During a conversation over Zoom with Joël Barraquiel Tan, who was in the process of moving from his home in Hawaii to Seattle to become executive director of the Wing Luke Museum starting April 15, Barraquiel Tan gestured to 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 gorgeous,” Barraquiel Tan said with a smile.
Barraquiel Tan joked that at one point he questioned if he’d lost his mind, seriously considering a move from Hawaii. But as he prepares to take over as executive director of the museum, succeeding Beth Takekawa who retired in July 2021 after 14 years in the position and 24 years at the museum, he knew just how much of a unique opportunity the Wing presented.
“The Wing, for me and my generation of Asian Americans, it is the beacon,” said Barraquiel Tan. “It’s the only Pan[-Asian], Asian American, Pacific Islander, Native Hawaiian organization, and it really is kind of the movement museum. That’s why I often call it a ‘Bat Signal,’ not because I have some crazy egoic thing around being a superhero, but when you get called, you get called and it doesn’t matter if — well, look outside.”
During the interview process last winter, faced with inclement, snowy weather in Seattle and the rise of the coronavirus omicron variant, he was offered a chance to tour the museum virtually. He declined, opting instead to make the trek to the city. He knew that if he was going to take this job seriously, he wanted to deal with every reality that Seattle brought with it. “If you’re going to be the executive director of anything, you better be prepared to be the ED of that too,” he said.
Luckily, when he arrived, the sun broke through the clouds, perhaps a sign of things to come. It’s also not lost on him that this particular 54-year-old museum just so happens to be a mere six months older than he is, resulting in a similar contemplation around stages of life, development and what it means to be 54 in 2022.
From the board’s perspective, co-president Jill Nishi said they were impressed by Barraquiel Tan’s inclusive and intersectional lens, the commitment he’s shown throughout his career to social justice and his unique ability to see the connection between social justice efforts and the arts.
“The Wing has had a long history in the community,” Nishi said. “It has evolved over time, but it has always been anchored in the community. … We were looking for a leader who could not only build on that legacy, but think about ways in which we could continue to expand our reach and impact in the sharing of those community-based stories.”
Barraquiel Tan credits some of his artistic development to growing up in the Philippines under the Ferdinand Marcos-imposed martial law of the 1970s. Amid the military rule, Barraquiel Tan said he still saw art being created through things like community fiestas and carnivals run by trans artists. Eventually his family immigrated to the United States, where Barraquiel Tan then gravitated to the underground club scene in California. There he saw imagination and creativity manifest in clothing, installations and clubs, creating a sort of alternative world.
“You literally felt like you were stepping out of the Matrix and into the real world,” he said. “So the way I define myself as an artist is my proclivity and my inclination toward the mystery, toward the unknown, toward the liminal.”
Barraquiel Tan received his bachelor’s in ethnic studies from the University of California, 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 San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, where he created the company’s civic engagement initiatives inspired by the Wing’s community arts curatorial model, which looks to center relationships with people in the museum’s community, and empower that community in the telling of their stories and the creation of exhibits and programs. During his time in Hawaii, he served as executive leader for the East Hawaii Cultural Center, Kalani Honua Retreat Center and Touching the Earth.
After moving to Hawaii in 2015, Barraquiel Tan also helped establish Vibrant Hawai’i in 2018, which formed a collective aimed at increasing equitable opportunities in the state. He called his time in Hawaii a sort of survivor audition of executive leadership, where he had to learn to fundraise for, and navigate situations like, putting up an electrical transformer in a jungle.
He also credited his time in Hawaii with teaching him the steps to forming deeper connections with cultures and communities. Many times, he explained, becoming engrossed in a community is centered primarily around the people. But in Hawaii, that effort is centered around the land itself, its history and the events that happened on that land. From there, you can build a connection to the people and cultural identity.
“It’s a lifelong process to reconnect back to re-indigenizing,” Barraquiel Tan said, “because we are all Indigenous from somewhere. It means not starting from ‘I’ or even people. We are here to steward the land. If you start the inquiry in that way, it tends to go better because everybody seems to find their place in it.”
Though the Wing calls itself a museum, Nishi noted that it also considers itself 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 feel like we need to make good trouble,” echoing the famous words of Rep. John Lewis. That means making sure the art the museum is involved in isn’t simply transactional or part of an effort to suss out some vision of excellence that is worthy of a museum’s space, but to involve art that is itself community oriented.
Barraquiel Tan pointed to artists like Theaster Gates and Rick Lowe, both of whom famously 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 gathering. Meanwhile, the Houston-based Lowe co-founded an arts and cultural community called Project Row Houses, which took a block and a half of derelict shotgun houses in one of Houston’s oldest African American neighborhoods and grew it into a site that now encompasses 39 structures serving as a base for community initiatives, art programs and neighborhood development activities.
“They’re not struggling over whether or not this is world class art or is this a community health center or is this a community lab where people — young, Black, Indigenous, people of color — can get a start on something and actually 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 largest exhibition because it has been an active shaper of that.”
As he prepares to join the Seattle community, Barraquiel Tan said the role of the art center in a community is crucial in the face of increased targeted hate and violence, the upcoming midterm elections and the ongoing war in Ukraine. There’s a unique role arts organizations can play as a cultural producer, community activator and convener.
“The joy and wonder and curiosity that arts and cultural organizations champion, I believe that is critical,” said Barraquiel Tan. “That is exactly what we have in our quiver to fight systemic and targeted violence and hate.”