists in particular may not receive as much attention if they don’t address issues specific to identity.  “We should still be concerned with providing a space for Asian American creators in arts and culture institutions,” explained Wong. “Formalism shouldn’t be used as a bludgeon to silence narrative and figurative works that deal with topics like immigration, gender and sexuality, race, and cultural differences. In short, Asian Americans shouldn’t feel pressured to suppress their identities in order to have art careers.”

Fortunately, organizations like artasiaamerica and the Asian American Arts Alliance are helping bring more visibility to talented artists. And with Asian Amerians representing the largest minority groups (outside of non-resident aliens) at art and design schools like RISD and Pratt, we can expect those numbers to grow. Lee pointed to Michelle Kuo, the editor of Artforum, and to a growing number of Asian American curators in independent galleries. “As time goes on,” she said, “the differences are not as stark.”

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