Fight Over Art Sale Forged the Japanese 
American Confinement Sites Consortium

August 16, 2019 • National, News

Participating in the JASCS panel discussion are, from left, Larry Oda, Mia Russell, Shirley Ann Higuchi, Norman Mineta and moderator David Inoue (Photo: Julie Abo)

The formation of the JACS Consortium in 2018, its united platform and where it goes from here to preserve the JA legacy.

By Ray Locker

The Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation’s legal action to stop the sale of artwork created inside the World War II Japanese American concentration camps led to the creation of a consortium aimed at supporting the efforts to restore all of the wartime confinement sites, former Cabinet Sec. Norman Mineta said.

Mineta spoke on a panel about the Japanese American Confinement Sites Consortium on Aug. 2 at the JACL National Convention in Salt Lake City. He said the move, led by HMWF Board Chair Shirley Ann Higuchi in 2015, stopped the proposed sale in its tracks and encouraged Japanese American groups to get together to push for their common interests.

The action spurred by Higuchi and the Heart Mountain board also involved the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo and a coalition of activists led by Nancy Ukai of 50 Objects. After they stopped the auction, Mineta said, the groups decided to come together to boost the efforts of all confinement sites.

Mineta’s remarks came during the first of three panels or meetings about the JACSC during the JACL convention. They involved Brian Liesinger, the former Heart Mountain executive director who is now the JACSC coordinator; former JACL president Floyd Mori; Mia Russell, the executive director of Friends of Minidoka; Larry Oda, the chairman of the National Japanese American Memorial Foundation; and Kathy Masaoka, a longtime activist affiliated with the Manzanar Committee.

JACSC: A Plan to Improve Sites

JACSC is aimed at using money provided by the federal Japanese American Confinement Sites program, which is administered by the National Park Service and Interior Department. It was created from a 2006 law that Mori and others helped push through Congress.

Mori said he was helped by his alliances with Republican members of Congress, though he was a Democrat. Rep. Bill Thomas, the Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee in 2006, was a friend of Mori’s from their service in the California Assembly in the 1970s, and Thomas shepherded the bill through Congress.

It turned out, Mori said, that Thomas had known Japanese Americans in his hometown of Bakersfield, Calif., who had been incarcerated during World War II. “Tough as nails Bill Thomas,” Mori said, getting tearful every time the subject came up.

The initial authorization for JACS was $38 million, of which about $2.9 million was granted in 2018. But last year and this year, the Trump administration proposed eliminating the program’s budget, only to have bipartisan majorities in Congress restore the funding.

That is why, Mori and Higuchi emphasized in their panel, that it is important to have allies on both sides of Congress and in government agencies. Minidoka’s Russell recommended staying in contact with Interior and Park Service officials as budget decisions are being made.

During the consortium’s February 
meeting in Washington, D.C., JACSC members met with dozens of members of Congress, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who urged them to not only seek funding from the current program but also push for its permanent reauthorization.

An NPS official at the JACL convention said the decisions about 2020 grants were due in the next week or so.

The Failed Auction

Allen Hendershot Eaton had gathered art from the various camps during the war and published a book publicizing it. After his death, the art passed to his daughter, and after her death to a neighbor and then to his son, who tried to sell it via the Rago Auction House of New Jersey.

Heart Mountain officials offered $50,000 for all of the artwork before it was set to go to auction, though the estimated value of all the pieces was only $26,000. The high 
offer was made to test the good faith of the owner in a legal effort to exhaust all of the possible remedies, which made it ripe for legal action.

Liesinger, then the Heart Mountain executive director, and Doug Nelson, the board’s vice chair, worked closely with Higuchi to raise the money for the art and legal action.

Once the higher offer was rejected, the Heart Mountain board believed the owner had not shown good faith. They hired a New Jersey law firm to file an injunction against the Rago Auction House. That legal action led to the cancellation of the auction and the purchase of the artwork by the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.

Ukai created a Facebook group that put pressure on the sellers, and actor George Takei participated in the protests.

The failed sale, as well as some hard 
feelings stirred by the wrangling over the art, led Heart Mountain officials to join with JANM President and CEO Ann Burroughs and the JACL to push for the creation of the JASCS consortium.

Stan Shikuma of the Seattle JACL chapter said earlier this year that the consortium’s work was the closest collaboration between Japanese American groups since the push for redress for the World War II incarceration in the 1970s and ’80s.

Kathy Masaoka of the Manzanar Committee echoed that comment during one of the JACSC panels at the JACL convention, saying it’s essential that the groups maintain their current unity to tell the story about the incarceration and to prevent it from happening again.

To sum up the panel, moderator and JACL Executive Director David Inoue said, “I hope you have all seen why JACL has taken such a role in this consortium. … It’s important to remember where we came from but also where we go from here. What difference can we make in this country? What is our moral compass? What are we going to do to make this country better and make this organization better in our effort?”

Through the efforts of the JACS Consortium, solid progress has been made as a unifying body committed to working together.

“Advocating is very important. … We must be protective of other communities and use the experience of the Japanese Americans as a lesson in terms of what to do in the future. So, it’s really an issue of maintaining our relevancy, but we are too small of a community to do it in silos, we have to do it together as a team,” said Higuchi.

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