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An exhibition illuminating the experience of immigrant artists in America, Admitted: USA also demonstrates the difference that a strong support network can make in finding the resources necessary for success.
The exhibition, at Centro de Artes through Sept. 29, brings together 14 immigrant artists and 12 artist mentors of the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) 2018 Immigrant Artist Mentorship Program. A show was not a requirement of the program, but mentors Ricky Armendariz, Kim Bishop, Luis Valderas, and Guillermina Zabala decided it would be an appropriate culmination of their four-month mentorship from January 2018 to April 2018.
Their proposal was accepted by the Centro de Artes planning committee, and after months of planning, Admitted: USA opened June 27.
An artist panel discussion, along with an exhibition catalog release, will be held from 6 to 9 p.m. Wednesday. Mentor Sarah Fisch will moderate the discussion with participant Jose Ballí and mentors Anel Flores, Guillermina Zabala, and Claudia Zapata. Mari Hernandez, education manager at Blue Star Contemporary, also will contribute to the discussion. The event is free and open to the public.
Though an exhibition is an unusual result for the NYFA program, said Felicity Hogan, director of NYFA Learning, the qualities of the San Antonio art community might have made it inevitable.
“I would say that San Antonio has been the most collective out of the cities” involved in the program, Hogan said.
“It’s quite a close-knit community,” she said, gesturing to the more than 450 people in attendance at the exhibition’s June 27 opening. Many listened in on performances by mentors Marisela Barrera, Gregg Barrios, and others, as crowds moved through the two-floor exhibition.
Asked what she has learned as a mentor, Bishop said, “I learned that we’re all mentees and mentors. It can go back and forth. We step into each other’s shoes.” She said it’s important to demonstrate that “if we’re an inclusive city, we have to take on these roles with each other in order to be an inclusive [arts] community.”
Most artists face challenges in finding venues, support, and recognition for their work. Immigrant artists confront additional challenges.
Lacking support networks and generational roots in their new communities, and sometimes leaving behind established reputations in their home countries, these artists need help making connections and gaining the knowledge they need to succeed.
These factors led NYFA to start its immigrant-focused program in 2007, to help connect immigrant artists with other artists already established in their communities. Two years ago, NYFA chose San Antonio as one of its partner cities because of its particular demographics.
“When we were looking at the U.S. and thinking about the [arts] landscape and where we were going, it felt like we really wanted to support a community that had the Latin American community,” Hogan said.
Other cities involved in the program, such as Newark, New Jersey, and NYFA’s home base, New York City, also have seen exhibitions result, but in different forms with fewer participants. Admitted: USA features 26 artist mentors and mentees with ties to 10 nations, with only a few declining to participate because of previous commitments. Mentors said they will look to propose another exhibition next year for the second group of artists who completed the program this year.
NYFA 2019 participants Juan Flores and Juan Escovedo recently completed their “boot camp” with mentor Luis Valderas, learning practical skills alongside creative approaches. Flores praised the program for going beyond what he learned in college. In those fine arts programs, “you only learn conceptual and technical skills. You never learn how to make this into a profession,” he said, citing help with establishing connections, filling out applications, and seeking out informal mentorships.
Flores and Escovedo are sons of first-generation immigrants, which NYFA considers eligible for the mentorship program. “I think it’s about giving a voice of a particular group that often has a harder time,” Flores said, “because they don’t come from a generation that’s used to finding the resources to get them on top of whatever they want to achieve.”
Ultimately, the NYFA program is “definitely a way to give ourselves an advantage that we might not have had” otherwise, he said.
Escovedo mentioned a common immigrant experience of feeling separate from one’s community. “When you’re isolated and you pursue a career or pursue a degree in something that is traditional for upper-middle-class white people,” he said, “you go into this environment and you don’t know how to coexist in it, and you have to maneuver through it” without a real sense of possibilities.
Escovedo said he valued both sides of the mentorship experience, which touched on creativity as well as entrepreneurship. “The business part was extremely important, feeling comfortable promoting yourself – but also about promoting these ideas that are necessary, and they need to be out there for people to learn from them,” he said.
Both Flores and Escovedo will benefit from their mentor directly. Valderas has invited them to participate in his 2020 exhibition Project MASA, also to take place at Centro de Artes.
Artist mentor Guillermina Zabala, born in Argentina, has lived in the U.S. for more than 20 years. She brought her perspective to the artists she worked with, advising them on the positives and negatives of the immigrant experience.
Keeping one’s original culture, memories, habits, and traditions intact is important, she said, but “as an immigrant, you feel you have to reinvent yourself, but … you should keep a balance and not change that much. You have to keep a lot of what you’re bringing and keep it in your art, because that’s what makes you unique.”
What can seem like a negative, that immigrants feel like outsiders in both their home countries and their new countries, also can work as a positive in the case of artists, Zabala said.
“In a way it’s difficult because you never completely assimilate. But as an artist it’s perfect because you’re always gonna be an outsider, and you want to have that outsider voice. Because you want to be critical, you don’t want to assimilate too much. You’d get too content,” she said.
Though the term “immigrant” is highly charged in the current political climate, Hogan said, “we’re stating it in a very positive way when, at the moment, that word has all these negative connotations. In our mind we’re reclaiming it in a positive way and celebrating the immigrant stories.”