I wrote a letter to the Vancouver Art Gallery after attending an art tour in Mandarin Chinese for the Takashi Murakami show, I thought this letter might just be read by their costumer service, or might not even make it to anyone— I can’t believe that in the end, not only they read it so carefully, the letter even went viral in the VAG and got circulated to so many departments, staffs, directors and even the board. I just like to share this letter and the response from the VAG to our communities at large.. to you.
Sammy’s Letter to the Vancouver Art Gallery
Dear Vancouver Art Gallery,
I would like to share some feedback on my experience at the Vancouver Art Gallery (hereafter referred to as VAG). I visited the VAG because of my father, who mainly speaks Mandarin-Chinese. Through his Chinese speaking community in Vancouver, he found out that there are Chinese guided tours at the VAG, and he was very interested in seeing the Takashi Murakami show. I accompanied him to the Chinese language guided Gallery tour.
My experience on this tour was extremely positive and inspiring. I was able to go on a journey through the Gallery with a large group of Chinese-speaking elders who are art enthusiasts or retired artists. I found this tour to be a very important platform and opportunity for the elders to not feel excluded due to their language barrier. I found out that many of them are Taiwanese-Canadians, who are quite active in their own communities in Vancouver. I was very moved by my experience meeting them, seeing their discussion and reactions to the art. I grew up in a very Eurocentric environment where I would be shamed for speaking my own mother tongue, from subtle stares to full on blatant racial slurs. So in the past if I were to attend art events with my parents, I would have kept quiet when speaking my mother tongue, just to make sure that we were not intruding on the “white space” that we were in. Finally, yesterday at the VAG, I felt a significant change to my past experience in galleries as a POC/immigrant. I felt that my own culture was valued and taken seriously. It was quite appropriate since we were viewing Takashi Murakami’s work, who also investigates identity, global colonialism and mainstream mass culture from the point of view of a Japanese person. Hence, my viewing experience wasn’t just about the art anymore but rather a culturally rich, real and personal experience that truly resonated with the context of the artwork; the marginalized group of people around me; my own culture/history growing up in this city–and it’s complex relationships and questions on racism, intercultural identities and true universal values.
I feel really grateful that the VAG provides such a service for inclusivity for POC/ non-English speakers. I see tremendous value and significance in this service, vision and direction of the VAG, and on behalf of many marginalized communities of people, including my dad and his communities who are not used to reaching out and expressing these types of reflections, I want to make sure to establish this small bridge to convey these insights.
Our tour guide was Lynn, and she did a fantastic job explaining so thoroughly the exhibition and the selected artworks. She was so patient, friendly and fearlessly. She took the steps to really hold the space for us as a group, rather than merely reciting information professionally–her approach showed that not only does she understand the values of these artworks, but she also understands the meaning of multiculturalism and is able to shift her way of interaction based on her seemingly experienced cultural understandings.
From this visit, I turned from having prejudice against Murakami’s work, solely based on his infamous commercial success and misunderstanding of his work on the surface level, to a deep respect for his work through a better understanding of his background, process and intention to market his work the masses as a critique of consumerism but also to break down barriers between high and low culture. I began to see his approach as a profound and sustainable way to bring attention and generate revenue while making art that ultimately promotes positive change and introspection. I also turned from a victim who suffers from internalized racism to seeing a positive change in institutions, which operate historically with more tendencies of Eurocentric/white space by default, towards a much more inclusive and truly multicultural space. And I will stress how important it is to actually have POCs and people like Lynn on staff who are not only able to speak a non-English language but who also truly understand multiculturalism and the immigrant experience. I would like to sincerely send my deepest gratitude to the VAG for making this happen.
Thank you very much for your time.
new media, projection design, live audiovisual performance, film, music, artistic direction, social activism & research
Co-Founder/Artistic Director of Chimerik似不像 Collective
與藝術作品背後理念 ; 我周圍的少數族裔 ; 我自己的文化與歷史 / 在這個城市長大的經歷 – 交錯成複雜的關係中連帶出的種族主義，跨文化身份和真實的普遍社會建構價值問題反思。
Response from the Vancouver Art Gallery
My dear Sammy,
Thank you for your kind words. The Gallery’s Customer Service team passed your email on to me. Your words mean a lot to me, and I am almost in tears when reading your feedback. This letter has now been passed around to many different departments and senior managers to remind all of us of the reasons why we need to work harder to create a more inclusive environment. Now I am going to print this out and post it beside my desk as a reminder to myself the reasons why I do these tours… 🙂
It has not been easy to grow and build this audience base for the Gallery, but I know this program would still exist because many of my colleagues try all they can to make this vision come true. Otherwise, I know in the beginning it was just a plan for a 3 month program during the Forbidden City exhibition.
I just wanted to share a few personal stories I have encountered in the past few years. I know these Mandarin tours have changed my parents too. My parents, who don’t speak much English, were not interested in the arts and felt intimidated coming to the art gallery. (They were true businessmen.) However, because they wanted to support me when I started working at the VAG, they signed up for a Family Membership and have attended tours for almost every exhibition for the past 4 years. Even when at times, the tours were poorly attended, they would still come all the way from Langley to listen to the same tour over and over again. They have changed from not knowing anything about art, to becoming curious students who love learning about art and the stories behind it. My mom, when she went back to Taiwan, signed up for the community center art classes and encouraged all her 5 siblings to join her. Now, each one of them carries a sketchbook and draws and paints almost every day. My mom even started promoting drawing at the Senior Center she volunteers at, encouraging all the seniors to express their emotions through art.
It’s a privilege to be able to read English, and it opens up many more opportunities. When one does not speak the common language in a new country, sometimes even to step outside of the house is terrifying. There are many satellite moms and grandparents who come to Canada as caretakers while their children and grandchildren study abroad. They were pulled from their familiarity to a place unknown. At the Gallery, they are so happy to find out there is a place where they can learn and engage with this new land. These tours provide a comfort for many immigrants who feel socially isolated. I met a worried mom who came to the Gallery with her daughter who is studying at UBC. The mom was here to accompany her daughter for a week of transition. The mom was in tears after the tour knowing that if one day her child feels lonely or lost, she can always come to the Gallery on the weekend, and there will be someone there who speaks Mandarin that can help her.
And to echo your comments about the space, when I first started touring, time to time I would be challenged by racial comments from the public during my tours. As a result, I became stressed and anxious before my tours. I was always trying to manage my voice, tighten up my group, hoping we weren’t disturbing the stereotypical patrons of the traditional gallery space. However, with the support in all these years, my attitude has changed. I can confidently hold the space for my group, knowing everyone in this building is behind me. And receiving feedback like yours transmits the words into the driving force that pushes me to do more and to do better.
Thank you so much for all your support!
Lynn, Programming / Administrative Assistant
Institute of Asian Art
Vancouver Art Gallery
This is one of the most unexpected and moving experience I’ve had, with such a small single event, in such a small trifle scale and with the tiny little voice that I have… never imagined would create such a big impact. It really reflects on the greatness of people who’s working behind these big institutions who are also trying to make a different, who really care about the community and especially the underrepresented voices. I do want to acknowledge the privilege that I have to be able to express these emotions, thoughts and idea clearly, that I am lucky enough to have my voice heard, yet there are still numerous voices out there being concealed, muted or even suffocated. This is just one voice out of the many voices that needs to be heard. I also want to thank the VAG (especially Lynn, Greer and Cheyanne) for such kind and heartfelt support through these letters, and allowing this to go out to the public. At lastly, thank the Asian elders, moms, dads and even grandmoms for being here.