Joël Barraquiel Tan • Courtesy of Alabastro Photography

Joël Barraquiel Tan has come into the role of Executive Director of the Wing Luke Museum amid the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, anti-Asian hate, and potentially irreversible decisions around the neighborhood’s development.

The Wing Luke Museum centers its work around the Chinatown International District (CID) neighborhood. The museum tells stories of the community through its exhibitions and programs. This community programming process can be credited to Ron Chew, the Wing’s first Executive Director, who transformed the museum from an Asian folk art museum to one centered around uplifting the community.

Beth Takekawa worked with Chew and took the Executive Director position after he left in 2007. She was able to scale the museum and acquire the current building where the Wing is located. Under her leadership, the Wing became a Smithsonian and National Parks Service affiliate. She retired after 14 years as Executive Director and 24 years with the organization.

This is the first time the Wing has had a change in leadership in almost 15 years. Barraquiel Tan is the first queer director, first foreign-born, and first director of Filipino descent to lead the museum in its 54-year history. They have extensive experience in social justice, storytelling, diversity, equity and inclusion, public health, and the arts.

Barraquiel Tan earned a Bachelor of Arts in Ethnic Studies from the University of California at Berkeley and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and Literature from Antioch University. They are currently completing a Master of Family Therapy degree at Northcentral University.

“Amidst all of the social challenges, we are boldly stating, emerging, and saying that it is now important to lead with joy and measured hope,” Barraquiel Tan said in an interview with the International Examiner.

Barraquiel Tan is outspoken about the threats the CID neighborhood is facing, including displacement and a second light rail station planned by Sound Transit. While the Sound Transit board recently endorsed building stations to the north and south of the neighborhood, the agency’s previous plans included building on 5th Avenue or 4th Avenue near the current station, which alarmed neighborhood advocates, including the Wing Luke Museum.

“To be perfectly clear, no neighborhood, no museum,” Barraquiel Tan said. “Continuing this pattern of only advocating for and protecting the neighborhood is exhausting and it’s important to protect it, to maintain, and preserve, but if you’re constantly fighting and defending there is gonna be a point where that energy is down.”

During this first year, Barraquiel Tan has focused on observing and listening to the needs of elders and the next generation in the CID, letting the community lead and direct how the neighborhood will evolve.

Barraquiel Tan hopes to utilize the Wing’s strength co-creating with the community to work alongside community organizations, the City, and public health partners to create public programs, exhibitions, and experiences that continue to inform, uplift, and inspire action.

One of the ways they’re doing this is through a new initiative called “Arts and Culture as Apothecary” which looks at the Wing Luke as a heart and source for healing, wellness, and well-being as a way to create liberation for the entire community.

“The impact and work of the Wing Luke Museum is through presenting authentic stories that change hearts and minds and inspire action,” Barraquiel Tan said. “It’s not just their work of presenting art, history, and culture, but also about their impact.”

In addition to launching this initiative, Barraquiel Tan has also focused on improving wellness from within the Wing Luke board and staff. They have used their background in family therapy to do a wellness index on the current groups and systems.

They’ve analyzed all the positive and negative things about the Wing Luke to work with the tension and create a plan to move forward in improving the museum internally. The first thing he did was increase salaries to ensure people are able to live in King County by creating a sense of “enoughness.”

By basing wellness on the National Institute’s Health model of 8 dimensions of wellness to change work policies, invest in individuals, and promote a work culture that takes into account the needs of different staff and board members, they’ve been able to create a collective vibe and remove any sense of unfairness.

“There’s a science to wellness,” Barraquiel Tan said. “We are very conscious of how we’re making decisions so I would say that the work starts first in the house, and my hope is to inside out.”

They’ve focused a lot of their leadership on promoting wellness due the large increase in mental health issues that have risen for people in leadership positions. They argue that taking care of themselves is the best form of leadership because you can’t give back to the community if you’re not taking care of yourself.

“The next step towards inclusion is to simply step into our power, into our joy, and not be defined by our oppression, not be defined by pain.” Barraquiel Tan said. “We want that for ourselves and for our children.”

This year, they’ve worked more closely with the International Community Health Services (ICHS), Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS), and other mental health and primary care clinics to create a bridge between the arts and workforce development, culture and mental health.

“We know that culturally-informed, creative expression, empowered storytelling creates real shifts in individuals, families, and neighborhoods,” Barraquiel Tan said. “We’re just going to really lean into that.”

Barraquiel Tan hopes to build on the legacy of the previous directors and hopes to continue contributing to the empowerment, advancement, and self-determination of the community by acquiring more capital in the neighborhood and exploring entrepreneurial possibilities.   

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