Founder’s Statement

Yuko Nii, founder and DirectoryOctober, 1996

To write about the Williamsburg Art & Historical Center’s mission and my vision in creating it, I have to go back to my past.

In 1876 the American missionary, Dr. Williams S. Clark founded the Sapporo Agricultural College (currently Hokkaido University) in Hokkaido, Japan. From a very early age, I was struck by his famous words, “Boys, Be Ambitious!” His words have always been a driving force in me, both encouraging and influential. This is especially so because I had seen the great misery and devastation in Japan during and after World War II, where I spent the first twenty years of my life. I saw how my people, my country struggled and survived one of the worst periods of human history. Japan is a nation of beautiful culture – well structured and respectful of tradition, but rigid in many ways.

I dreamt a big dream. I dreamt of a big country. I felt a strong force tugging at me. And in 1963, at the age of 20, I left my country for the United States, “the land of opportunity” and a country of freedom and democracy. So I wanted to go there and pursue my dream of being an artist.

When I decided to leave, my parents told me, “Yuko, you have a good life here, why do you choose a hard life in a foreign country?” But when they saw my strong determination, they finally concurred; a hard life at a young age enriches your future if you are willing to learn from it.

Needless to say, my new life in America, first as a foreign student and later as an artist, especially as a woman, was not easy. I never expected it to be. I encountered endless hardship, but in the process of learning and creating, there is always a challenge and struggle. There is also joy and satisfaction, for to create is to encompass one’s collective life experiences that result in the discovery of one’s self. It is a pleasure to see one’s own growth in the process of learning and creating.

I chose to be a painter, but I was also deeply interested in other creative areas: dance, music, theater, literature, classics as well as contemporary works. I took advantage of what New York City had to offer—this richly diverse cultural center of the world. My heart and mind belongs here! While I was earning a living teaching fine art and woodworking, I pursued painting, stage set and costume design, graphic design, performance art, and writing. As they say, “An artist may be poor in pocketbook but is rich in heart.” I was no exception.

During my period of struggle, I met many insightful, interesting and wonderful people who supported and helped me in many ways. They were and continue to be my dearest friends and mentors. I could never thank them enough for what they offered me. I would occasionally present them with small gifts, but some would refuse the gifts saying, “Yuko, we happily did what we were able to do for you. We do not expect anything in return. Instead, we hope that you will do the same for others in the future, if possible.” These wise words moved me so much that I started thinking seriously about how to fulfill their wish and express my gratitude. And, at the same time I started to appreciate the unique American spirit of “Charity and Volunteerism.” There are numerous individuals, organizations, foundations and corporations in this country, donating their time, labor, goods and money to needy people. And I was a recipient of some of their American goodwill and generosity for which I was very thankful.

I was using my living room as my studio for several years after my graduation from Pratt Institute. But as the size of my paintings started to grow and the number of my artworks increased, I needed to find a larger studio to work on large projects during summer vacation away from school teaching in the city. Since I couldn’t afford a studio space in the city, I started looking elsewhere. To my delight I found one in upstate New York with a good size brick building, having a storefront and 2 apartments on the 2nd floor. Right away I bought it. Since the condition of the building was very poor, I had to renovate it totally by myself and sometimes with the help of my friends. The newly renovated space became my studio and summer residence to get away from the city ‘s hectic life and heat so that I could concentrate on my work in the spacious studio and in the peaceful quite country. I was happy.

Although I then had limited resources, I started contemplating ways to create an art foundation. Then it occurred to me that I could possibly fund my plans by doing what I had done on my property upstate, that is, renovating old income producing properties and renting them out. Thus, at age forty, I set about purchasing properties in need of restoration. I knew I could renovate the buildings by myself, since I was a handy person and contractor, which would save money, and I could hopefully make them more valuable for the future. I looked forward to the day that these assets would enable me to establish a modest, but well-endowed foundation in Brooklyn where my art career began. You see, in 1969 I finished my Master’s Degree at Pratt institute in Brooklyn, New York. I consider Brooklyn my home.

In 1976 I quit teaching in order to more seriously pursue my art career. Because of my need for a year-round studio in the city, I started looking for an affordable property. I found one in Williamsburg, Brooklyn through a New York Times ad. I purchased it right away without thinking twice. I didn’t know that Williamsburg was known as one of the heaviest drug dealing places, and therefore, one of the most dangerous places in New York City. No decent person wanted to buy the properties or move here. No wonder the property was indeed cheap! After an extensive renovation, I started living and working in the top floor loft, while I started renting other floors to young artists. This was 1986.

Sooner or later, I started recognizing that many more young artists were moving in to live and work, and some started to perform in run down vacant factory buildings or opened up small galleries. Williamsburg was beginning to flourish as an active international artist community with artists not only from the U.S.A. but also from abroad. But there were still only a few places for them to exhibit or perform. I started to realize more and more that there was a strong need for a larger scale exhibition and performance space.

Walking around the neighborhood, I discovered a vacant looking old three-story mansion standing quietly on Broadway @ Bedford Avenue. A bronze plaque on the front façade (soon disappeared) said “New York City’s Landmark, 1966.” Ever since I became very curious about this mysterious building, and wishing to see the inside became my obsession. The front doors were always closed, showing no sign of any activities in the building. But one day in early 1996, I saw a sign on one of the windows, “Building for Sale.” My heart jumped with delight. I called the telephone number on the sign, and made an appointment with the owner of the building. Finally I was able to enter it! Each floor had it’s own distinctively unique character, as attractive as the exterior. I fell in love with this New York City Landmark, a French Second Empire masterpiece dating back to 1867, a vision started to form in my mind immediately: the vision of a multi faceted art center.

So, I put aside my future plan of establishing my foundation so that I could pursue the art center first. Coincidentally, Terrance Lindall, an artist and old friend, expressed his desire to collaborate in the establishment of a non-profit arts center. In late 1996, my multifaceted, multicultural art center opened, and I named it the “Williamsburg Art and Historical Center” (the WAH Center). WAH means in Japanese, Harmony or Peace or Unity. I wanted the WAH Center to be a place where art and people meet in peace and harmony, making unity through the universal language of art.

Although the Center is a huge undertaking, my wish to satisfy the obligation to my good American benefactors for their kindness will encourage me to go on with genuine support and help from others, as I have been already overwhelmed in recent months by the enthusiasm and willingness of artists, good friends, staff members and volunteers. Each contributes what he or she can: time, energy, experience, skills, and spiritual support. I have no doubt in our ability to produce excellent, diverse and stimulating programs.

As you see, Dr. Clark’s words, “Boys, Be Ambitious,” has stayed with me well beyond my youth! And I firmly believe that the fulfillment of big dreams is still possible in America, “the land of opportunity.”

With this project I wish to express my heartfelt appreciation to this wonderful country, it’s people, and also my parents, who have provided me comfort and security, as well as deep love and understanding throughout my life. All of those made this Center possible. Please join us.

With Gratitude,

Yuko Nii

Founder & Artistic Director
Williamsburg Art & Historical Center (WAH Center)