Peter Chang was tired of being told, “No.”
In fact, it was the catalyst for starting his own way of doing things with business partner Brandon Hill in 2009 — including creating some of the District’s most iconic arts events made accessible to the general public. For well over a decade, Chang and Hill have been defying barriers to entry in D.C.’s creative community, challenging systems and carving out space for artists, creators and small business owners to flourish.
“We’re coalition-building — always,” Chang says, speaking to the impetus behind No Kings Collective (NKC), the creative production brand responsible for countless murals and installations throughout D.C. “We want to be able to truly create a sense of community.”
NKC continued to push the ball forward with their community-driven mission during the pandemic, delivering our city two much-needed and wildly successful events last November: their second Umbrella art market, a massive undertaking spanning three days, 25,000 square feet of event space and more than 100 participating artists, and their first Redeye Night Market.
Redeye paid homage to Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) foods and cultures, with 50,000 locals in attendance and $1 million in sales generated in one evening. The Pennsylvania Avenue event was free to attend, and each of the 53 vendors received 100% of their sales. Chang and his team covered all booth fees and infrastructure needs for participating vendors.
With plans to bring the market back in full force this fall on October 15, District Fray sat down with Chang just in time for AAPI Heritage Month to chat about his role as one of our city’s cultural connectors, the importance of supporting AAPI and other minority-owned businesses 365 days a year, and the intersection of food and art in the D.C. community.
Chang’s vision for Redeye had been in the works for years before coming to fruition, inspired by bustling night markets and big bazaars in Asia. But his motivation for making it happen kicked into high gear last year.
“With all of the instances of AAPI hate going on nationwide and worldwide, and how Covid was impacting small businesses and restaurants, it really hit a nerve for me,” he says. “I said, ‘This is the time to act.’ That’s how we mobilized and got everything together.”
He says the support for the AAPI community at last November’s event was incredible, noting the sheer number of people who turned out to experience and celebrate AAPI culture. The turnout far exceeded expectations, and Chang is already prepping for higher volume with his second annual event.
“We’re going to go bigger,” he notes. “We’re going to increase the floor plan. We’re going to increase the number of participating vendors.”
He’s planning on a more open flow this year, without any delays or longer-than-usual lines caused by checking vaccination cards. Everyone’s safety will continue to be a priority, but eased Covid restrictions should help with traffic control. Redeye’s next location is TBD, but Chang ensures it’ll be the right fit for his open-air market.
Redeye will fly solo this year, with Umbrella returning in 2023. Chang wants to give his team some time to regroup and think about where they want to take the art show next — and offer a brief hiatus from producing two enormous events back-to-back.
While NKC gears up for the night market, Chang is looking forward to AAPI-focused programming around the city this month across embassies, cultural groups and other organizations.
“AAPI Heritage Month has really grown to a place of significance and a lot more people are acknowledging it. Every year, it gets bigger and bigger, so that’s definitely a sign of progress.”
He cites D.C. as an excellent example of this progress, not only as the seat of power but also as a cultural melting pot.
“People who live in this area are probably the most educated about other cultures and ethnic groups. I think we’re doing great, but there’s always room for improvement. There’s always room for support.”
Chang doesn’t shy away from the fact that he finds the month of May exhausting, when people come out of the woodwork to ask him about Asian culture. While he’s completely supportive of dedicated months to highlight different communities, he says it all boils down to conscious spending year-round.
“January through December — go out and make your bucks count and support all the different businesses. Just consciously spending your dollars throughout the year is probably the most powerful thing anyone can do.”
Chang takes his words very seriously, including how he refers to himself in the context of his impact on the city’s cultural scene. He’s a changemaker, committed to challenging the status quo and keeping NKC’s authenticity intact — whether that’s up on the scaffolding for a new mural or creating inclusive events.
“The Redeye Night Market is our way of doing things because it breaks the traditional sense of how a food festival should operate,” he says. “Vendors are always charged a booth fee. People who want to come to an event are always charged a ticket price. We’re trying to completely eliminate all of that so it’s a more equitable process.”
He likens himself and Hill to disruptors, building new business models for their events that allow for additional resources and revenue opportunities for artists.
“There are always systems in place for everything, but no one ever stops to ask themselves, ‘Why?’ Once you start asking yourself ‘Why?’ you can actually come up with solutions to problems. And in doing so, you’re always going to disrupt the way others are doing things.”
NKC’s creative disruptions go back to the early days of the business when they were planning some of their first art activations. It wasn’t uncommon for them to pair together with local chefs, inviting them to try their hand at pop-ups as part of their art shows. Chang notes NKC’s first Art All Night event in 2011, Submerge, where James Beard-winning chef Tom Cunanan tried his hand at a Filipino pop-up. This was long before Cunanan’s Bad Saint days, and Chang speaks proudly of watching his career take off since their collaboration more than a decade ago.
Chang called other titans of our hospitality industry, Maketto’s Erik-Bruner Yang and Lucky Danger’s Tim Ma chief among them, his friends and collaborators long before they helped put our city’s food scene on the national map.
“A lot of people don’t know that story,” he says. “I think that’s why they’re like, ‘Why are these muralists doing a big food festival?’ It boils down to the community: the intersections of where we meet and the history of working with so many people in the [hospitality] industry over the years. It just made sense for us to expand and experiment with a project like this.”
Commonality is the key. Chang reiterates the universal nature of food and art within communities, and its ability to create connections and spark conversations.
“Ultimately, if people leave [our events] feeling like they can create something for themselves or wanting to continue to see that kind of cultural development in the city, that’s all we can ask for.”
The Long Game
The transient nature of D.C. isn’t lost on Chang. He readily accepts the ebbs and flows of our creative community, and aligns himself with those who lay down roots and continue to give back — long after personal or professional gain.
“I’m here to play the long game. I’m here to really build the city into a viable community, not to come in and selfishly take. I want to inspire people to create and actually be thoughtful about what they’re creating and what they want to do for the community.”
Disruption aside, Chang has earned a reputable spot as one of the District’s cultural thought leaders. He acts as an ambassador for emerging artists and small businesses, helping them create connections with some of the city’s most esteemed institutions and luminaries. Threading the needle of authenticity among up-and-coming creatives while garnering respect from our established art world is a precarious place to sit, and Chang feels the weight of that responsibility.
His relationship with the Hirshhorn Museum, for example, creates a platform for collaboration between different artist communities. We explored the buzzworthy “One with Eternity: Yayoi Kusama in the Hirshhorn Collection” exhibit, which opened in April, with Chang — a natural fit for this month’s cover shoot.
“The more that high arts organizations are aware of the [creative] community in general, the more opportunity we have to build a new foundation for the future.”
Chang sees the local arts community as a whole as receptive, and engaged, and wants to continue to support these changes.
The Fabric of Humanity
In his day-to-day with NKC, Chang says the foundation of their business remains the same.
“It’s all cultural programming and cultural content, with large sprinkles of art in common,” he says.
The scope of his team’s projects continues to shift. He and Hill are both aiming to have solo shows this year, and to complete several independent murals throughout the city.
“This year, Brandon and I want to find a couple of walls where we’re just like, ‘We’re going to put up art for us, for the sake of putting up art.’”
NKC has bigger projects in the works, most of which are yet-to-be-announced, but Chang teases one mural in National Landing that Hill is taking the lead on. Whether it’s commissioned works or personal projects, Chang will not stop amplifying the talent of his peers.
He recently tapped a close friend and one of NKC’s painters, Nia Keturah Calhoun, to replace their “There’s No Place Like Home” mural at the corner of 14th and S Streets in Northwest. The new mural, “Facing The Sun,” was completed last month in collaboration with organization Sista SCOTUS and celebrates Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s historic confirmation as the first Black woman to serve as a Supreme Court Justice.
The theme of community is unwavering for Chang. From murals to night markets, art is meant to be accessible to all.
He emphasizes that with very few exceptions, every NKC-produced event has been free, and he plans to keep it that way. He and Hill remember it being difficult for their parents to take them places that cost money when they were growing up; even $10 was a lot for their families.
He wants everyone in the D.C. community to feel welcome at NKC events and be inspired to go home and scratch that itch to create and connect.
“Because ultimately, what is community without connection? Having each other’s backs, understanding each other and helping each other — it’s literally the fabric of humanity.”
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