Adriel’s Winding Path
I met Adriel Luis a decade ago when he was a participant in a fellowship program I was advising. Adriel, 39, lives in Los Angeles, CA. transitioned from being a graphic designer and performer to serving as the Curator of Digital and Emerging Practice for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. He received a BS in Community & Regional Development along with a minor in Asian American Studies.
In two-three sentences how would you describe what you do most days/weeks?
I collaborate with artists, scholars, and community organizers to bring creative projects to life. The Asian Pacific American Center is unique at the Smithsonian because we’re not a traditional museum, and I love that this allows us to explore topics and mediums in fluid and complex ways. I gravitate towards projects that aren’t cleanly categorized by specific identity markers or formats, and I like exploring issues that don’t yet have clear answers. My recent curated projects include Bravespace – a compilation of music and visuals by Asian American women and nonbinary artists themed on collective healing; and In the Future Our Asian Community is Safe – a mural accompanied by augmented reality, created by Jess X. Snow, Wiena Lin, and the W.O.W. Project in Manhattan’s Chinatown, that explores Asian American safety and solidarity with the area’s Indigenous and Black histories.
Photo credit: Jess X. Snow
What did you want to be when you were eight?
A zookeeper. My mom told me we went to the San Diego Zoo and I loved the elephants so much that I said I wanted to clean up their poop.
What did you learn about work that you learned from your family?
My mom is a graphic designer and my dad is a computer engineer, so in hindsight it kind of makes sense that I have so much interest in merging art and technology. But beyond their hard skills that rubbed off on me, the biggest influence my family had on me is a strong sense of community. I grew up in a tightly-knit extended family, and my parents were very active in their church…so even though my parents’ jobs have always been quite solitary, I was raised to make it my purpose to care for those around me.
What professional experiences/employers had the greatest impact on you?
I started writing and performing poetry in high school, and in college I founded iLL-Literacy, a spoken word organization that eventually became a collective of full-time artists. It blew my mind that, despite my formal education, having a successful career meant carving my own path, and doing it with my best friends. We spent a decade touring, mostly performing at colleges throughout the country including towns and regions that I otherwise would never have known existed, not to mention visit. Touring was also my ticket to traveling internationally for the first time. It opened my world, and expanded my notion of what a “community” could be.
What is something about your career journey that people might not expect?
Most museum curators hold advanced degrees, so it surprises people that almost all of what I do at my job is self-taught or learned informally. My focuses are in art and technology; I’ve never taken an art history class but I’ve excelled working with artists because I am an artist and we stay inspired by studying the art histories that influence us. My understanding of technology comes from teaching myself how to code and wandering the internet ever since my dad brought home a dial-up modem when I was in middle school. When I applied for my job at the Smithsonian, I had never held a full-time job so I had to jerry-rig my resume of artist-slash-freelancer into the very rigid USAjobs.gov application…I was pretty sure I wasn’t qualified and I almost didn’t bother to apply! When I was offered the job, they told me it was because my background was so unconventional.
Why did you pivot?
Throughout the earlier part of my career I relished the fact that I could make my own hours, but by the time I turned 30 I realized the toll it was taking on me to not be able to set boundaries. I was working through the night and never took full weekends or holidays off – so even though I could be my own boss, I wasn’t bossing myself well. I had always been resistant to the idea of holding a 9-to-5, but once I became open to it, I discovered that there were paths I could take that could inspire me in new and profound ways – plus, I could actually clock out from it! When I accepted my job I envisioned it as a new experience that I might move on from after a couple of years, but a decade later I’m still here because it continues to push me to think bigger.
What skills were portable from what you had been doing previously and what was brand new to you?
I entered the museum field with absolutely no background knowledge of how museums operate, and even though that was intimidating, it also was liberating to look at things with new eyes. It was fascinating and humbling to approach my job as if I were a student, and to soak it all up like a sponge. Because I had spent my time as a freelancer working in different regions and professional fields, I was used to being okay with asking very basic questions, and I embraced the fact that my role in the conversation was to point out the things that are invisible to those who have been in it for so long. On the flip side, ideas and tendencies that came naturally to me were seen as refreshing and innovative, and it was invigorating to find a whole new audience for them. I discovered that there’s so much we can learn from each other when we step outside of our silos, and part of my job is to transfer knowledge among the different worlds that I have access to.
What was the hardest part about making a career pivot?
The bureaucracy can be truly mind-numbing! In my work as an artist and designer, we move quickly, often based on gut feeling. Working within an institution is the polar opposite, and in the beginning I was frustrated by how even the tiniest thing has to go through rounds of decisions and tons of paperwork. But I also realized that oftentimes people in institutions avoid taking necessary risk by hiding behind the red tape. Early in my career, I met a curator, Kitty Scott, who described her job as “turning no into yes.” That completely unlocked how I view bureaucracy, as a series of puzzles waiting to be solved.
What were the most important lessons you’ve picked up along the way?
I really can’t stress the importance of understanding the nature of bureaucracy, and the role it plays in impeding creativity and necessary change. Think about all the times that convoluted customer service centers, confusing paperwork, and administrative obstacles have discouraged you from advocating for yourself in your daily life…by definition, these systems are in place to streamline banality and minimize the extraordinary from happening. But where bureaucracies really mutate is when those who don’t understand the system start making assumptions that restrictions are in place when they’re really not – it just seems like they probably are. During my first few years on the job I came across people who tried to kill some good ideas simply because they assumed it was against the rules because it hadn’t been done before. It became clear to me that if I kept letting that happen I would become numb to it and my bar would be set lower and lower. I had to pore over handbooks and policies in order to be able to move through the bureaucracies more confidently. As resistant as I’ve been to administrative work my entire life, I’ve learned that the only way to effectively maneuver within a complex system is to vividly understand it.
What would you say to others who are doubting their ability to make a change in their career/vocation?
Career stability in this day and age is a myth. Even if you’re in a rare circumstance where your place of employment and your field are never affected by the economy, world events, and cultural shifts, it’s likely that your interests, skills, and vision for the world will continue to evolve. Jobs aren’t made to grow with a person. So the question is not so much about whether to make a change, but on whose watch will the change be made, and how much agency will you have in it. Regardless of the outcome of this change, after it happens you’ll be more experienced in navigating change, which is an invaluable life skill.
Where did you get the confidence and support to make such a change?
Growing up in a community of artists, most of us have gone through the motions of doubt when deciding whether to leave a seemingly-stable career path and take a risk on one’s calling. I’ve been fortunate to receive sound advice from people around me when I considered switching majors in college, moving on from a pretty good part-time job early in my adulthood, and the many paths I’ve taken since then. These days I love talking with students and young artists about their aspirations – even in moments when I’m feeling really comfortable where I am, these conversations keep me on my toes and keep me evaluating if where I am is where I should be.
What was the hardest thing you had to overcome in your professional life?
Every day I struggle with whether or not I’ve done enough to feed my own creativity. I know that my imagination is my juju that got me my job and keeps me good at it – I could complete all my assignments for the day but if I didn’t utilize my creativity, the work could’ve been done by anyone else. When I was a full-time artist, the notion that I was being creative seemed to be a given – even if I was doing admin all day, there was still a creative personal project that I could point to it all being for. Now that much of the work that I do is in service of something bigger than me, it’s ever-more important for me to be assertive and pronounced with how my creativity is exercised. Most importantly, I’ve had to learn that my job can’t be the only place where I invest all of my creativity and hopes for how I contribute to the world. Every time I’ve fallen into that, I end up discontent and disappointed.
What, if anything, are you hoping happens next in your professional life?
I’ve spent so much of my time embedded in hustle culture, and I’ve brought a lot of that with me into my job. The pandemic period taught me how vital it is to slow down and be more intentional with my energy – not only to prevent burnout but to savor the results of the hard work. Over the past couple of years my list of professional accomplishments has minimized, but the quality of each of them is more reflective of the kind of person I want to be for the world and for myself.
I entered the field with absolutely no background knowledge of how museums operate, and even though that was intimidating, it also was liberating to look at things with new eyes. It was fascinating and humbling to approach my job as if I were a student, and to soak it all up like a sponge. Because I had spent my time as a freelancer working in different regions and professional fields, I was used to being okay with asking very basic questions, and I embraced the fact that my role in the conversation was to point out the things that are invisible to those who have been in it for so long. On the flip side, ideas and tendencies that came naturally to me were seen as refreshing and innovative, and it was invigorating to find a whole new audience for them. I discovered that there’s so much we can learn from each other when we step outside of our silos, and part of my job is to transfer knowledge among the different worlds that I have access to.