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How to Build a Filipino American Cultural Center Without a Roof

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From left to right: Karaoke singers with 'TNT Traysikel,' Balay Kreative Executive Director Desi Danganan, and visual artist Cristine Blanco. Balay Kreative is building a Filipino arts and culture hub in San Francisco's SoMa neighborhood. (Photos: Amaya Edwards, Beth LaBerge; Design: Kelly Heigert)

Editor’s note: Two years into the pandemic, artists are charting new paths forward. Across the Bay Area, they’re advocating for better pay, sharing resources and looking out for their communities’ well-being. Welcome to Our Creative Futures, a KQED Arts & Culture series that takes stock of the arts in this unpredictable climate. Share your story here.

Walk quickly past SoMa’s 5th and Mission Garage and you might not notice Balay Kreative Studios. But if you amble, the signs are there—quite literally. First there’s the brightly colored flags advertising some of the studio’s tenants (“Tito Ramon’s Pop-Up Puppet Theater” is the most enticing). Then there’s the denim-backed sign for Balay Kreative itself. At eye level, the studio’s address (863 Mission) is rendered in three different colors of laser-cut plastic. The windows are covered in comic-book-style illustrations of notable figures from Filipino history—except for one that’s set up in a kind of TRL display for pandemic-era livestreaming.

What’s inside is just as eclectic and vibrant as the sidewalk view hints. The studio’s 3,200 square feet, provided to Balay Kreative by the SFMTA, has been built out to suit the needs of roughly a half-dozen Filipino American artists, designers and small businesses in an ongoing experiment in the creation of a cultural hub. On my visit, Balay Kreative’s Executive Director Desi Danganan gives me an energetic tour, pointing out artists who met in the studio and collaborated, experiments in retail presentations, and the table where he spends most afternoons working.

This studio is just one facet of Balay Kreative. The Filipino arts accelerator is currently accepting applications for its second round of grants after dispersing funds to around 20 artists and projects in 2020. It helps program the parking lot-turned-lush-event-space Kapwa Gardens, and it’s working towards a future brick-and-mortar Filipino American Cultural Center in San Francisco.

Desi Danganan poses for a portrait at Balay Kreative in San Francisco, Calif. on May, 20, 2022. Danganan is the executive director at Balay Kreative. (Amaya Edwards)

All of this activity is in service to a very specific goal: take the idea of the SOMA Pilipinas Filipino Heritage District, established in 2016, and make it an economically sustainable reality through the power of arts and culture. San Francisco is home to nine cultural districts, the oldest (Japantown) was recognized in 2013, the newest (the Sunset Chinese Cultural District) officially launched on May 22, 2022. Naming a cultural district is only the first step. SOMA Pilipinas, 1.5 square miles in the South of Market neighborhood, aims to celebrate the Filipino community, prevent displacement and develop economic and racial justice initiatives.

“Arts and culture, that’s the key,” Danganan says. “That’s going to be the anchor to really accelerate this kind of community engagement of coming back into your community, giving back and rebuilding it.” His vision is for Mission Street to become a commercial corridor of Filipino American shops, restaurants and cultural spaces.

Balay Kreative does a lot with a very small team, and Danganan says the goal isn’t to grow the organization. “It’s about growing the arts and culture community,” he says. “That’s why we’re so determined to regrant money out. It shouldn’t be about Balay Kreative coming up with all of the ideas for our community. It’s all about being that platform, that accelerator for the rest of our community members to fulfill their dreams and visions.”

Gina Mariko Rosales poses for a portrait in her space at Balay Kreative on May 20, 2022 in San Francisco. (Amaya Edwards)

A House of Creatives

The story of Balay Kreative starts with Undiscovered SF, a creative night market set up in 2017 by Kultivate Labs, an arts and economic development nonprofit that Danganan also leads.

Those gatherings in and around the Old Mint were an enormous success, drawing crowds and press attention and fostering a real sense of belonging within the local Filipino American community. Robin Aquilizan sold at numerous night markets with her family’s streetwear brand Bayani Art. “I’m telling you, it’s one of the best events in the Bay Area,” she says. “It’s always a great time. The community is super, super supportive.”

In 2019, the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development awarded Kultivate Labs a $275,000 grant to support the development of a new Filipino American Cultural Center in SoMa. Balay Kreative (“House of Creatives”) began with a core team of Danganan, Kim Acebo Arteche (now co-director of the Berkeley Art Center) and Gina Mariko Rosales (founder of the event-production company Make it Mariko, which co-organizes Undiscovered SF).

“We did a lot of intensive community outreach with the artists and culture-bearers to get their ideas on, ‘If there was a blank slate of what a Filipino American Cultural Center could look like, what would it be?’” Danganan says. “A lot of the things that came up were professional development, artists’ workshop space and multidisciplinary pop-ups.”

Instead of focusing singularly on the development of an eventual brick-and-mortar cultural center, the team wanted to avoid what Danganan calls “perfection paralysis.” Through regranting, experimentation and temporary projects, the organization has proven arts and culture can be nurtured no matter the circumstances—pandemic included—and that an investment in the local Filipino American community can have widespread, even global, effects.

Their first round of grants, in amounts of $2,000 to $5,000, funded an eclectic sampling of contemporary practices in the Bay Area Filipino diaspora. They include a multidisciplinary visual history of displacement and resilience, a traditional Ilocano inabel weaving workshop, and a suite of paintings and drawings about a Filipina American Olympic diver.

The ideas and artistry were already there, Danganan says, “We, as Balay Kreative, were just a catalyst for our community.”

Resident artists at work in their individual spaces on May 20, 2022 in San Francisco, Calif. in the Balay Kreative studio. (Amaya Edwards)

Giving Back to Indigenous Communities in the Philippines

In some instances, the money given to local artists—itself a regranting of funds from the city of San Francisco—went on to generate even more philanthropy. Kim Requesto’s photo zine UNEDITED FILM, shot before she left the Philippines on maybe the last day possible in March 2020, documents her visit to the T’boli community at Gono Hofo Heritage Center in Lake Sebu.

As a trained Philippine folk dancer and member of the Parangal Dance Company, much of Requesto’s work involves visiting and learning from Indigenous communities in the Philippines, studying their dances, music, chants and clothing.

With permission from the T’boli community leader and the grant from Balay Kreative, Requesto set about turning her photos into a $27 zine, raising over $2,000 that she sent directly back to the Philippines. “One thing they had mentioned is that they wanted to create a larger school of living traditions,” Requesto explains. “[That school will] support the community members, especially the youth, as they’re growing—literally.”

In these instances, she sees herself as a bridge between Indigenous communities and the Bay Area Filipino diaspora. “We can uplift each other in ways that are needed,” she says. “Here, a lot of people are looking to connect and learn more. Back home, people are also looking for support.”

For Requesto, support from Balay Kreative extended beyond the grant. As the recipient of a 2020 Individual Artist Grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission, she needed a public way to present the three dance films she created with the funds. Enter Balay Kreative’s streaming hub, which was built out during the pandemic to provide creatives of various disciplines (including DJs, chefs and podcasters) with a way to stream their work to sheltered-in-place audiences.

2020 Balay Kreative grantees like Requesto were also given access to a nine-class series of professional development workshops called “Kreative Growth: Masterclass.” Even though she wasn’t able to tune into all of the sessions live, Requesto knows she can dip into the archive at any time.

“I have them in my back pocket,” she says. “It’s really helpful because if I need advice, I can go into that and listen to the lessons.” It’s something she says she didn’t have access to when she was just starting out as an artist, when tips and opportunities came mostly through word of mouth.

The Impact of Hyperfocus

Grantees like TNT Traysikel, a public artwork and ongoing documentary project by Mike Arcega and Paolo Asuncion, are veterans of the Bay Area nonprofit funding world. But to receive recognition from Balay Kreative, Arcega says, was special. “It’s unusual for a Filipino-centered organization to have funds to give,” he wrote over email. “The community is often starved of resources.”

Their spectacularly painted and karaoke-outfitted motorized tricycle, which serves as a vehicle (pun intended) for intergenerational conversations about Filipino American experiences, has been stealing the show at Bay Area arts events for a while now. Soon, it will grace the Asian Art Museum for Carlos Villa: Worlds in Collision, a much-anticipated retrospective of the late Filipino American artist’s work.

Three men in and around a brightly painted motorized tricycle
Paolo Asuncion (left) and Mike Arcega (right) with ‘TNT Traysikel’ at the Mini Mural Festival hosted by SOMA Pilipinas at SFMOMA on Aug. 29, 2021. (Beth LaBerge)

The Balay Kreative grant went towards updating some of the team’s technology. “Since we’re working on a project that is centered in SoMa,” Arcega wrote, “we are able to represent ourselves, the district and our community in a better light.”

For Robin Aquilizan of Bayani Art, the impact may be generations in the making. She used her 2020 Balay Kreative grant to support the publication of a children’s book series written by Aquilizan and Aaron Jurell Sarmiento and illustrated by Tata Ponsi Alfonso. The first three books tell the stories of Philippine revolutionaries Gabriela Silang, Lapu Lapu and Andrés Bonifacio. “We used to just create art and apparel, wanting to educate people,” Aquilizan says of her family’s decade-old business. “And because the Philippines has been colonized for more than 350 plus years, a lot of our history was erased. So we wanted to expand beyond that and start doing books.”

Aquilizan says the books keep selling out, in part because of Balay Kreative’s efforts to promote them.

A ‘Multiplication’ of Artists Supporting Artists

Danganan says he and the Balay Kreative team have learned a lot from their first round of regranting. The 2022 grants will go out to just seven projects, expanding the scope of support. Recipients will receive three months of free studio space in the Mission Street studios or nearby 447 Minna St., and free access to three programming spaces for the presentation of their work. They will again get to be part of the Masterclass sessions. And perhaps most valuably, they will be paired with mentors in their field of practice.

Eric “EJ” Pena poses for a portrait in his mentor’s space at Balay Kreative on May 20, 2022 in San Francisco. Pena is an aspiring designer and learns from Balay Kreative resident artist, ChiChai Mateo. (Amaya Edwards)

“I think that’s super unique because a lot of Filipino artists in our community were dissuaded by their parents or by society from delving into the arts,” Danganan says. “There wasn’t that role model for them to see that art is an option for you as a career.” To watch someone of a similar background following their passion and succeeding, Danganan says, can be transformative.

With everyone coming out of the total shutdown of the pandemic at different speeds, it’s especially important to Balay Kreative to provide as much support—in as many different ways—as artists need right now, whether that’s mural-painting opportunities, an outdoor stage, or training to apply for the next grant.

And while Balay Kreative has made a big impact in a very short while, Danganan believes there’s room for new organizations and new approaches to building cultural hubs. “There was this sentiment before that there shouldn’t be another arts organizer in the community because there is this scarcity mentality,” he says. “But I think we’re all starting to learn that there’s room for everybody, especially if we all specialize in different types of arts and culture and find ways to collaborate and support one another.”

“We want our community to think of it like multiplication,” he concludes. “Having more arts isn’t subtraction. It’s multiplication.”

Read more stories from Our Creative Futures here. Have something to share? Tell us about how the pandemic has impacted your art practice or community.



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