Tu Huynh is the Program Director for Art in City Hall in Philadelphia. Tu has been coordinating our Philadelphia, PA show for more than seven years and does an outstanding job with this year being no exception.
Marking their Eleventh Year with the National Arts Program®, the 5th floor of City Hall was adorned with more than 150 pieces of artwork by Philadelphia City employees and their immediate family members. Tu not only coordinates the exhibitions, but does everything from registering participants to installing the show to organizing drop off and pick up of artwork.
Tu has an incredible passion for the arts and the National Arts Program®. We are pleased to feature him as our NAP Spotlight for the month of December.
Q. What makes the National Arts Program® different than any other art exhibit displayed in City Hall?
A. Art In City Hall has a broad, inclusive perspective of the arts in Philadelphia, featuring works by emerging and established local artists as well as exhibitions for nonprofit arts organizations and Philadelphia’s public schools. It’s important to recognize the persity of the arts, and its many roles it plays in our society. What makes the NAP exhibitions unique to our municipal program is that it supports an aspect of the arts that’s more or less geared toward non-professionals.
Q. Why do you feel that displaying employee artwork is important?
A. Continued from previous question - When this is done, several things happen. It reminds and reconnects people to the arts. It builds a sense of community, promoting civic pride. It may even reinvigorate a person’s lifelong passions, and rewards them with recognition for their artistic achievements. Showcasing employee artwork may also allow employees to think about art in terms of their own jobs. We are seeing more and more activity, more creative thinking in various departments, not only in Philadelphia, but elsewhere around the country. For example, recently the Commerce department launched a neighborhood revitalization project involving the transformation of abandoned store fronts by working with local arts organizations - it provided a venue for art to be displayed while at the same time improving the neighborhood. It's a win-win. Whenever there is a capital project, a renovation project of some kind, more people are thinking about adding art to the mix, and involving artists. So, the general feeling is that art can play a more direct role in our daily lives. We see it at bus shelters, park benches, etc.
Q. How have employees and their families responded to the opportunity to display their artwork in City Hall?
A. I am in the unique position of experiencing people’s enthusiasm about their art or their family member’s art. It’s a contagious, positive feeling. But as much as I’d like to think that this is a “feel good” type of exhibition, I know that with every passing year, it has also become much more competitive. Some of the returning participants have grown in their abilities, and it has been fun to watch.
Q. Can you tell us how art has had a positive impact on your personal life?
A. My first experience with public art began when I was in grade school in Miami. I remember my art teacher one day asked me what I liked most about drawing and painting, and I told her how excited I get before a blank canvas, just imagining its many possibilities. Then she opened my mind to the idea that art can go beyond a sheet of paper – not such a radical idea, but for a young kid of modest means and limited experiences who took mostly to reading about the world instead of seeing it first hand, I was willing to go with anything she said. She took a few of us on a fieldtrip to Miami’s Biscayne Bay just to allow us to see her point. We ascended one of the many tall buildings overlooking the bay. There were school buses parked nearby, so we were not the only ones to see this…whatever it was going to be. When we reached one of the top floors, the elevator doors opened and we were in a large empty room. There was nothing on the walls, no art to be seen. It didn’t take us long to notice that everyone else, all the other school kids were by the windows. The art was out there…hmm…I had never been this high up before. The elevator ride was an adventure in itself, so when I got near the window I was already feeling a sense of exhilaration. Even so, I was not prepared for what happened next. I looked down and what I saw was beyond anything I had ever imagined. How can this be? My eyes fell upon a series of islands in the bay wrapped in pink. The artist had the vision of transforming the entire bay, making it his canvas. And perhaps unknown to Christo, through his earth work (or in this case, marine work) he gave my classmates and I the realization that through art, the sky’s the limit. Personally, I was awestruck and realized that as individuals, we are capable of doing extraordinary things. The next time in my life I would feel this way would be years later as a grown man, while working in the National Gallery of Art and making what would be my ritual morning stroll to the West Building to visit Rembrandt’s “Lucretia”, and sometimes reflect on a passage from the bible declaring: “Ye are gods”. But for that earlier moment, I felt an awakening. I also added to my English-as-a-second language vocabulary the word: polypropylene.
Q. How did you get started in the art field or have you always been involved in the arts? Are you an artist yourself?
A. I remember in the sixth grade, I was encouraged to apply to an advanced after school art program in an adjacent county. After the standard skills tests, I was interviewed by a couple of the instructors. They asked me what kind of artist I would like to be. I misunderstood the question, and answered I’d like to be like Rembrandt. The men laughed at my expense, but they wholeheartedly accepted me into the program.
I was later persuaded not to continue with my “hobby”, but to instead concentrate on more serious academics much like my overachieving older siblings. Not that I was ever bad at school – in fact, I did quite well and was even part of some ridiculous honor societies for a time – I just had an innate sense of being so very out of place; and also for some strange inexplicable reason, I felt the need to avoid taking Calculus like it was the plague. Another memory I had - on the first day of Chemistry, the science teacher very publicly asked me to sit in my brother’s old seat. After that day, I relegated myself to the back of the classroom. My AP English teacher eventually recognized my state, and one day advised me to worry less about who’s shoes I’m supposed to fill…and wear my own, of course. So I took up AP Art and Creative Writing, and then was later accepted to Pratt Institute, Maryland and Kansas City, but the same powers of dissuasion sent me to the University of Florida instead. I eventually came round like Jack London’s Call of the Wild and began to carve my own niche. I organized exhibits while I was in school. Afterward, I painted murals and did faux finishing in various places in South Florida and Orlando. I spent the majority of some days on a scaffold. On other days, I created backdrops to a Bloomingdales showroom or did workshops on airbrush painting. In between jobs, I belonged to a gallery here and there. I did whatever was available, and some things definitely lacked glamour, such as managing a huge chain art supply store or painting colorful birds on tall glass windows to enliven the home of a manically depressed woman. When I had had enough, I went to Washington D.C. and continued exhibiting, and finding odd jobs, including organizing the audio tours at the National Gallery of Art.
Painting never came easy for me, even to this day. One of my old professors once gave me a memorable critique, saying I was just showing off how well I paint. It wasn’t a compliment. So, I slowed down and painted less, thought and read more, and tried to reconcile the unease I’ve always felt. Being away from the materials at lengths didn’t worry me, for it was all part of the process of painting. The waiting, the absorbing, the bouncing back and forth of energy – it’s all in anticipation of something great to come. I am still in that mode, even as I organize this National Arts Program exhibition, and other events and exhibitions in City Hall in support of other artists and their plausible worlds.
Q. Why do you think displaying artwork in a city government setting is so important?
A. It’s symbolism. Here at the heart of the city, in the people’s house, to have the people’s artwork just outside the doors of our elected officials of all three branches of government is a testament to the city’s commitment to the arts. And it’s a reflection of our people’s creative spirit. It’s also about giving opportunities to emerging artists and recent graduates of the many art schools in the area.
Q. What is your favorite aspect of the National Arts Program®?
A. My favorite part of this annual exhibition has to be seeing the light in people’s faces when they talk about their work or the work of someone they know. It’s recognizing the power of art in a very real unpretentious way, almost innocent-like, but genuine, sincere. “Sin Cera” means without wax – a way sculptors used to cheat in their craft by hiding mistakes with wax and stone dust. It’s about seeing peoples’ faces without wax, sincerely.
Q. How has utilizing online registration made the process easier for you?
Any technological advance is a welcome. Less faxes.
Q. Do visitors to the building respond to the exhibit?
A. Absolutely, visitors and residents alike. They marvel at the fact that there is art in city hall, and they are amazed that city employees, people with day jobs are capable of such artistic talent.
Q. Is there anything else you want to add? Comments about the program, etc.
A. Each person has potential, an ability to make people take notice. Art is one of those human disciplines that allow you to make your mark in this life. Just like your own signature or your fingerprint, it is uniquely you. To be able to recognize oneself and others in this endeavor has profound implications.