An intersection in Jhongjheng District, Taipei. Photo by Ann Woo for ArtAsiaPacific.


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A scandal recently left Taiwan’s top museum for modern and contemporary art, the Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM), without a director for  12 months. In truth, the museum had been  a rudderless ship since 2010, when then director Hsieh Hsiao-yun was alleged to be handing contracts for expensive displays of second-rate Impressionism to her daughter’s exhibition-production company. Hsieh and her hapless successor, Wu Kuang-ting, each resigned before anything was proven. But the “special exhibitions scandal,” as it became known, severely damaged the institution’s reputation and badly alienated  it from the community of local artists.

So, July’s appointment of new TFAM director Huang Hai-ming brought both relief, seeing the museum finally has a director, and apprehension, because, given that Huang is neither a politician nor a technocrat, but a scholar who actually  knows something about art, one wonders if he  can possibly last.

Nevertheless, we have Huang, as the 29-year-old institution’s seventh director. Huang designed Taiwan’s first graduate program akin to “curatorial studies” at Taipei Municipal University of Education. He has also launched at least two  semi-independent, student-run art spaces,  Nanhai Gallery and Wolong 29. Moreover, he has been critical of the city’s biennial for lacking Taiwanese subjectivity. One expects his ascension to this internationalist post will temper some  of these outsider, alternative and nativist views.

The main reason to be optimistic, however, is that Huang has not tried to conceal the museum’s gaping wounds. At his first press conference,  he directly addressed the special exhibitions scandal and said it was time to be realistic about how museums, galleries, commercial arts groups and various public and private institutions interact. In other words, he is thinking about TFAM as part of a larger cultural ecology. As for exhibitions, “there are no longer do’s and don’ts,” he said, only “intelligence, ideas and concepts”—sounding like a museum director already!

But it remains to be seen if he can woo the contemporary art crowd back into the fold. Because, by the time the scandals hit in 2010, these folks were ready to cut and run. They had finally discovered “indie culture,” which essentially meant they had found a different sponsor. Of course, there were some who yearned for European-style, socialist arts funding, but even they weren’t foolish enough to turn away a deep-pocketed property developer who didn’t mind sitting around a campfire inside a gutted apartment building, drinking cheap beer and shooting the breeze with people who might have been squatters, except that they were artists.

Lee Chong-yi’s Zhongtai Corporation and JUT Foundation were already supporting commercial galleries, high-end furniture shops and minimalist eateries, all branded with the foundation’s MOT logo, standing for “Museum of Tomorrow.” Then, in 2010, JUT loaned an empty city block to a group of artists, on the understanding that when the lease was up in two years, Zhongtai would raze the buildings to construct another luxury something-or-other. Thus the Taipei Contemporary Art Center (TCAC) came and went. When it opened in early 2010, four of the five Taiwanese who had curated a Taipei Biennial were among the 63 members, alongside many of the island’s most famous artists. For some reason, they let me join as well.

During those two fantastic years, TCAC  hosted a string of utterly pointless exhibitions, wonderfully thought-provoking discussions and a handful of parties that let the local police know we had moved in. I don’t think anyone should be surprised that a group dominated by curators, critics and conceptualists would be so good at talking, and even better at drinking. The ground-floor vending machine, when it worked, sold  only Taiwan Beer.

The real success of TCAC was that, like throwing a bucket of paint on an invisible man, it made Taipei’s contemporary art community appear. Finally, it was out in the open and free of government-sponsored officialdom. So the community promptly started mouthing off about the TFAM scandal. It was the thrill of empowerment, and besides, they were right.

In March, JUT took back their building, but the paint on the invisible man will take some time to wash off. Even as the Center looks for a new home, the community it housed remains viable. Huang Hai-ming would do well to make friends with them.