Stirring Up the Bay Area’s Asian Arts Scene
In 1965, Alice Goon Lowe ’48 asked her boss—advertising icon (and iconoclast) Howard Gossage—for some time off.
Lowe was then working at the small San Francisco ad agency Freeman, Mander, and Gossage, which had made a reputation for itself by using a single print ad to help the Sierra Club stop the Grand Canyon from being dammed and flooded. “If a proposed account was harmful to the environment,” Lowe says, “or if it was a product Howard wouldn’t use himself, he wouldn’t take that account.”
Lowe was moving up the ladder at the firm and would eventually become CEO. Yet near the height of her climb, she decided she wanted time off to engage with her heritage and train as a docent at the local Asian cultural museum. Gossage replied: “Alice, you’re my contribution to culture.”
Forty-one years of volunteering later, the literature major’s resume reads like an art major’s career in civic leadership—president of the Society for Asian Art, first Asian chair of the Asian Art Commission of San Francisco, member of the San Francisco Arts Organization Task Force, and the list goes on.
Lowe’s achievements at Reed are equally impressive: this year she was honored with the Foster-Scholz Club’s Distinguished Service Award, and she recently established a charitable gift annuity to continue her legacy of service to the college.
“I wanted to do something a little bigger than my annual contributions,” she says.
Lowe came to the San Francisco Asian art scene as a self-described outsider. She grew up in Portland, one of four children of a Chinese immigrant father and a Chinese-American mother. Lowe characterizes her father as “remarkably broad-minded for his generation, and for a Chinese man in particular.” Her mother decided to dress the children in Western clothes, remarking, “It’s a changing world.”
Lowe’s intellectual curiosity led her to Reed, where the day-dodger (as students living off-campus were then called) learned to question her beliefs and assumptions. Crediting Reed faculty with guiding her intellectual formation, Lowe has directed the remainder of her charitable gift annuity toward faculty support.
Lowe says she didn’t feel discriminated against as a Chinese woman in the 1940s in Reed’s intellectual community. In fact, it was only when she and classmate Pauline Bodzek Hicklin ’48 moved to San Francisco together that she says she came face to face with ethnic and racial division. She saw segregation being imposed from the outside—through societal racism—and from within—through the Chinese community’s efforts at self-preservation.
“When I went to San Francisco in 1948, there was a great sense of isolation in Chinatown,” she says. “People there grew up accepting boundaries. I came in and said, ‘Why do we have these boundaries? Why do we have to stick to Chinatown?’ I guess I was a troublemaker.”
Lowe’s version of “trouble” is exemplified by a risk she took as board chair for the Asian Art Museum. She encouraged the museum to accept the city’s non-funded offer of old library space to house its collection. That decision launched a $40 million bond issue, resulting in a new home and identity for the museum.
Some challenges to the bond issue came from within the Asian community itself. “It’s often felt that museums are more interested in taking than in giving,” she says. “You can’t expect the public to donate, and then not donate [to the community] in return. So I made a point of attending the benefit events of other nonprofits, so they could see that the Asian Art Museum was interested in being a part of the community.”
Lowe holds community involvement as central to her fulfillment in life, whether helping to protect the Grand Canyon, serving on urban cultural committees, or simply giving a tour and convincing an elderly couple that the large rock that they had been using as a doorstop in their home for many years was actually a valuable piece of jade (of a lesser-known variety called nephrite).
It is likely that Howard Gossage knew what kind of gift he was giving when he made his “contribution to culture.” At Howard’s early death, Alice Lowe closed the ad agency to preserve its place in advertising history, and to dedicate herself full time to San Francisco’s Asian art scene.