Other Duties As Assigned: The Asia Society Texas

Article by annalia

By Annalia Linnan

Dark hall, small stage, a woman singing about persimmons, Nick Flynn reading a poem about his dead father and Lou Reed, a montage of adults and children holding AK-47s: where am I? The Asia Society of Texas this time last year, my first visit. Now: lime green paper lanterns dot the trees. The sideways Texas rain. Locked out. I push the buzzer near the front entrance and a man pokes his head out to ask me what I need. “I'm here to meet with Evan Wildstein,” I say.

When Wildstein--Director of Performing Arts and Culture--appears, he wears a tie but not a jacket and holds a coffee mug. The public is not here yet: all around us, things are being broken down, moved, cleaned, or otherwise reset from the night before. We go upstairs to escape the hubbub, but the normal setup is in shambles: no furniture, no people, just a display filled with giant rocks. Wildstein sighs and ushers us back downstairs. We settle at the only available place: exactly where we started, a nook near the front of the building with a small round table and chairs too short to match. On Wildstein's side: a small journal and the aforementioned coffee mug of beans that he tells me run twenty dollars a bag. It’s 10 A.M., and this is my challenge: to get Wildstein to give me a version of the Asia Society that I cannot find on a website.

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Though the building is young (it will be three years old this April), the Asia Society Texas Center has actually been part of the Houston tapestry since 1979, even before it had a permanent home. It is one of eleven Asia Societies throughout the world. Founded in 1956, the first Asia Society in New York began as a policy institute. Wildstein waxes on about these things: how the Rockefellers could sense, even in the 1950s, that “the coming age of Asia, or the Asian century, [would become] a very important player in the world dynamic.” Centers appeared as needed, but the Asia Society Texas distinguishes itself in its diversity, flexibility, and constant expansion.

“We do so much,” says Wildstein. “We are not just a museum space, nor are we just the policy institute anymore.” Often, Asia Society will rent out its building for holiday parties or weddings, and guests will “not even know that throughout the year you can come to upwards of 150 programs focusing on everything that includes Asia.” And when Wildstein says Asia, he means all of it. Recalling his first impressions of the Asia Society, Wildstein said, “I thought when I came here that the Asia focus would be limiting--but for us, the definition of Asia is fifty-two countries, from Iran to the Oceanic.” Think of it this way: if they covered one country per week, they would have the whole year programmed.

Still, balance is important, both in the types of programs offered and distribution of the work. While a thirty person staff is certainly more nimble than the six or seven that managed the Asia Society before Wildstein moved to Houston, there are still only one or two people per department. Wildstein says this makes for a sixty- to seventy-hour work week on average--and that's when they don't have programming. Not one to complain, he explains such challenges come with the territory: “You know, in any job description, that last line: 'Other duties as assigned?' That’s the dictum we live by in small non-profits.”

He laughs, but I believe him. At a smaller institution that must stand up to monoliths such as The Menil Collection and the Museum of Fine Arts Houston--world-renowned collections that boast staff numbers in the hundreds--there is no room to pretend someone else will do your work for you. Take, for example, when the Asia Society invites Brazos Bookstore to come sell books at its events on its behalf: it is not Wildstein’s assistant who welcomes me with my two-wheel dolly full of boxes. It’s Wildstein himself.

Maybe this says it best: in the middle of our chat, the custodial staff comes through and the sound clicks so loud against the concrete that we are forced to stop. Wildstein puts up his index finger and waits.

“That's the joy of this building,” he says. Work never stops.

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In its thirty-five-year history, the Asia Society has never been a stranger to new work. It has partnered with the Houston Grand Opera to premiere at least four new Asian chamber operas and hosted two new pieces by local dance legend Dominic Walsh. Its recent Indian deities exhibit was the first time Manjari Sharma and Abhishek Singh have ever been on view together. But the Asia Society has never initiated its own original creation, and that’s something Wildstein wants to change. This summer, the Asia Society and the Houston Ballet will co-create a project named Tsuru that focuses on the Japanese crane wife folk tale.

“I'm hoping to weave that spirit of 'new stuff'--commissions, new productions, new things--[into our regular programming] one to three times every year,” Wildstein said. “And that could be commissioning a composer to write a chamber piece that we could partner with some of the local musicians on, or that could be commissioning an author to write a new book. We have a lot of opportunity.”

However, Wildstein stresses that what makes opportunity possible is partnership. And not just having partners available, but that “everyone just seems really interested in working together in a way here that I don't find in other big cities.” As a transplant from New York, Wildstein has enjoyed “trying to see how those little moving parts work together.”

“That's what's going to make or break the success of the Asia Society,” Wildstein says. “How much people are willing to give, to work with us.”

Lucky for the Asia Society, Wildstein makes giving easy. When I push stop on the recorder, he asks me about this article. He asks about writing and music and how each inspires me, and he wants to know specifics. This is the part I'm supposed to skip for this interview, yet it’s the part that shows me Wildstein views his position as more than just a job: he sees himself as a catalyst for change. If that’s not the essence of the Asia Society, what is?

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