Art and politics

Art and politics

But she had already begun acting on that theme in the latter half of 2010. Chan, the new president and CEO of the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies (APAICS), felt a pull back into the arts world she once inhabited, so late last summer she posted a Facebook status update that asked, “How do you start an art gallery?”

She got back not only an answer to her question but an opportunity she couldn’t pass up. By early fall, Chan had acquired another official title: art gallery director at the local nonprofit arts incubator BloomBars.

Chan now enters 2011 adjusting to both her new job at APAICS and a mandate to stoke her artistic interests lest they slip away from her. From her desire to raise the profile of the Asian-American community to her lifelong love of dance and a newfound interest in singing, her next several months look to be booked.

Chan’s word for 2011 may be “create,” but her life this year might surrender to the plea, “I need more time.”

Status Noticed 

From that status update, Chan, 30, got a message from BloomBars founder John Chambers saying that if she wanted to know how to start an art gallery, he might be able to give her firsthand experience. Chan had been to BloomBars, a Columbia Heights space that hosts concerts, performances, poetry readings and an assortment of other activities and events, a few times previously. Liking her experiences there, she made friends with Chambers on Facebook.

He, in turn, was in need of an art gallery director to fill the space’s long-barren walls.

The two met and quickly agreed that she was a good fit for the volunteer job.

“She just brings that energy — you trust her, you have confidence in her, and you know she’s competent — and it was just a leap of faith,” Chambers said.

Before long, Chan was planning her first show, which ran in late November and also acted as a fundraiser for BloomBars. In the end, Chan called it “warm” and “amazing,” but the road leading up to it wasn’t without its bumps.

Artwork didn’t start arriving until a week before the show, and she didn’t secure an installer until two nights before the opening.

But the real hurdle came opening night, just as Chan arrived at the space to do last-minute prep work.

“I go upstairs, and the lights are all out,” she said, laughing. “I’m like, ‘The power’s down. What am I going to do?’ ”

It was about 10 minutes before the doors were to open, so Chan didn’t have much time to think. She made a mad dash to the nearby Target and bought 10 adjustable desk lamps.

“Can I just tell you, it looked so beautiful,” she said. “The lighting was so much warmer than it would’ve been if there were just track lights. It was really interesting. The whole thing was just a piece of work, the whole night.”

“I can’t sing — there’s no way.”

Chan grew up in New York City’s Chinatown neighborhood, one of two daughters of Chinese immigrants. Her parents enrolled Chan and her older sister in nearly every arts program they could find: Chinese dance, music classes, piano lessons, Chinese painting.

Chan took a liking to Chinese dance, sticking with it through high school, and then took up Kathak, a north Indian dance form, at Swarthmore College and at Harvard Law School.

Her dance teacher in Boston “literally got me through law school,” she said. “It was tough spiritually to go to law school, so it was nice to have an arts community to get you grounded.”

One of her favorite arts experiences is listening to live music, yet she had never considered herself a singer. That is, until last year.

Seeing a unique dynamic in artists who do live vocal performances, she asked herself, “Why should they have all the fun?”

Chan hired a Washington Conservatory vocal teacher who specializes in Italian bel canto-style singing.

“He told me I could sing, and I was like, ‘Okaaay,’ ” she said, imitating the skepticism she felt initially. “We just started doing vocal exercises. Here I am thinking my voice is really low, and he’s telling me I’m a soprano — like a high soprano. I’m like, ‘You’re out of your mind.’ ”

Her singing debut took place in December at BloomBars. Chan invited 80 people to her 30th birthday, where she fronted an indie-rock band, singing six of their original songs and covering the Bob Dylan song “Make You Feel My Love.”

“It was an amazing show,” she said. Chan has since had a juried student recital at the conservatory to show off her new singing style.

Arts and Politics

Chan also developed a passion for leadership in the Asian-American community while growing up, and she decided to pursue that path professionally. After graduating from law school and completing a yearlong federal clerkship, she landed in Rep. Mike Honda’s (D-Calif.) Washington office through an APAICS fellowship.

A few years later she ascended to the role of executive director of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC). And now, at APAICS, Chan draws on her own experience as a second-generation Chinese American to help build a growing political force.

Michael Shank, Honda’s communications director and senior policy adviser, as well as a former colleague of Chan’s, said it came as no surprise to him to learn she is just as ambitious in her arts endeavors as she is in her professional pursuits.

“Gloria’s gifted orchestration of congressional offices committed to [Asian-American and Pacific Islander] issues has taken CAPAC and the entire … community to a higher level of political discourse and representation,” he said.

Chan knows that she needs to nurture her parallel life in the arts.

“If you leave a passion there for too long without tending to it, it kind of blows up in your face,” she said. “It’s like, ‘OK, I have to deal with this.’ ”

With her new job, Chan has cooled her jets a bit on that front — downgrading from gallery director at BloomBars to an adviser and waiting until summer to sign up for another dance class — but she vows to be back on the scene soon. (Meanwhile, Chan has taken up tai chi on the weekends.)

After all, she said, her work and hobbies feed off each other.

“What’s amazing about the arts is that it keeps you on your toes,” she says. “ Like the light situation — something had to happen. There’s always a solution — let’s get creative — and that’s really what you need on the Hill. If there’s a blockage here, let’s find another way. What communities do we need to mobilize? Do we need to contact reporters? Do we need to talk to members? Is this a member conversation? Can we do this on staff level?” 

In other words: What do I need to create?