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Celebrating 50 years of arts and activism at Kearny Street Workshop

Photo: Claire Burke

Kearny Street Workshop, the oldest Asian Pacific American multidisciplinary arts organization in the United States, is holding a 50th Anniversary Gala on June 11 to commemorate half a century of Asian Pacific American arts and activism. The gala is billed as a night with live entertainment, performances, and food at the San Francisco Mint.

The theme, “To Imagine is to Exist,” originally came from KSW’s podcast, hosted by Michelle Lin and Dara Katrina Del Rosario. During a podcast presentation, the audience misheard the original title, “To Imagine is to Resist,” and Lin and Del Rosario thought it better suited the organization.

“It’s not always just resist, resist, and resist and fight back. We also have a lot of joy and love, and we’re enacting alternative modes of caring for each other and imagining worlds that we want to build together,” Lin said.

Founded in 1972, KSW provides an artspace for Asian American and Pacific Islander artists, curators, and culture makers. It was initially housed on the ground floor of the International Hotel in what was formerly San Francisco’s Manilatown. During the 1980s, KSW established the Asian American Jazz Festival and published one of the first Filipino American literary anthologies. Today, the organization hosts programs and workshops in the visual, performing, and literary arts. This includes Aperture, a three-week festival that focuses on emerging Asian Pacific American artists.

“One of the things about KSW is that it’s never been about one individual artist. It’s been about the community. We’ve had people who’ve performed with us in the early parts of their careers,” said artistic director Jason Bayani.

According to Robynn Takayama, vice president of the KSW board, the challenge is to continue making people who may otherwise feel othered within the Asian American community feel included.

“[KSW] is really conscious about reaching out to immigrants and queer and trans people, and having programs with Pacific Islanders, Southeast Asians, and folks who are not just East Asian, Chinese, Japanese, or Korean,” Takayama said.

One of their recent projects and initial foray into virtual storytelling is “Pilipinx Virtual Histories.” A collaboration between KSW and Balay Kreative, “Pilipinx Virtual Histories,” explores the cultural impact of the Filipinx and Asian American arts activism community in San Francisco.

“This is a space where people can have opportunities that may not be as readily available in mainstream spaces,” Bayani said. “What’s great is that you have all types of people come through. It’s not just about the folks who made it big. People go through all different types of journeys with their art.”

Takayama remembers KSW’s 45th anniversary. The celebration featured rapper Ruby Ibarra and author Jessica Hagedorn, who references KSW in her 1997 novel “The Gangster of Love. Bernice Yeung, an award-winning Aperture artist, interviewed Hagedorn on stage.

“It was great to have those two generations in conversation,” Takayama said. “Ruby really looked up to Jessica, and so to have those two in the same room was incredible.”

Takayama guarantees that kind of intergenerational connection and talent are things attendees can look forward to at the 50th Anniversary Gala.

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