When Ron Chew first stepped up to be the Wing Luke Asian Museum’s executive director in 1991, he was the museum’s first Asian American leader. His personal experiences and close ties with the community would serve as a big boon for the institution. When he started, the Wing Luke had a $130,000 annual budget and a $50,000 deficit. When he left in 2008, it completed a $23 million dollar capital campaign and launched at a new location at the renovated, historic East Kong Yick Building.
Chew makes a point of sharing the credit for the growth of the museum to the other staff and board members who made such a major contribution to Seattle’s Asian Pacific Islander community possible. But it is largely known that without Chew’s leadership style, unorthodox vision and tireless efforts, the new Wing Luke would not have been possible.
So how did the Wing Luke project take flight? Are there lessons that can be taught to others with a large-scale vision? How did such a commitment and level of engagement take hold?
One way the Wing Luke differed from other traditional fundraising campaigns is that the museum had a different vision for what a museum could be. Instead of focusing on objects, Chew decided to make the museum about stories and community-building. He pioneered the idea of community-curated exhibits, rather than relying on the perspective of one curator or issue expert. As a result, the community had a much larger stake in the museum, and was more invested in its success. “It was a community organizing model of exhibition development,” said Chew. “People took ownership of the museum, and really felt it was theirs. So when they realized that we needed a new facility, they stepped up to the plate, too.”
The Wing Luke’s development team also sought out partnerships with small and large donors alike, introducing many first time givers to the idea they could make a difference with their contributions. He worked with the Wing Luke board to get them to understand their vital role in leveraging outside support with their passion and gifts. “The Wing Luke campaign was really remarkable and exhausting,” said Chew. “I spent five years knocking on doors to help lead this grassroots capital campaign. In the end, we succeeded in widening the doors of understanding about philanthropy among the API community.”
Chew’s close ties with the API community are inextricably tied with his own personal experiences. He advises that people looking for inspiration in their own projects, to take one’s own personal experience — what you see, hear and feel — and act based on that.
“I was working in a restaurant next to my dad,” shared Chew. “He was working for a dollar an hour, 12, 14 hours a day, seven days a week. During that time I remember how my dad was treated. Back then, you could call a man ‘boy’ and get away with it. I was always intrigued by the stories of those men I worked with, and their lives. I also saw how they were treated, and so it made me want to find out more about my father and the lives of those people who really were invisible parts of our history.”
A heightened awareness of poverty and intolerance led Chew to explore untold stories — such as those of Asian women garment workers, who were central in building a key industry that grew the city of Seattle. His mother worked as a garment worker for many years. The 2001 exhibit, “If Tired Hands Could Talk: Stories of Asian Pacific American Garment Workers,” collected first-person oral histories, uncovered an important, hidden piece of Seattle history and reached out to new, diverse audiences.
The story of the Wing Luke gives inspiration to the next generation of community leaders, to push boundaries and rethink conventions. Ron Chew’s work with the Wing Luke has proven that sometimes even landmark institutions, like a museum, need to be turned on their heads in order to work.
“There are still so many new arenas where young people can be the ones blazing the path,” said Chew. “You just need to follow your passion. And there are new ways to communicate nowadays, so there are many creative forms that can be about social change, changing people’s attitudes and creating a more equitable society. I look forward to younger folks taking what we did and bringing it to a much higher level.”