In October, Jamaica Center for Arts & Learning (JCAL) will present Jamaica Flux: Workspaces and Windows beyond the gallery’s walls in the heart of the surrounding community. Curator Heng-Gil Han and assistant curator Sara Reisman along with several guest curators invited over forty artists to present public works of art that will intervene in the economy of the largely immigrant neighborhood. The artists, like the curators, are relative outsiders in the community, and how the art will be received in a community of working class, minority immigrants seems to be part Han’s risky and brave vision to bring participatory art back to JCAL.
Located almost an hour from Manhattan, JCAL, like other non-profit community art centers such as Bronx River Art Center, might as well be in another state given Chelsea’s powerful gravity. It’s often hard for galleries in Williamsburg to draw foot traffic after their openings, and they are minutes from Chelsea. JCAL is an island of ambitious conceptual programming in a community that has concerns more pressing than trying to understand contemporary art, which most college educated, middle class Americans have difficulty grasping. Han’s recent shows have included Global Priority, an international exhibition about globalization, and "Losing Ground: The Rapidly-Changing Ecology of Jamaica Bay," an environmental exhibit by Brandon Ballengée about shrinking wet lands and vanishing species. These aren’t exactly shows that are aimed at drawing in the local community. They are challenging exhibits that Han is curating in an effort to draw the art world out to Jamaica, while also raising the stakes of the quality of the shows.
In the late eighties and early nineties, before Han’s tenure as curator, the Jamaica Arts Center (JAC), as it was known, had become a gallery that rarely exhibited contemporary or emerging art. It functioned more like a museum, bringing in cultural and historic shows that were largely disconnected from the community, yet safely within the confines of an educational agenda. During that time, the gallery space in the center shrank to a single exhibition space on the right side of the building. The center had become an institution out of far more radical beginnings in the seventies. According to Han, artists like Juan Sanchez, Lorna Simpson, and Fred Wilson helped establish Jamaica Arts Center to create opportunities for minority artists outside of Soho and the predominantly white art world. Besides their success, the artists shared a commitment to interdisciplinary approaches to reconnect art with the world following the collapse of modernism. Their involvement with extending the gallery into the community was not simply to educate, but to bring art back into the world.
Like many of its contemporaries, Art in General, Creative Time, Bronx River Arts Center, and Artists Space, JAC became more institutionalized during the eighties as its ad hoc structure of artistic authority was formalized. During the decade, it gained a director and a board to manage its funding and programming. Han notes that during this period the center began to withdraw from the surrounding community and offer traditional, self-contained shows. In the early nineties, the center became more socially engaged with the community through educational programs. It won awards for its participatory arts programs; and Han found West Coast arts organizations modeling their programs on JAC’s innovations. This change in direction has a touch of irony since the center changed its name to Jamaica Center for Arts & Learning in 1995. The center added an arts education component to its central mission, bringing students into the center to study visual and performing arts. Neither Han nor Reisman see it as negative, but as fundamentally different from the participatory model the gallery was founded on. Associating art with education places a value on its social worth, creating an expectation that art can make better citizens, more creative workers, and nurture introspection.
The difference lies in art’s potential to confuse technical/formal training with critical self-expression. In some ways the Jamaica Arts Center’s transition to the Jamaica Center for Arts & Learning is a political move that de-emphasizes the role of art in favor of education. This seems to be a difficult and sensitive issue for Han and Reisman in terms of organizing Jamaica Flux, which isn’t about teaching art to children, but about bringing artists and the community into direct contact, a very different idea of participatory art than offering afternoon classes to local kids. While both Han and Reisman don’t object to arts education in any way, their efforts fall squarely on the side of curating socially, politically, and culturally challenging shows that don’t pander to the community. Han faces the difficult task of maintaining a sensitive political balance between the board, the director, the community, and the artists.
Shows like "Losing Ground" do not play to the stereotype of the community. Reisman notes that one viewer from the neighborhood said something like, “What does this have to do with me?” Incredulously, she replied “Are you human?” The environmental exhibit cut across racial and ethnic boundaries that often define people’s view of art. Han is careful to point out that he does not want the center to become pigeonholed. He wants to remain free to address economic, social, political, and religious issues in addition to the ever-present question of identity.
It is an extremely sensitive issue for the center, but identity is only a part of life. Han maintains a necessary belief in the constructed, mutable nature of identity, as a Korean immigrant working with Western ideas of art in Queens, New York. He discusses how his own son will arrive at the decision someday whether his identity is Korean or American first. Han and Reisman were both prepared for questions about the number of artists participating in the next show who were from the community. Reisman notes that the Center for Urban Pedagogy would be participating in the exhibit, while Han points out that Karlos Carcamo, who is arranging a video series, was born and raised in Jamaica and developed his interest in art partly through his participation in the center as a high school intern. Carcamo worked with artists at the center installing shows and learned a great deal about art handling as a high school student. He became interested in artistic issues not through instruction, but by being immersed in it at the center.
In an increasingly globalized world, obvious indicators of ethnic and racial identity are collapsing. It is becoming increasingly unfair to individuals or communities to attempt to identify appropriate art for them. Han doesn’t think about any kind of ethnic or cultural quota per exhibit in order to be politically correct. If there is a lack of artists from the community in the shows, it also speaks to the lack of art education in schools and differing priorities in our communities. While Carcamo was born in Jamaica, Queens he earned his MFA at the same school as Han, despite radically different cultural backgrounds. JCAL is representative of the kind of complex web that is spun when identities intersect at one point. It would seem that by re-engaging the community outside the gallery and engaging students with authentic experiences of art, not merely teaching them skills, the original goal of fostering the arts within the community might be accomplished again.
The potential for the community to reject or criticize the work Han and Reisman are presenting is very real possibility; as much a possibility as for the mainstream art world to ignore it. The difficult issues that art can raise about homosexuality, religion, class, race, and politics can be rejected even in a disenfranchised or marginalized community, which may share conservative values with the majority. During the civil rights era, gays marched with blacks, but now there is a movement rejecting gay marriage across color lines based on shared religious values. A marginalized status does not guarantee acceptance or support for controversial issues in Jamaica. While Han has not had any proposals censored by the board, he does feel a responsibility to others’ opinions and beliefs. And although he remains sensitive, he is committed to exhibiting difficult ideas. In 2006, a show on religion is planned, which Han believes he can curate without offending anyone. While that seems difficult to believe, since the vocal critics tend to be extremist, it is indicative of his curatorial stance that art should promote a social dialogue.
Jamaica Flux will be a major step in re-establishing JCAL as a participatory arts program in addition to its necessary role in art education. The show will address an array of issues centered on the commercial face of the community, but it will venture into the political. Reisman discussed an evolving concept by artist Laura Carton who initially proposed setting up a voter registration station in a street market alleyway called “el mundo” down the street from the center. Later, Carton changed her proposal to “model citizen,” where she will provide shoppers with a t-shirt with the word “Citizen” on the front. In exchange for the shirt, the consumer must agree to wear it for the day. The project raises the question of who is a citizen and where they reside. Whether or not one is legal, one is a citizen of some community, however different that may be from the social norm. Is participation in the marketplace enough to make one a citizen in America? Carton’s project raises some parallels to the recent visit to New York City by the Republicans, who weren’t offering a political platform attuned to the city’s needs, but short-term commerce.
The dearth of political art in the show isn’t troubling, as Han is resistant to becoming exclusively political. The work in Jamaica Flux is rooted in the artists’ ideas about community interaction through the bustling commercial environment of Jamaica Avenue. There is a significant danger in reducing the complexities of ethnic, gender, religious, sexual, and political communities that exist within the neighborhood to an urban stereotype. That simplification of the audience is at the heart of most of the criticism JCAL faces from within and without. Han and Reisman’s constant battle to balance expectations with their vision of art as social dialogue has put them in an interesting position.
Standing in the gallery amid the ecological artwork, Han tells me that a board member was impressed by the excellence of the work in the gallery, and went on to suggest that the gallery should be expanded to support the seriousness and scope of the shows. At the same time, there were very few names listed in the registry, and people at the center hurried through the gallery space to other areas with hushed respect. Being relatively close to the capital of the art world isn’t the same as being in it. There seems to be as much pressure on Han and Reisman to bring viewers to JCAL from outside the neighborhood as from within it. The problem remains how to not alienate the community while appealing to a sadly inattentive and self-centered art world that remains focused on commercial galleries and a handful of non-profit institutions.
Han and Reisman’s renewed emphasis on the founding model of participatory arts might in the end be able to bridge the often heady, theoretical concerns of contemporary artists with the practical, everyday concerns of people struggling to live in difficult circumstances. While JCAL will continue to provide arts education, it is also committed to exhibiting art that encourages a social discourse that can help to more fully realize the role of art in the community. Art isn’t just about a positive, political face promoted by after-school programs, but rather can address difficult questions about our values and beliefs in a public realm. Instead of shrinking from criticism, the art community should be instigating it and meeting it head on.
Jamaica Flux opens October 16th and runs off-site through November 6th, 2004. An on-site exhibition will continue through January 8, 2005. There will be a reception October 23rd from 3–7pm.