Born in the Philippines and raised in the industrial port city of Long Beach, California, Francis Cullado didn’t grow up going to museums or galleries. However, chance encounters with enthusiastic mentors, an internship opportunity, and a chili cookoff helped him forge a career in the visual arts.

Cullado is the executive director of Visual Communications, an organization based in Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo that connects communities through arts and culture, and is specifically focused on the work of Asian American and Pacific Islander filmmakers. He began working at the organization through a summer internship, and 18 years later it’s become much more meaningful to him than just a career.

Young man standing next to a brick wall with a sign that says Little Tokyo Historic District

Francis Cullado at Visual Communications in Little Tokyo

His interest in the arts began when, while working in college for the Long Beach Unified School District, Cullado walked into the classroom of Steve Nagano, a teacher who had participated in Asian American civil rights movements over the decades. Nagano became a mentor to Cullado, and introduced him to the documentary filmmaking created around these movements, many of which have been collected by Visual Communications as part of their archive.

With Nagano’s urging, Cullado applied for a full-time, paid internship at Visual Communications that was offered through the Getty Marrow Undergraduate Internship program.

“That was the time when I first saw a world outside of the Long Beach area,” Cullado said. “Going to the Getty and other museums after growing up in a low-income neighborhood and seeing that world as untouchable, then realizing through the internship that people of color were also a part of this world.”

One rite of passage for new interns at Visual Communications was ChiliVisions, a program that brought together local community organizations for a chili competition. Interns would assist with planning the event, which was documented every year and the resulting film was shared with the participants. The late Linda Mabalot, a former Visual Communications executive director and another of Cullado’s early mentors, championed the program.

“I was so enamored with the idea of putting food, cinema, and community together—it was not the typical museum internship experience,” Cullado said.

Cullado continued to be inspired by the organization’s mission and its close connection to its surrounding neighborhoods and returned to Visual Communications as a full-time staff member after receiving his graduate degree in 2010. He believes the work of the organization is more relevant than ever, especially with the renewed interest in social justice issues nationwide.

“As a society, if we fail to center the experiences of our communities, then our artistic and cultural creations will also be placed at the margins,” Cullado said.

The recent release of an impact report about the Getty’s internship program reveals a similar sentiment among former interns: seeing yourself reflected in an institution and its mission matters.

Today, Cullado manages a number of programs that are a part of Visual Communications’ mission, the largest of which is the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, one of the longest-running film festivals in the city. The organization also funds the Armed with a Camera Fellowship, which supports emerging filmmakers under 30 by offering mentoring, training, networking opportunities, access to facilities and equipment, and a cash stipend to create a five-minute short film. To share the important storytelling and perspectives of often-underserved senior communities, the organization also supports Digital Histories, which provides them documentary filmmaking opportunities and training.

Cullado notes that his early exposure to arts professionals from underrepresented backgrounds was critical to his chosen career. For those considering a similar path, he has some advice:

“There are times when I struggle with imposter syndrome—moments when I don’t think I am qualified or worthy to do what I do. As human beings, we’re always questioning our own value to this world. I overcome these doubts knowing that there are many people who believe in me, people who root for me. I want you to realize that people believed in you even before you started believing in yourself. Know that you are worthy, that you are qualified, and that you are, quite simply, enough.”

Applications for the 2021 Getty Marrow Undergraduate Internship program are now open.