Arts and Culture
All in the FAM
The Filipino American Museum reinvents what it means to be a Pinoy artist
Text By Juliet Izon
There is a museum in New York with no address and no permanent collection: a place that rises, phoenix-like, in different locations with various artists for each exhibition. It illuminates a group of creators who have had their contributions to American culture repeatedly overlooked. It is called the Filipino American Museum – FAM for short – and it is a prominent force in how contemporary art is seen through a Filipino lens.
FAM in its current state is only three years old, but the idea was well under way by the early 2000s. At the time, founder Nancy A. Bulalacao-Leung was working as the Director of Public Programs at the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) in New York City. While she was organizing a screening for the museum, her friend, actress Ching Valdez-Aran, nudged her and asked, “How come we don’t have something like this for our people?” Bulalacao-Leung recalls, “I joked with her that if she gave me the money, I would start it. We both laughed, but I guess the seed was planted more seriously than I realized back then.”
Over the next few years, the lack of arenas to showcase Filipino-American artists only became more apparent to Bulalacao-Leung. It was a topic that she often discussed with friends, including Nicole Ponseca of the popular Pinoy eatery Maharlika and her co-worker at MOCA, Carolyn Antonio. But it was her husband, actor Ken Leung, who proved to be the ultimate catalyst. “I was daydreaming out loud about FAM,” Bulalacao-Leung says. “[Ken] asked me what it would take to start FAM and I said, ‘Money.’ He said, ‘Well, what if I gave you “x” amount to start?’ And that’s how it started. My husband has had a very special relationship to the Filipino theater community. In almost every way, none of this would have happened without him.”
FAM’s inaugural event, an installation at Third Streaming Gallery by Filipino-American sound artist Stephen Decker, exceeded even Bulalacao-Leung’s expectations. The launch was “one of the most magical nights,” she exclaims. “It was the most unexpected turnout I’ve ever experienced, and I’ve been producing programs for 20 years! The room was packed to the gills and there was a line along the stairs and halfway down the block. I’ve never been more surprised.”
Decker’s installation used transmitters to pull sound from outside the gallery, which was then manipulated and piped throughout the space. His inspiration came from early 1990s Filipino-American DJ’s like DJ Q-Bert and the Invisibl Skratch Piklz, who were known for their fast-speed record scratching. By repurposing the sound, Decker mirrored the Filipino way of repurposing materials in traditional craft arts or building. “We really wanted to create an environment that was warm and welcoming, but also said something,” Bulalacao-Leung explains. “[Stephen’s] work just felt perfect.”
Since then, FAM has curated events encompassing everything from marathon readings of Jose Rizal’s landmark tome Noli Me Tangere to a yearlong exhibition program at the trendy Ace Hotel. Upcoming exhibits at Ace include a survey of Filipino DJ culture and creating temporary art installations for the lobby windows.
Bulalacao-Leung refers to FAM as a “roving museum”, a term she finds quite apt considering its subject material. “[Advisory board member] Jorge Ortoll said that the Philippines is made up of thousands of islands. For him, that’s partly why it’s so hard for us to come together as a people,” she says. “That’s also why ‘roving’ felt so right to us; because we were moving through the community trying to understand it and trying to build bridges as we move forward.”
But FAM’s nomadic nature won’t last forever; Bulalacao-Leung is on the hunt for a permanent brick-and-mortar location. “Since our events are almost always way over-capacity, we’ve come to realize that we need a space,” she explains. “We need a home to feature the exceptional work that is being created by our community. The work that we’re seeing is soulful, cerebral, and filled with a force that is telling a very important American story.”
FAM is a new player in the contemporary art space, but their innovative programming has already brought more recognition to the thriving Fil-Am art scene. “The mission of the organization [is] one of investigation,” Bulalacao-Leung says. “[We want to] explore communities and curate based on what we learn.”
New York – and the whole of the US – is taking notice: FAM’s events have been covered by everyone from BuzzFeed to GQ, proving that the interest in Pinoy art is much more than a niche market. But most importantly, FAM has changed the perception of what a Filipino-American artist is. Poets, musicians, novelists, and painters— each have a unique voice. While their art may be influenced by cultural heritage and some may address the Filipino condition, it is art that can transcend any cultural barrier to be enjoyed by all. Thanks to FAM, these artists are finally able to share their vision with the world.