‘A moving canvas’: Contemporary art curator Abby Chen talks artistic healing, activism

Asian Art Museum
Asian Art Museum/Courtesy

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Abby Chen has been a key player in contemporary Bay Area art since 2002. Her curatorial work began at the Chinese Cultural Center of San Francisco, which became a staple of the city’s artistic community under her leadership, giving a platform for Asian American artists and activists to work. Now the head of contemporary art at the SF Asian Art Museum, Chen remains passionate about serving this flourishing art scene. In an interview with The Daily Californian, the curator talked about the challenges the coronavirus has brought to the Bay Area art world, and offered a sneak peak of her upcoming online May 28 event “Acting, Healing, Learning: Artist Talk.”

“Actually, working remotely has been sort of a norm for a lot of curators, but definitely not on this scale,” Chen said of the effect that social distancing orders have had on her profession. “But at the same time … we need to be on-site — either in an artist’s studio, exhibition site or scouting for a site. You can’t actually do much of (that). And a lot of our work is to meet people. With everything being done through Zoom, the scale is different.”

Chen also expressed fear about the long-term vibrance of this art scene: “Over time, we know that San Francisco and the Bay Area has been losing its culture, where artists are no longer able to afford this town.” 

She also fears that these conditions will only worsen as a result of social distancing. “Visual art is one thing. But performing artists … really need that live audience and all those ticket sales. If restaurants and all of these small businesses can’t all survive, what kind of chance do artists have?”

But in the face of these concerns, Chen clearly has a lot of admiration for the artists she works with — who she says are at the center of her upcoming event. “One of the biggest motivators (for the event) is … at this moment, I wanna hear from the artist. I don’t want to hear from the politicians, I don’t want to hear from the news anchors. I want to hear from the artists who are also the social actors who incorporate action, (active learning) and healing into their practice.”

The experiences these artists bring to the table, Chen believes, can offer insight and guidance in trying times. We’re “not alone, nobody knows how to deal with this,” Chen said, when asked about the event’s key takeaways. “If we are willing to learn … there are voices that probably can provide some sort of gravity in this whole thing that are not from the authoritative voices, the voices that we have been getting from everywhere.”

Chen asserts that one of the blessings of contemporary art is its ability to help make sense of hardship and struggle. “We start to see that artists actually are taking this really active role in leading society to think. And they, in so many ways, provide this compass of how to deal with this reality.”

“Take Chanel Miller for example,” Chen said, referring to one of the panelists booked for the event. Miller came to notoriety through her 2019 memior, “Know My Name,” which detailed her experience as a victim of sexual assault on the Stanford University campus and the national outcry that followed. “Nobody will be prepared, for example, for what happened to her,” Chen said. In encountering “those situations, her role also changed. She became a defender of herself. Of course she was a writer already, but she chose to write on this particular subject. So, in so many ways, that role has gone beyond just an artist and a writer.”

At the heart of modern activism, Chen sees an inherently artistic inclination, an instinct to “synchronize a moving canvas.” Elaborating on this, she inquired, “How do you get the message across? And then through what methodology? How (do) you disseminate everything? It requires a lot of creativity … I think the Bay Area has this great group of artists, for generations, who have led this.”

Indeed, this kind of activism is at the center of Chen’s work — not just outside of, but also within institutions such as the Asian Art Museum. And with COVID-19, she says the role of the artistic venues is more important than ever. The value of these institutions, Chen believes, is in their abilities to promote the voices of the marginalized — and with the xenophobia and anti-Asian sentiment she sees in common reactions to the pandemic, Chen believes these institutions must actively combat the silencing of these voices.

For Chen, art is about voices. And the voices she turns to most in these turbulent times are those of the activists and artists she’s spent her career getting to know. “At least I know where they come from,” Chen put simply. “I have seen them in action, and the nature of their creative work gives us that sense (of) gravity and hope.” 

Contact Olive Grimes at [email protected].

A previous version of this article stated that Chanel Miller attended Stanford University. In fact, she attended UC Santa Barbara and her assault occurred on the Stanford campus.