Alumni Feature

Joshua Heim

IAS Intersections

Developing new American communities at the intersection of art, culture, and policy

Joshua HeimIAS alum Joshua Heim (’10, M.A. in Cultural Studies) is a cultural builder. Currently Arts Program Manager for the City of Bellevue, Josh has engaged with community development as an artist, an organizer, and a service provider throughout his career.  “Being a cultural builder is about understanding the dynamics of your arts ecosystem, and building systems within it,” he explains.

Originally from Hawaii, Josh studied social movements and the arts as an undergraduate. After graduation, he helped to create Native Hawaiian language archives and source material for language immersion schools.

Upon moving to Seattle, Josh worked for social justice-oriented community organizations.  He “got back to his roots in arts” when he accepted a position at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific Experience as an exhibits developer. “Wing Luke is really where arts and community intersect,” says Josh, who also managed the Wing’s YouthCAN arts-based leadership program for teens.  

Josh applied to the then-new Master of Arts in Cultural Studies program at UW Bothell to address the question: “How do you get good art and also good community development in a mutually reinforcing dynamic?” To deepen his exploration at the intersections of cultural and economic development, Josh simultaneously completed a graduate certificate in International Development Policy and Management from the Evans School, all while continuing to work at the Wing.

“At the time,” Josh explains, “the Wing Luke was moving into a new permanent home. The building was a node for all sorts of things, but especially community and economic development. The institution made conscious choices in its relationship to the neighborhood. There is no café in the museum because they didn’t want to compete with the restaurants in the International District. The first floor includes large windows looking out as a way to open up sight in and out of the museum, rather than closing it off and having more exhibition space. Choices like that introduced me to the ways in which arts organizations can play a really different kind of role in the community.”

Josh’s current professional projects draw on his background in culture, art, and policy, and his long-term commitment to immigrant communities and communities of color.

At the City of Bellevue, he works in the community development department which does comprehensive planning, neighborhood outreach, environmental stewardship, and economic development.  The arts program he manages merged recently into what is now called the Cultural and Economic Vitality Office.  This office engages in cultural planning, such as a recently completed creative economy study looking specifically at the intersection of arts and commerce.

The U.S. suburbs have a special need for arts and cultural development, Josh suggests.  An ever greater percentage of people in the United States live in suburbs, and an increasing percentage are recent immigrants. This profile is true of the Puget Sound’s Eastside, where about 40% of the people who live in Redmond, are foreign-born. “Over 90% of all growth in Bellevue since 2000 has been due to our foreign-born population, Josh notes. “These are immigrant communities.”

Redmond Moving Art Center, an artwork by Janet Zweig. It was built as both a sculptural object and a platform for artists to help us build street life in Downtown Redmond.
Redmond Moving Art Center, an artwork by Janet Zweig, built as both a sculptural object and a platform for artists to help us build street life in Downtown Redmond.

Yet across the country, arts and culture development receives little investment in the suburbs. “Our policy framework is not set up to catalyze the kind of cultural development that we need in order to ensure that people outside of the center have access to a creative life,” says Josh, an argument extended in a recent blog post.

Josh sees a reluctance, at the national and local levels, to build cultural infrastructure. Smaller community-based organizations get closed out of the funding that does exist which favors larger, more established institutions like the symphony, ballet, or opera.

To address this inequity, Josh and The City of Bellevue have started a grant program called Power Up.  Power Up enables organizations that want to increase their capacity to apply for support in order to carry out those kinds of functions. Power Up also offers applicants technical assistance, as well as cultural liaisons providing translation in seven languages.

“We assume that everyone is offering the best arts product according to their capacity,” Josh explains, “So rather than picking the winners and losers of the arts world, we work  to build capacity so that everyone can hit at the level they need to for their communities. Right now it’s just a tweak, but it’s a wholesale perspective change.”

Josh cites another example in the Bellwether project, which started in 1992 as a biennial sculpture show with a typical “arts in the parks” approach. This year, Bellevue changed the format to multi-disciplinary arts in order to open up the definition of ‘artist’ in selection processes. “In a lot of immigrant communities and communities of color, “artist” means performing artists, musicians, storytellers. In this way, Bellevue can recognize that every community has its artists.”

artwork from past Bellwether exhibitArtwork from past Bellwether event

In these ways, Josh’s development philosophy advocates moving away from a monopolistic arts industry, and towards an arts ecosystem. “What do you need for a system? You need multiple points. You need interdependency. You need connection. I would love to be able to say in the future that I’ve helped to develop one of these ecosystems, based on partnerships between different entities, like local and state governments, philanthropy, and local communities.”