El Segundo’s new Cultural Arts Coordinator, Cultural Development and Communications, Sam Lee, has a professional background in art collections and management, public art, and art history. His childhood, set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, was equally remarkable.
By Maureen Kingsley
El Segundo’s new head of art and culture brings to his role a deep knowledge of art history, a background in public art and collections management, and years of teaching experience. He is also a first-generation Vietnamese survivor of the Vietnam War with an extraordinary personal history.
“I was born in 1969 and lived through the war,” says Sam of his early childhood in Vietnam, which coincided with the conflict in that country that spanned two decades and resulted in the deaths of two million Vietnamese civilians, one million North Vietnamese soldiers, and 58,000 U.S. service members. Young Sam and his family attempted, in 1975, to flee Vietnam, but their efforts were thwarted, and each of the 12 family members was consequently imprisoned. Sam, the youngest of the 10 siblings, was sent with his grandmother and mother to the women-and-children wing of a war prison, and his father—a photojournalist and newspaper owner—was imprisoned separately, in a wing housing men. Sam’s siblings were sent to various other camps. The family was essentially split apart, not to be fully reunited for many years. Sam was only six years old at that time.
“I was imprisoned for about two weeks,” Sam recalls. “One memory I have of my imprisonment is of the women—the moms—in the camp hanging up articles of clothing in the big, single-room bathroom, in an attempt to create some privacy.”
From that prison camp, Sam was relocated with some—but not all—of his siblings (and neither of his parents) to Taiwan, where he remained for two years before an American aunt on his father’s side met with a wealthy couple from her church and asked them to sponsor the emigration of Sam and one of his brothers to the United States.
The couple agreed, and Sam and his brother flew to Monterey Park, California, to start new lives with their aunt. Sam’s father remained a prisoner of war, performing hard labor for the Vietcong, and his mother stayed in Vietnam to be near him.
“I remember feeling very welcome here in the U.S.” as a Vietnamese immigrant, Sam says of that momentous turning point in his life. He grew close to his aunt and remains grateful to her for providing him a home and safety, and for meeting all of his material needs. He formed relationships with his cousins, too, but did not see his parents for nine full years.
When Sam’s parents did finally arrive to the United States, nearly 10 years after Sam and his brother did, a teenage Sam felt like he didn’t really know them. From the beginning, he “recognized their love and sacrifice,” he explains, but it wasn’t until later in life that he was able to truly know them as people and re-establish a relationship with them.
Today, both of Sam’s parents are deceased, his aunt in Monterey Park is alive but experiencing some decline, two brothers are deceased, one brother lives in France, and Sam’s remaining siblings live in the San Gabriel Valley. Reflecting on his painful early years, Sam candidly acknowledges the trauma experienced by everyone in his family. “There is PTSD. Each of us siblings has coped with it differently,” he says. He adds that he remains close with his sisters and his immediate older brother.
As a young adult (who had already lived a lifetime of experiences), Sam set off for college at U.C. Riverside intending to study business, but after enrolling in an art history class, he “was hooked” and changed his course of study from business to art history. He earned a Master’s degree in that discipline and embarked on a career in collections management. In San Francisco Sam coordinated artworks at the SFO museum, and in Los Angeles he managed collections for LACMA. Sam also established his own fine-art gallery in the arts district of Chinatown in Los Angeles for six years, representing local and national artists after working for four separate dealers over a 10-year period. “My interest in public art came later,” he says.
Most recently, Sam worked for LA Metro’s Arts & Design Department, where he curated light boxes at six Metro stations, including Union Station, and was heavily involved with the agency’s “More People Than You Know” and “Through the Eyes of Artists” series of public artworks, which celebrate various Los Angeles neighborhoods. Concurrently, he taught art history as an adjunct professor at Los Angeles-area community colleges.
When a colleague tipped-off Sam to El Segundo’s new, open Cultural Arts Coordinator position, Sam was immediately interested, having visited El Segundo numerous times on his recreational cycling excursions up and down the coast of the Santa Monica Bay. “El Segundo is a frequent cycling stop for me,” Sam says, “so I was already familiar with the city in that regard.” Sam applied, was selected for the position, and began the job in April of this year.
Steering El Segundo Arts + Culture Initiatives
In his role as cultural arts coordinator, cultural development and communications, Sam works closely with the city’s Arts & Culture Advisory Committee, Community Services Director Melissa McCollum, and Senior Librarian, Cultural Development and Communications Julie Todd to bring art and cultural opportunities to the city of El Segundo and its residents. Already, during his four months on the job, he has worked with the El Segundo Public Library staff and local artist Natalie Strong on plans to reactivate and fund the library’s Room of Requirement, a space for temporary art exhibits. As part of this initiative, he has applied for one of the IMLS American Rescue Plan grants that provides funding for arts and culture agencies and nonprofits in the wake of the pandemic shutdown. Sam also leads oversight of the city’s Cultural Development Program, which requires developers of large commercial projects in El Segundo to either contribute 1% of the development costs to a city arts and culture fund or produce and install a public artwork on their developed property.
“There are so many possibilities for art and culture in El Segundo,” Sam says. “I look forward to bringing additional value to the city and its residents,” he adds. “My job is about serving the community and the people who spend time here by hearing what they want and reflecting that in my work.”
Contact Sam by email at slee3[at]elsegundo.org. Learn more about El Segundo’s Cultural Development Program and the Arts & Culture Advisory Committee at elsegundolibrary.org.