Art for the Community: A Short History of Basement Workshop in New York

Getting Started

Basement Workshop was started by a group of fellow urban planners 
and artists in 1971 on Elizabeth St. in New York Chinatown. It began 
with projects such as the Asian American Resource Center, which 
compiled information on Asian American communities, a magazine named 
Bridge, which was widely read, and a cultural publication called 
"Yellow Pearl."

A Part of the Movement and the Community

They started with furniture scavenged on the street in a tenement
that probably didn't meet building codes. They raised money by
holding fundraising events like benefit dance where they collected
the guns from gang kids.

They networked with, argued with, and were inspired by groups such
organizations as Yellow Brotherhood, Gidra Newspaper, Visual
Communications in L.A. and Kearny Street Workshop, the International
Hotel Support Committee, Asian American Theater Workshop and
Japanese American Media Workshop in San Francisco. From the west
coast artist and activists visited and stayed at Basement, just as
Basement activists returned the favor.

The Basement started to seek funding, at first from cultural 
funders, and grew quickly. Basement was very loose and different 
artists pursued different interests, but they saw their art in the 
context of their communties. In 1973 Amerasia Creative Arts formed, 
which worked collectively on projects, programs and workshops. They 
shared and taught each other. They contributed to community issues 
by providing publicity materials, graphics and posters. One night, 
they screened 2,000 posters for a community wide demonstration 
against police brutality at City Hall. They did oral histories of 
senior citizens and to begin an old photograph collection. They also 
taught ESL and Citizenship classes, an afterschool Arts and Crafts 
program for forty children and a Neighborhood Youth Corps program in 
the summer with a staff of twelve youth workers administrating the 

A Split

In late 1973 however members of the Workers Viewpoint Organization, 
a very destructive organization that affected many parts of the 
community, started to campaign against the leadership of Basement to 
win control of the organization and its resources. Eventually 
Basement's four sites were divided. 

For the Artists

After this difficult period, Basement began to develop its 
activities outside of Chinatown, primarily supporting Asian American 
artists. They began a gallery that would hold a citywide show a 
year. Basement organized a literature program and supported the 
Morita Dance Company. The Center for Educational Equity began under 
Basement. This center organized projects around questions of race, 
sex and class, including a girls' video project at the local junior 
high school. But because of the difficulties of maintaining an 
ethnic arts organization, Basement Workship eventually had to shut 
its doors.

Its Legacy

Basement endured until the late 1980's. Out of it came Asian
American arts organizations that continued today including the New
York Chinatown Museum and the Asian American Dance Theater. Artists
like the Joanne Miyamoto, Frank Chin, and Jessica Haggedorn began
their work at Basement. Out of its sweat and tears grew much of the
Asian American arts community in New York.