April 11, 2019  • Open Account

In Open Account, Hannah Stephenson profiles artists, sharing their financial and creative memories, successes, and challenges.

Images courtesy of Ngoc-Tran Vu

“Thinking about resources, sharing, and accessibility—why do certain communities have more than others? Engaging in the free and sharing economy, that is very important in all my work.” These words from multimedia artist Ngoc-Tran Vu were echoing in my mind after she and I spoke about what drives her as an artist and human.

Vu has a gift for insightfully exploring culture and community. She thrives on examining intersections of identity, story, place, and belonging (especially within the Vietnamese community in Dorchester, a neighborhood in Boston, where she lives). This is evident in her own photography, painting, and public art (most recently, a performance piece called Family Stories/Chuyện Gia Đình), as well as her day job as Program Director at AIR (Association of Independents in Radio), where she described her work as “supporting independent producers and media, especially mission-driven work.”

When we spoke, Vu had just returned from the South by Southwest Festival, and mentioned that she was in brainstorming-mode. “It’s a cocoon phase,” she explained. “I did a community theater project last year. I’m wondering how I can draw that into a visual, curatorial vision. And how to build a sustainable practice. I’ve been able to produce work, but I’m focusing now on the administrative side of things.”

I marveled at her ability to manage so many meaningful moving pieces, and was excited to hear her perspective. She shared that her background and family have been instrumental in her approach to work. Vu commented, “I’m the only person in my family pursuing a creative career or path. I had to break out and do things on my own, but my family has really taught me so much. Not relying on others, being mindful of resources. My family came over as refugees and immigrants. I’m always mindful of equity and money.”

We discussed her views on artistic and social engagement, and how she values both involvement and boundaries.

On an Early Money Memory

Images courtesy of Ngoc-Tran Vu

“One memory that pops up was in the third grade. I remember one of my teachers saw that I was really into the arts, and she suggested that I take art classes at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. When I saw the brochure, I was worried we couldn’t afford it, but she recommended me to a scholarship program, which I got. I remember taking classes all the way through middle school, so I had a lot of early engagement with the museum.”

“This memory does inform my work. Seeking funding, asking for money—I am constantly doing this, throughout high school, and even finding funding in college, and currently. I’ve found that people respond in a very positive way. As artists and creatives, we have to find streams of funding. And as a socially-engaged artist making public art, I am seeking funding all the time.”

On Balance and Boundaries

“For me, it’s about balancing time and energy. I have a day job in a creative field, in public media. I’m privileged to be in this position. It allows me access to those seeking resources and opportunities. This month is especially difficult. My work involves travel—these days I travel once a month. I have to be really clear and let people know what I can commit to.”

“Where do I want to put forth my energy? I identify as an organizer, and grew up through the lens as a community organizer/activist. A challenge is sustaining myself as an artist and person, in the realm of fulfillment, and work that’s very rooted in my community. I’m working on projects around displacement and anti-gentrification, documenting stories and testimonies. Tonight I have a community dinner where people can learn about monthly actions (locally). It’s tricky. I used to be extremely involved, but now am slightly less so. As a local Vietnamese organizer, I like using my language skills to help. I want to be engaged but also set boundaries. It’s about picking and choosing, work/life/engagement balance.”

“I let people know what I can do honestly. I’m open and curious about what’s going on. I always go into things with an open mind. But when I realize how I can best contribute, and if something doesn’t serve me, I step away. I work in a lot of nonprofits and grassroots spaces where things are under-resourced. I do volunteer my time, but when I feel that I’m off my game or asked to do too much, the travel I do for my day job actually helps me because I’m not physically there.”

On Advocating for Ourselves (Especially Financially)

“As artists, as people, we really have to advocate for ourselves. When people ask me to speak on panels and they do have the funding, I will ask about an honorarium or stipend. The last few times, people have responded with ‘yes!’ The answer is always no if you don’t ask. Part of advocating for ourselves is seeing our time as valuable. We live in a very capitalistic society. Time and energy equals money. I don’t like thinking that way, but that is a part of reality. And I have debts, student loans, so I’m definitely considering my time and energy.”

Tran’s Tips

“I’ve always had side hustles. When there’s an opportunity to make money and freelance, I’m always up for it. It’s given me so many skills over the years, and has diversified my income. I’ve been an interpreter, spoken at different events, reviewed grants, done research…these are different forms of income, and have been very helpful in not being dependent on one stream of income. It’s also given me many different relationships and connections.”

“I’m always drawn to free resources, free tools—I log into my Mint account almost every day and always keep an eye on it. I try to avoid spending frivolously. Freecycle, neighborhood groups, Facebook marketplace—I take advantage of those for furniture and free art supplies. I recently bought my own home and am writing an article about this right now. I got my bed, bed frame, drafting table, cabinets. You can find anything for free, but you have to put in some time and look. This is also environmentally-friendly, of course, not just money-saving.”

Images courtesy of Ngoc-Tran Vu

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