Gayle Isa is leaving the Asian Arts Initiative, now a force in the future of the city

When Gayle Isa, a fourth-generation Japanese American, arrived on the Swarthmore College campus in the late 1980s, she felt like a stranger in a strange land.

“I come originally from Southern California and found an environment in Swarthmore College that was really different from the place where I’d grown up,” she said recently. “All of a sudden, Asian Americans were almost invisible and it became  important for me to try and reach out and connect. That had never been something I craved or needed before.”

Isa didn’t care for invisibility, nor was she someone to accept it easily. Instead, she reached out to a number of Asian American groups, on and off the campus, and in her senior year, in 1992, she worked as an intern with the Painted Bride Art Center’s tiny new Asian Arts Initiative, a program formed in the wake of flaring tensions between the city’s African American and Asian communities.

The next year, after the departure of the initiative’s curator, Isa applied to run the whole show and got the only job she’s had in her life.

Now, a quarter of a century later, she’s leaving.

After overseeing countless community workshops and meetings, performances and readings, after moving the growing initiative out of the Bride and into more expansive and useful digs, after moving and moving again, and finally establishing a home on Vine Street, Isa has decided to call it a day.

She will remain through the end of June as the organization’s first and only executive director. She shepherded the initiative from a small community project under the wing of the Bride into a full-fledged independent community organization with a palpable impact on the face of the city.

The Asian Arts Initiative is about exhibitions and workshops, still, but it is also seeking to transform four blocks of bedraggled Pearl Street into a jewel of diversity, among other things, and boasts an operating budget of about $1.5 million a year.

“Now it’s a great time, with it being our 25th anniversary and with there being strong leadership on our staff,” she said. “It’s a good time. If not now, when?”

Camera icon JEFF FUSCO / For the Philadelphia Inquirer
“Laos in the House – Voices from Four Decades of the Lao Diaspora,” a 2015 exhibit at the Asian Arts Initiative

“Community activism is what initially attracted me,” Isa said. “The Painted Bride’s mission statement says that it is the power of the arts to bring people together, the healing and transformative power of the arts — that drew me.”

(A number of exhibitions, performances, and gatherings of all kinds are scheduled to mark the anniversary, May 3-6. Details are at asianarts25.org.)

At 46, Isa, a diminutive, direct woman, wants to take some time and maybe not be an activist —  for a few months, anyway. The initiative has launched a national search for her successor.

Gerry Givnish, a cofounder of the Painted Bride and a member of the initiative’s board, said that even when Isa was fresh out of Swarthmore, she knew what she wanted to do.

“She was very, very strong for a young woman,” Givnish recalled. “There were confrontations. I said, ‘This is what I want.’ She said, ‘This is what I want.’ I knew I was dealing with someone strong.”

Isa worked with kids and adults from all ethnic backgrounds, always seeking ways to bring communities together, Givnish said. There was violence in West Philadelphia. There was violence in South Philadelphia.

“She empowered people,” Givnish said. “She brought high school kids into school programs [helping create] a generation of kids who see art as a way to empower.”

Camera icon Photo courtesy of Asian Arts Initiative.
Participants in an Asian Arts Initiative youth arts workshop at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in 2013.

In 1997, growing in ambitions, the initiative moved completely out of the Bride and into the old Gilbert Building on Cherry Street, what Isa calls “our first apartment.” That space lasted about a decade before expansion of the Convention Center led to demolition of the Gilbert Building.

The initiative found itself forced out of the Gilbert by the Redevelopment Authority and subsequently parked by the RDA in a building with no heat.

“We had students there who’d wear gloves,” she recalled. “They’d take their gloves off and blow on their hands. You could see their breath in the air and then they’d do a quick sketch and put their gloves back on. That was a very challenging space.”

Eventually, the initiative managed to identify what had once been a Warner Bros. screening and booking building at 1219 Vine St. And with the help of the city, it managed to acquire it in 2006.

The first floor had to be reconstructed, and access was through the basement and up a ladder. But it was home.

The floor has long since been rebuilt, and multicultural workshops and performances have been going on  daily. In recent years, Isa has been absorbed by her vision of a diverse, invigorated Pearl Street, a small street that runs from Broad to 10th just north of Vine.

Pearl embodies the high and low of the city — the abandoned properties and the soaring real estate  valuations, the homeless and the luxury condo dwellers, the hapless and the Chinese Christians.

It’s a bedraggled patchwork that Isa wants to transform, a project that could easily last a lifetime or two.

Yet its possibilities intrigued her, its contradictions became a challenge. Isa thrives on fusing contradiction. She jumped in.

“She’s really made a successful effort at forging an identity and a place at 12th and Vine,” said John Chin, executive director of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp. “Pearl Street is a very, very challenging project. But AAI remains an art-focused organization. Pearl Street is something they ventured into. Their bread and butter is arts and culture, particularly for the younger generation.”

For Isa, however, the arts and the development and the strengthening of the diversity of the community are all of a piece.

“When I think back over the history of the organization, the most important thing has been those times when we’ve literally served as a bridge or as a convener,” she said. “Especially when we’re able to do that with people who would not otherwise come in contact with each other.”