The Friendship That Forged An International Artist Network
Their non-profit supports The W.O.W Project, BUFU, and Yellow Jackets Collective.
Crystal Ruth Bell and Kira Simon-Kennedy. Courtesy Kira Simon-Kennedy.
On Sunday, February 18, the family store-turned-community engagement initiative known as the W.O.W. Project on 26 Mott Street will be hosting China Residencies' "WOW Dumpling Art Party" in the heart of New York City's Chinatown. As the third of its kind, the fundraiser promises to come replete with zines for sale by the YJC (Yellow Jackets Collective), a projector screening footage produced by BUFU (By Us, For Us), and, as advertised, an assortment of handmade dumplings. The event is produced by a non-profit that connects an international network of artists and residencies––a mission that, as co-founder Kira Simon-Kennedy told me, stems from a bittersweet history.
In the spring of 2009, Simon-Kennedy, then living in Beijing, traded her study abroad courses for a full-time internship at the city's Red Gate Gallery. There she met Crystal Ruth Bell, a fellow American in charge of the gallery's residency program. "Even then she was interested in the idea of building an international residency network," Simon-Kennedy recalled. "She realized there was this huge information gap, and she was meeting all of these people who were running creative spaces and were looking for interactive exchange."
The pair kept in touch. In 2012, Bell left her post in Beijing for Marquette, Nebraska, where she was invited by Art Farm to develop her idea as a resident. Later that year, Bell was diagnosed with melanoma, forcing her to return to her home state of Florida for treatment. Undeterred, she continued to work, using the hospital's WiFi to host online webinars and, with Simon-Kennedy, registering China Residencies in 2013, culminating the database she had been envisioning.
Bell passed away the following year.
The W.O.W Project Summer Series: Chinatown: NY's Newest Gallery Scene? Panel Discussion held in collaboration with The Chinatown Art Brigade. Courtesy Kira Simon-Kennedy.
"After Crystal died, I reached out to people," Simon-Kennedy said. "Do I continue? Does this stay a side project? How does this grow?"
At the recommendation of their non-profit's advisory board, Simon-Kennedy took the helm as China Residencies' director. Today, nearly three years later, the operation serves as a free resource for creatives and organizations, mapping residencies across mainland China and Hong Kong in a centralized, online directory, and offering advisement services to existing programs and artists worldwide. (The model, Simon-Kennedy noted, is similar to that of RES, a database she started with Katrina Neumann and Sebastien Sanz de Santamaria that Artsy recently dubbed the "new go-to platform for finding artist residencies.")
Much has changed since China Residencies' inception. Under Simon-Kennedy's direction, the non-profit established the Crystal Ruth Bell Residency, which sends an individual artist or artist collective to participate in Red Gate's residency program each year; and, as of 2016, started a fiscal sponsorship program that supports "like-minded organizations." Mei Lum's W.O.W. Project at Wing on Wo & Co., is the program's inaugural participant.
"[Mei has] been having an amazing talk series on topics like the role of the arts in the gentrification of Chinatown, and Chinese-American women leaders," Simon-Kennedy said. "She is a landlord, a CEO, and a shop-owner running a family business who, on top of it all, decided to have all this amazing community-driven cultural programming. She's super young, and when her family was thinking about selling the building, she said, 'We can't let this go. It's really important for us to stay in Chinatown.' She wants to get everyone connected with the neighborhood's history of activism."
Simon-Kennedy took inspiration from the film industry where fiscal sponsorship arrangements are common, adding that the program includes mentorship, fundraising advice, and a range of logistical support. "We can loan our nonprofit status, which helps them fundraise," Simon-Kennedy explained. "If the non-profit bit takes off, they can establish their own organization. Until then we can help manage their money, logistics, and administration."
BUFU & Yellow Jackets Collective holding space during "Process / Mourn / Activate" in the Brooklyn Museum's atrium. Courtesy Kira Simon-Kennedy.
BUFU, a collaborative, living archive of Black and Asian political and cultural relationships, and YJC, a queer, intersectional Yellow American collective "collaborating towards radical futures that centralize marginalized bodies," were recently selected as the fiscal program's third and second projects. At the tail end of 2016, on the heels of the presidential election, the groups held space at the Brooklyn Museum's atrium in a project titled "Process / Mourn / Activate."
"[Kira] was instrumental in landing the space," Esther Hur of the Yellow Jackets Collective told me in a phone interview. "She's been intensely helpful, lending us her resources and her labor." Simon-Kennedy later told me that Rasu Jilani, NEW INC's director of diversity and strategic partnerships, helped her secure the space.
"We haven't applied for any grants yet, but we're definitely interested in doing that," Hur continued. "Mainly, right now, she's been giving us resources and calling us to meetings so we can talk about how to move forward and sustain ourselves. We want all of our funds to go back into the community."
Simon-Kennedy clarified that the fiscal sponsorship program isn't designed to put these projects on a track to becoming non-profits. "It's not that they're going to be companies," she said. "They're already doing so many amazing projects all the time. We're just helping them figure things out."