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An Interview with Boon Hui Tan of Asia Society

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An Interview with Boon Hui Tan of Asia Society
Image courtesy of National Heritage Board, Singapore

Founded in 1956, Asia Society is a leading nonprofit educational organization with offices across the world, promoting cross-cultural understanding and partnerships. This year, Asia Society celebrates its 60th anniversary. We interviewed Boon Hui Tan, Vice President for Global Arts & Cultural Programs & Director of Asia Society Museum, to find out what the organization has planned for the next sixty years.

 

You have two roles within the organization, Vice President for Global Arts & Cultural Programs & Director of Asia Society Museum – can you describe a bit more about what you do for each role?

As Director of the Asia Society Museum, I am responsible for the running of the Museum as a globally-recognised cultural institution focusing on the visual arts of Asia, traditional and contemporary forms. The work includes collections development, exhibition development, education and international exchange, among others. My other role as Vice President, Global Arts & Cultural Programs is wider, and I lead the global strategy for the arts and cultural pillar within the Asia Society. It also includes developing the non-visual art aspects of the culture programming, namely performing arts, moving image and literary programs.

Installation view of current exhibition "In and Out of Context"
Image: Perry Hu

Asia Society continues to be one of the premier institutions in the West, providing “greater knowledge of Asia” to the rest of the world, as was its original mandate. What do you think the role of Asia Society is now, in the modern globalized world? 

On May 23, I did a public presentation of my arts strategy which was meant to communicate my take on the role of the arts pillar within Asia Society and the subsequent programming that I will roll out. This organisation is globally respected and in fact built its arts reputation on its pioneering efforts in establishing the position of Asian art and artists in the global narrative of art. The Asia Society was one of the institutions which popularised contemporary art from China in the USA, for instance through projects like Inside Out: New Chinese Art, or showed contemporary work from then relatively unknown scenes such as Southeast Asia (Contemporary Art in Asia: Traditions/Tensions ). To me, it was interesting and moving that I came to the Asia Society on the eve of its 60th Anniversary, in Chinese culture, being 60 years old meant you had a good full life, so the next 60 years are really an opportunity to dream of a new world. The original mandate of building bridges between the USA/West and a rising Asia is still relevant. Within the arts, I thought it was important also to respond to the exigencies of our times, the stresses and faultlines as they affect the work that we do as arts professionals. My proposal was that the purpose of the arts in Asia Society was to help people see and understand the worlds and experiences of the Other. I believe that the arts is vital in our current period of tribalism, of forces that are closing our minds and borders, of the slouch towards isolationism. We need the arts to help us see lives and worlds that are not only unfamiliar to us, but let's be honest, also unnatural to us. Culture is the battlefield of our current era and the arts must rise to the challenge rather than be content with spectacle, auction records and trophies of shiny baubles collected by the one per cent.

 

You’ve always stressed connecting with people – whether it’s the people behind the art, or the audience of the programs you put forward. How do you manage the different programming at the Asia Society’s many centers and offices (NYC, Washington DC, Houston, San Francisco, HK, Manila, Mumbai, Seoul, Shanghai, Sydney) around the world? How does programming differ in the Asian centers, versus the ones in the United States?

Each of our centres are rooted in their specific local context so they are able to program independently. Their audiences are different and so are the artists that work in their vicinity. I think this kind of ability to capture a diversity of contexts is a key strength of the Asia Society, we don't replicate programs in different contexts but organically create them in dialogue with the locality. What I am trying to do with our centres is more at the level of strategy, to try and develop in conversation threads that could run through the arts programs in the wider organisation, but also possibilities for sharing and collaborating on specific programs of shared interest.

Asia Society Hong Kong Center
© Michael Moran

You worked for many years primarily in contemporary Southeast Asian Art, as Director of the Singapore Art Museum, and even in your role as artistic director of Singapore Festival in France. How have you found the move to managing not just Asia Society’s contemporary collection but its extensive collection of traditional art as well? What are your plans for expanding on either collection?

That's an interesting question. Very few people know that I actually began as a curator of traditional material, specfically ethnographic objects from the island cultures of Southeast Asia. I suppose it's a consequence of the fact that I became known for international projects around Southeast Asian contemporary art. So in essence coming to Asia Society is like a homecoming, and a dream come true. Within the museum, I can now really deal with the full visual expression of Asian cultural production across time and space. One of the current displays on the collection is called 'In and Out of Context' and looks at how the meaning that we give and how we look at art objects changes, depending on its display context. The curators wrestled and debated extensively to distill a group of objects both traditional and contemporary, i.e. video and photography that could speak to each other across time and space. It's not just about saying what has remained unchanged, but also what has possibly changed in Asia. Then of course, through our performing arts program, we are able to interrogate how the living bodies of artists work through and create cultural forms and expressions of identity. This is a wonderful place to be in right now as we are both a museum and an arts center.

 

A growing number of institutions in Asia are private museums of collectors’ artworks. What do you think of this trend and how do you see it shaping the overall art scene within Asia? 

I think it has a lot to do with the relative underdevelopment of cultural infrastructure by the public sector. The growth of private museums in Asia is a genuine creative response to the lack of public sector investment. In some places, they are one of the ways in which the public is exposed to visual art on a consistent basis. At the same time, it's quite amusing that it's so easy for the press sometimes to proclaim so-and-so suddenly a 'world class museum.' What does that even mean once we look at it globally? The jury is really still out, and we must remember that museums like the Louvre or the British Museum represent more than 1-2 hundred years of cultural investment.  So in Asia, in terms of museology, we are still in the early phases. My hope is that enough of these private museums last long enough to entrench themselves in their local contexts, and that they develop into sustainable organisations that will have a life beyond that of their individual founder/s.

""05.03.65—Pour mon frère Wu- Wai (05.03.65—For my brother Wu-Wai)" by Zao Wou-Ki
Photography by Michelle Geoga, 2012

Coming from an Asian perspective, how have you seen reception of Asian art around the world change over the past ten years?

The level of awareness is certainly much higher than ever and people are interested. The challenge is there is too much heat and noise generated by the commercial sector of auction houses, fairs and mega galleries. A high price is not really a good criteria for quality of art and more importantly, whether an artist will continue to flourish and grow in the long term. And I think there also needs to be more public education to help individuals look at art beyond the shiny bauble and spectacle. Contemporary art is important for so many other reasons and those of us working in arts institutions need to say more forcefully and creatively why one should look at complex, nuanced works that require close inspection and introspection.

 

Lastly, what plans do you and Asia Society have for the rest of 2016 that we can look forward to?

In September we open a show of Zao Wu-Ki, the first US retrospective of his work since 1968 and the show really shows how his visual style was forged from his encounters with both the Western European and Chinese artistic traditions. We open the show with a group of odd transitional works that show how he used oracle bone inscriptions and Zhou bronze inscriptions as the basis of his journey to abstraction. I love this show for its take on what it means to belong to two worlds and still be true to both. At its heart, the message is that encounters with other worlds and cultures enrich us all.

 

 



Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.



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