25 FEB 2018
CHINATOWN, New York City
The future of Chinatown; and what the Soup has to do with it.
Chinatown Soup's Executive Director Michelle Marie Esteva envisions a democratized model for running an art space.
"After finishing undergrad, I worked briefly in real estate finance. It was right after the housing crisis, and most assignments required flying to banks in desolate towns across America, where we were tasked with underwriting distressed debt. I hated it."
michelle marie esteva
Michelle is the Executive Director of Chinatown Soup, a creative community that promotes art, justice, historical preservation, and civic engagement in downtown New York. She is a native New Yorker committed to sharing the city’s stories. Michelle holds a B.A. in Individualized Study with a minor in Environmental Science from New York University’s Gallatin School, where she also completed a graduate program in Urban Planning with a concentration in Digital Cartography. Michelle believes that democratizing access to the arts and is integral to the longevity and resonance of Chinatown Soup as a neighborhood institution. When she’s not in front of her computer screen, Michelle spends her time walking, sensing, and imagining how people can live creatively in today’s New York.
"Chinatown Soup began as a passion project and is run by a volunteer staff, so the business of art is foreign to our everyday operation."
Michelle, so after months of casual correspondence on Instagram, we finally meet in person! Tell us a little bit about your background, and how you first got interested in the business of art?
Chinatown Soup began as a passion project and is run by a volunteer staff, so the business of art is foreign to our everyday operation. Soup is inspired by the city first and foremost. I’ve spent most of my life in New York and am fortunate to have integrated perspectives from studying abroad in Florence and London, as well. It wasn’t until I took urban theory classes in college that I learned how to move through the city with fresh sense. After finishing undergrad, I worked briefly in real estate finance. It was right after the housing crisis, and most assignments required flying to banks in desolate towns across America, where we were tasked with underwriting distressed debt. I hated it. I remember thinking, “I don’t care about money, I don’t care about anything, I am so miserable witnessing these people and places decay.” I guess Soup can be understood as the aftermath of my existential crisis, ha!
We understand that you launched your own art space, Chinatown Soup, at the very tender age of 25. Can you tell us a little more about what inspired that decision? What were the challenges as a beginner, given New York City’s notoriously unforgiving audience and market?
Soup started as a school project, so the notorious tough crowd that is the city’s public opinion never registered as a motivator or deterrent. Soup was never meant to be a thing, which, in retrospect, is what’s made it that much more unapologetic and pure. At school, I organized walking tours and helped to craft the curriculum as a Teaching Assistant for a course called Chinatown and The American Imagination. That was my gateway to immersion in Chinatown’s history and culture. At the same time, I was responding to a prompt for a class about activism through creative placemaking, which is basically the postmodern term for urban planning. After reading an article about the two women who founded Detroit Soup, I reached out for the interview component of my assignment. During the interview, the current president of Detroit Soup, Amy Kaherl, asked me why not start a Soup in New York? The Detroit Soup model is based on micro-funding dinners hosted in free spaces. I told her that people don’t pay you to occupy real estate here. But I kept thinking about Amy’s question, and, cribbing from a “Start Your Own Soup” template on their website, I developed a business plan for Chinatown Soup.
The rest happened in what felt like fast forward. By October 2014 the non-profit was incorporated, and by December my savings were drained, a Kickstarter was funded, and Soup had a lease. Our landlord, Mr. Chan had no rational reason to trust a venture like this, but I gave him the business plan, and the first question he asked me was, “What is your definition of art?” The space came as is. What you see now is the result of DIY improvements fueled by creative budgeting. I think we’ve answered him. Mr. Chan if you ever read this I hope we’ve made you proud! Also, I’ll have a rent check ready before the end of the week...
"Our landlord, Mr. Chan had no rational reason to trust a venture like this, but I gave him the business plan, and the first question he asked me was, “What is your definition of art?”
How did the name Chinatown Soup come about?
Each Soup adopts the name of the neighborhood it’s in. Currently, there are Soups around the world after Amy went on a European promo blitz. Greater London boasts an impressive number of geo-specific Soups. To my knowledge, Chinatown Soup is the only one that operates a gallery, cafe, and programming out of a dedicated space.
Tell us about your vision for Chinatown Soup. What excites you most about the possibilities and opportunities of this creative hub you started?
This year, Soup will open a café with food programming to (finally!) live the dream of reincarnating FOOD from 1970s SoHo. Honoring New York by creating space for the past to speak to the present is both a privilege and a pressure. I’m challenged by the possibilities of this opportunity everyday.
"Honoring New York by creating space for the past to speak to the present is both a privilege and a pressure. I’m challenged by the possibilities of this opportunity everyday."
Chinatown Soup breaks from the conventional art scene of New York and is located in a neighborhood undergoing rapid gentrification. What is the significance of the locales for you and how would you describe the impact of the local community?
Chinatown is a dynamic place, which makes defining what a neighborhood is and could be that much more exciting! Soup is a platform that transcends identity and exists to pose questions. People are understandably defensive about change and, as a result, come up with some pretty irrational and divisive coping methods. The present situation can’t be neatly understood - it isn’t even reducible to a prisoner’s dilemma because there are so many stakeholders and interests at play. Art spaces are often vilified in conversations about gentrification. Chinatown Soup has answered to this criticism. We are clear about our mission. Most of the artists we support are low income, work the gig economy, and can’t afford space to make work outside of their apartments. Many of our exhibitions and projects engage local narratives to create both a dialogue and time capsule of this particular moment in our community’s evolution.
My response to the gentrification question remains consistent. Gentrification is not an issue to fix. It is a constant feature of the city’s changing character. While I’m increasingly frustrated by the politicized obfuscation surrounding this reality, I’m also increasingly inspired by the opportunities engendered by these changes. I can’t think of another moment in the recent history of downtown New York that is defined by such a plurality of people crowded so close together. We’re here at a fascinating time, which makes for both productive and fraught interactions. Many of my peers are educated about race and tolerance and enter conversations about cultural equity playing defense with offensive tactics under the guise of political correctness and a language of hypersensitivity. Well-intentioned or not, this way of thinking is misplaced and detrimental to generating positive dialogue that speaks truth to power. If we embrace what makes us uncomfortable, we can create progressive places that protect a diversity of experiences. Socially engaged practice combines art with agency, and it’s my hope that will become conventional someday.
"Most of the artists we support are low income, work the gig economy, and can’t afford space to make work outside of their apartments."
"I can’t think of another moment in the recent history of downtown New York that is defined by such a plurality of people crowded so close together. We’re here at a fascinating time, which makes for both productive and fraught interactions."
There is an inevitable tension between the need to operate as a business to stay afloat and the mission of the Soup, which is creating a place for the community. How are you navigating this?
Absolutely. Soup is an expensive social experiment. Our biggest challenge to date is familiar to many New Yorkers. As a great man with a great mustache once said, “The rent is too damn high!” So is the ConEd bill, insurance, maintenance...you get the idea. Another great man with a mustache also once said, “Having money’s not everything, not having it is.” That man is Kanye. And he gets it. Always has. Anyway, the founding operational model of Soup is real estate arbitrage, and that’s the key to our perseverance. Well, that and a killer crew of volunteers. Passion over profit has surprising endurance - although both would be nice.
We understand that you operate the Soup less as a conventional white-box gallery but more as a community-oriented, locally-funded project space. How does the notion of art and activism relate to the types of artists and projects you bring to your space?
We don’t show artists that command enough money to sustain Soup as an art gallery. Commercial galleries are primarily run by dealers with trust funds and/or collector bases. The storefront comes after they amass enough money through art sales as a way to boost exposure and develop their brand. I’m not interested in selling art to make money, and that dynamic would limit the creative experimentation that Soup inspires. Over the past three years, I’ve noticed a common series of synonyms for “strange” that people exclaim upon entering Soup for the first time - most often after asking, “What is this place?” Basement Workshop is another local arts activism inspiration from the 1970s. We channel this vibe by opening our basement studio to artists of all kinds and programming interactive events and workshops. I also make it a curatorial priority to tell stories about the neighborhood. In May 2015, I put on our first show in collaboration with the Museum of Chinese America about the history of Chinatown youth gangs in the 1970s. For part of that project, I interviewed Betty Lee Sung, a local hero who was teaching in public schools here when the immigration quota was lifted, when Chinatown was a really dangerous place to be. She’s a legend in the truest sense of the word. Another show, Chinatown Invisible, mapped the ecological history of the area and was well-received. The artist is a midwestern professor of cartography married to a Chinese-American man who grew up on Orchard Street. Their kid is the cutest. Next week, we’re opening a pop-up at the Ace Hotel gallery that invites folks to consider gentrification of Chinatown through the lens of gamification. It should get weird, as ever.
"I’m not interested in selling art to make money, and that dynamic would limit the creative experimentation that Soup inspires."
Do you have any advice to someone who is also thinking of starting their own business?
My advice? Learn how to say no - quickly. Before it is too late. And it will be too late too many times, but you’ll get tired of making the same mistakes more than you’ll care about what anyone else thinks at some point. Hold out for this. It’s when the ride gets truly fun. Otherwise, the success of this business hinges on the ability to write emails and communicate effectively with people. My mom once told me, “If you write well, you can conquer the world.” I’m not sure about that as a universal premise, but writing well makes life easier!
"My mom once told me, “If you write well, you can conquer the world.” I’m not sure about that as a universal premise, but writing well makes life easier!"
Text edited by Katie Kasabalis, Photography and layout by Darius Woo