the wing luke asian museum

The Wing Luke Asian Museum stands out from most Asian art museums as the only pan-Asian Pacific American museum in the United States. Named after the first Asian American to hold an elected office in the Pacific Northwest, Wing Luke fought for civil rights, urban renewal, and historic preservation. He died in 1965 in a tragic plane crash and the Wing Luke Museum (WLAM) was founded to fulfill his vision to share and preserve the cultures and traditions of Asian immigrants. The focus of the museum is the Asian Pacific American community—almost all of its exhibits are mixed media installations that engage the viewer in a powerful dialogue and experience. The museum’s brilliant red, yellow, and green entrance, opens up to visual and audio narratives on issues like cultural identity, generation, and the Asian-American experience. As a Smithsonian Institute affiliate, the museum examines all facets of Asian Pacific American art, history, and culture. The WLAM works to bring people and communities together through art. Part of its mission is to give a voice to the personal stories of its ancestors and community while promoting tolerance and understanding among all people.

The WLAM is more than just an installation space. It uses art and place to ensure that the historic and cultural foundations and stories of Pacific Asian Americans will be passed on to teach future generations and resonates with all walks of life. The museum also contributes to the economic development of its neighborhood, Seattle’s Chinatown/International District (the only area in America where different Asian ethnic groups settled together and built a neighborhood), and works to enhance and strengthen its surrounding communities.

The WLAM’s permanent exhibit, One Song, Many Voices, chronicles the 200-year story of the immigration and settlement of over 10 different Asians and Pacific Islander groups in Washington. It is the only exhibition in the nation to combine the emotional stories of each group together under one roof; they include: Cambodians, Chinese, Filipinos, Japanese, Koreans, Laotians, Pacific Islanders, South Asians, Southeast Asian hill tribes and Vietnamese. The exhibition displays artifacts and photographs from early Asian American restaurants, social clubs, a barbershop, an herbal shop, and a hand laundry. Festive highlights are the Chinese lanterns, an impressive 35-foot traditional Chinese dragon, and a 50-foot dragon boat all suspended from 16-foot high rafters.
Other permanent exhibits include The Densho Project, which features barbed wire and a replica of a portion of the Japanese internment center in Puyallup, Washington with sound dramatizations and interviews playing, and the walking tour past historic landmarks around Seattle’s Chinatown/International District. The WLAM’s current featured exhibit is the work of outsider artist and United States internment survivor, Jimmy Tsutomu Mirikitani. The resilient 86-year-old Japanese American survived homelessness while continuing with his art. Mirikitani’s work reflects the impacts of war and discrimination and the potent catharsis of art. His pastiche of vivid and obsessive ink drawings is hung haphazardly over several colorful walls and depict everything from 9/11 to felines to the view from his internment camp. In one room, snippets from the upcoming documentary about his life and art, The Cats of Mirikitani, plays. Past exhibitions range from graffiti culture, multi-ethnicity, and adoptive families.

Looking at trends in contemporary Asian art, Beth Takekawa, the associate director for the museum, sees cultural identity as the biggest issue being tackled. The WLAM has created a legacy as a community-based (not curator-driven) non-profit organization. Takekawa describes the museum’s exhibitions as opening up a discourse on topics that weren’t discussed in the past, “Ordinary people have their lives presented in a museum, and it’s a validation—and very emotional.” The WLAM gets many regional submissions and takes all opportunities to tap into the immigrant energy of its surroundings. Takekawa asserts, “The WLAM doesn’t want to be a big gorilla institution that has no relationships to what’s outside its walls.”

In 2003, the WLAM purchased a historic building in the International District that was built in the early 1900s by Asian American pioneers. Takekawa hopes “that the museum becomes even more of a resource for the Asian American and the larger community.” The museum has raised over $17 million towards its $23-million capital campaign goal to transform this building into its new expanded home. Construction began in Spring 2006, and the expanded museum will open in Spring 2008.

Takekawa emphasizes the importance of supporting your local, non-profit arts organizations, “Financial support from individuals is our heart and our future. For us, it’s a demonstration of a community member investing in their own institutions, so it provides them a real ownership in the organization.” She sites her wish for financial stability through private donors and the on-going survival of smaller museums and non-profits to show that mega-malls and mega-institutions are not all that thrive. Takekawa concludes, “Donations aren’t just critical for the here and now, they are proof of the relevancy of the museum and also our sustainability.”
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