Upscaling Ambitions: From Small Nonprofits to Global Institutions


From left to right: Hyunjin Kim, Rudy Tseng (speaking) and Valentine Willie.

Chang Tsong-zung.

Wassan al-Khudhairi.


In early March, seven influential figures, each laboring at diverse but vital coalfaces across the Asian art scene, gathered in Spring Workshop on the south side of Hong Kong Island. The possibilities offered by current and future models of the art institution were explored, and the nature of their contributions to and dependence on wider ecosystems—within both the arts and society—was questioned. During the daylong event, valuable insights were also transmitted on Skype by Hou Hanru and the indefatigable Shahidul Alam, the latter trapped on the wrong side of the gates at Singapore’s Changi Airport. Below is an edited transcript disputes, deliberations, dialogues and more.


Shahidul Alam (SA) 

Photographer whose work centers on issues of social justice, and founder of Drik Picture Library, Dhaka.

Wassan al-Khudhairi (WK) 

The first director of Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha, and specialist in modern and contemporary Arab Art.

Tobias Berger (TB)

Managing curator at M+, the new museum for visual culture in Hong Kong, which is scheduled to open in 2017.

Chang Tsong-zung (CT) 

Curator and director of Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong, and instrumental in establishing the international image of Chinese contemporary art.

David Elliott (DE) 

Former director of Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, and of Moderna Museet, Stockholm, and currently serving as art advisor for the Central Police Station, Hong Kong.

Hou Hanru (HH) 

Director of exhibitions and public programs at the San Francisco Art Institute from 2006 to 2012, and currently curating the 5th Auckland Triennial, opening in May.

Hyunjin Kim (HK) 

Co-curator of the 7th Gwangju Biennale (2008) and recently appointed as chief curator at the Ilmin Museum, South Korea.

Rudy Tseng (RT) 

Independent curator and art collector based in Taipei, currently working as artistic director of the Dojima River Biennale in Osaka.

Valentine Willie (VW) 

A pioneer in promoting Southeast Asian art, founding an art consultancy and launching five galleries across the region since 1996, and now promoting related scholarship

John Jevis, Managing Editor, ArtAsiaPacific (JJ): Welcome to the AAP Roundtable: Upscaling Ambitions. Today we will, as outlined in your notes, be looking at the evolving nature of art institutions in the Asia-Pacific region, and the implications that these changes have for the contempory art scene. Hou Hanru and Shahidul Alam will be joining us by Skype later in proceedings, but first of all, for the benefit of posterity, would each of you please introduce yourself?

WK: My name is Wassan al-Khudhairi. I was the founding director of Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, Qatar. Most recently I was one of the curators for the Gwangju Biennale.

DE: My name is David Elliott. When I was 27, I started off at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, where I was director for 20 years. I was then director of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm for five years, opening the then-new building. I spent between 2001 and 2006 in Tokyo where I was the founding director of the Mori Art Museum and, following that, was the first and last director of Istanbul Modern—it still continues to be director-less. From 2008 to 2010 I was Artistic Director of the 17th Biennale of Sydney and in 2011–12 set up the First International Biennale of Contemporary Art in Kiev, Ukraine. Since 2010 I have been doing more writing as well as advising on the Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust on development of the Central Police Station as a contemporary art and heritage hub.

CT: I am Chang Tsong-zung, the director of Hanart TZ Gallery in Hong Kong. I am also an independent curator and researcher. I have actually launched most of my research projects with the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou where I am doing some work now on inter-Asian modern thought. I am working on a project of Indian and Chinese cultural, especially intellectual, exchange. My most recent research project is about the Confucian “hall of rite” [li]. I am trying to excavate the root of Chinese aesthetics and the social, as well as aesthetic, forms from this research.

TB: My name is Tobias Berger, I’ve worked in the Asia Pacific region since 2002. I was director of Artspace of Auckland in New Zealand, and then executive director of Para/Site in Hong Kong. I later went to Korea to become the first chief curator of the Nam June Paik Art Center. For two years now I have been back in Hong Kong as managing director at M+, which is the future museum of the visual arts in the West Kowloon Cultural District.

HK: Hello, my name is Hyunjin Kim, based in Seoul. I was co-curator for the 7th Gwangju Biennale in 2008. For the last 10 years I have been working as an independent curator, but have recently been appointed as chief curator at Ilmin Museum. Previously, I had worked for Artsonje Center and Van Abbemuseum. I have carried out numerous independent projects with artists like Haegue Yang, Jewyo Rhii, Sung Hwan Kim and so on.

RT: I am Rudy Tseng from Taiwan and am a full-time collector right now. I am very new to the curatorial role. Previously, I worked for Walt Disney International Taiwan as the managing director. I took the early retirement program, and since then have tried to curate a show once a year. Last year, I curated a Chinese contemporary art show called “Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” in Taiwan, with about 18 artists and 122 artworks, and I enjoyed it a great deal. Being very new to the curatorial role, I come to learn from this roundtable. 

VW: My name is Valentine Willie. I am a gallerist and occasional curator from Malaysia. I have run five galleries throughout Southeast Asia, up until December last year. Now I only have one gallery left, which is in Manila.

JJ: Taking our current surroundings as a starting point, Hong Kong’s own M+ presents itself as Asia’s first international-caliber museum for visual culture, which is quite a claim. Tobias, if I caught you on a good day, and with your management hat on, what would you say M+, as a major, state-backed art institution, can bring to the art scene here in Hong Kong?

TB: There are different ways to approach that question, but on a personal level I believe strongly that we need an independent platform for negotiation; a space where we can come together, research and discuss, where we can collect art of all kinds, curate exhibitions freely and do the relevant publications. At the moment I don’t see that kind of platform on a large scale, at an international museum scale, in the region. And, to be honest, I can’t see either Korea or Japan building it in the next few years—and these are the sort of very free, advanced places that you might expect to build such a platform. So Hong Kong is almost by default the only place. And, yes, what we are doing is very ambitious—it is supposed to be a world-class museum and have a lot of the biggest, most fantastic attributes, and also allow for the building up vital back of house facilities like professional storage and conservation—but in the end, what is important is to build this platform, because Asia is becoming more and more important, and what is happening here is becoming more and more interesting and fantastic. We need a place to discuss, and that is what we are building at the moment.

JJ: So you are positioning M+ as an international center, as much as an addition to the Hong Kong art scene?

TB: Yes, the official line is that it is from a Hong Kong point of view with a global perspective. If you go to the Centre Pompidou in Paris, that is also what you have. When you go there, you are in Paris, you are in France, you are in Europe and you are at the best in the world. It is the same with the Tate Modern, or MoMA [Museum of Modern Art, New York]. That is what we hope to do here. We are looking from Hong Kong, from the Hong Kong perspective, and from Hong Kong ideas. The first thing you look at is Hong Kong, and then you look at South China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea and then you look at Europe or something like that. So you change perspectives, which is very healthy, especially in the art environment we have at the moment.


AAP Roundtable at Spring Workshop, Hong Kong, 2013. From left to right: Wassan al-Khudhairi, David Elliott, Chang Tsong-zung, Tobias Berger, Hyunjin Kim, Rudy Tseng and Valentine Willie.

Hyunjin Kim.

JJ: Kim, for a long time, Seoul has been looked up to as a touchstone of what is possible in the region. Do you see the sort of state-backed museum that is being created at M+ as being a possibility in Seoul, and would the city benefit from such an institution?

HK: I think many Asian countries are missing this kind of museum model. Korea and Japan are relatively well developed in terms of public institutions, but they still lack a complete model. The problem is that, even though South Korea has the National Museum of Contemporary Art [NMOCA], which is huge in scale, it lacks an archive of its own history of exhibitions, or a good public art library—basic requirements are yet to be developed. A good institution needs all different departments working mechanically before you can think about how to challenge the model. Without a certain foundation, it is hard to say what can be achieved. For me, this has always been a problem.

DE: Are you are optimistic about the new extension to NMOCA? Do you think that it will provide the resources that you are looking for?

HK: I’m not fully optimistic, because there’s so much bureaucracy. I think there are many different models for running an institution. But once we start thinking about mega-sized institutions, there is a bigger responsibility to preserve the works for local and international audiences. In the case of South Korea, the mode of collecting artworks, taken on by the National Museum or city museum, is a mysterious process. I cannot understand the standard they use to evaluate the work . It must be decided by juries, but whether the jury is reliable, whether they really understand or connect to the work remains mysterious .

DE: A lack of transparency, basically . . .

HK: Yes, there is no transparency, but there is also a lack of budget and facilities to properly collect, preserve and restore the work. The basic systems are outdated. Last year, I held an internal workshop with the curators in NMOCA about video archiving, based on my experience founding the first video archive in South Korea with Insa Art center in 2006. Since there was little prior knowledge on the specifics of establishing and running a video archive, I had to begin by differentiating between video archive as part of a museum and as a distribution program run by a private agency. I noticed that very basic understandings of museum infrastructure were lacking. Because of perpetual discontinuity in the country’s history, in the history of society and of cultural development, there are many archives that do not really function as proper archives. Surprisingly, exhibition histories are not even archived properly. There are a lot of problems that we have to solve, but recently we have begun to recognize the importance, talking more about how to run archives.

JJ: David, you’ve been part of the evolution of the long-awaited Central Police Station venue in Hong Kong—has it been difficult to find an equilibrium between the various “models” on offer.

DE: Yup, I mean the problem here, and I think, in mainland China and lots of parts of the world, is that there is nothing that you would call a “public sphere.” It is all commercial or private in one way or another. This is not to criticize the private/commercial sphere but to insist that you need to have the private and public together. A strong public sphere is necessary for research in areas not yet validated by popular approval or the market, for the development of research on art and to support the artist and their accreditation. If you have a collection, or are a gallerist, you inevitably have a personal financial interest in what you are promoting although it may be be a primary consideration. You are not independent. If you are working publicly, ethically and in some cases legally you cannot have a financial interest in the work you show or write about. If you do it’s rather like “insider trading.” Neither should collect contemporary art in any systematic sense. You give your opinion by making exhibitions or by writing essays, and you are paid for this. Since the beginning of the 1980s, in particular, the values of the art world—the contemporary art world—have gone crazy. And if there is not a strong public sphere, it is rather like playing a game of cricket without an umpire. There is no disinterested party on the field: I mean “disinterested,” not “uninterested”—of course you should be passionately interested in what you are doing.

Since the 1980s the public sphere throughout the world has been under attack from different kinds of neoliberal hypercapitalism—I have seen it happen in Great Britain under Thatcher. Then, the rightist line was that if people want art, they should pay for it. The leftist response to this was that you have to empower the audiences, because they should decide what is “good” about contemporary art. But the problem here is that audiences cannot know what is “good” about contemporary art, because they have not seen it yet as it is in a constant process of becoming. It has to be properly researched, contextualized, shown and presented. This is what the public sphere can do best. Private individuals, or gallerists, as efficient and committed as they maybe—and maybe you are an exception to this, Tsong-zung—do not have that larger view, and maybe cannot afford to have it. It’s not really their concern although, of course, they are welcome to join in as well.

JJ: It would be interesting to bring in Valentine in here—how relevant are these conversations to the regions in which you’ve worked?

VW: As we enter the next decade, the private museum in Southeast Asia is something that will flourish. The public institutions that we are looking at are the Singapore Art Museum and M+. The latter is very important mainly because it’s so different from Singapore in terms of its public funding and because it seems to be independent, unlike Singapore. And in Korea, and Seoul in particular, we are looking at the private museums and all the corporate-funded museums. I am advising three collectors in Southeast Asia, who are looking to build private museums. So we are watching you carefully! One of the things that I insisted is that all of them must be accessible to the public. At least the permanent collection should be open to the public, if not free, then at least at a nominal price, so you are not charging USD 10 just to get in, to be told that this is art. So that is very important for us, especially in Southeast Asia.

Public institutions do already exist, but you can generally forget about them. I mean National Gallery of Indonesia is essentially a space for rent. It collects, but it really is a rental space. National Visual Gallery of Malaysia, well, the less said, the better. In the Philippines there are a few museums—the better ones are the private museums but they charge a lot to get in. Even the Ayala Museum charges 15 dollars. So we are looking for a new model, for private collectors who want to start a museum, who are thinking: how do I do something without depleting my own fortune, how do we make it pay for itself? And this is the key question that we are looking at—how do we make it pay for itself? I mean the guy may have money now, but he may not want to be supporting the art for the rest of his life.

JJ: So it is just not a relevant issue to try and locate a disinterested umpire—there is certainly no public sphere able to take up that mantle?

VW: Well, you have to be passionately interested, and everybody has a vested interest . . .

DE: Oh, absolutely, I don’t mean uninterested, I mean disinterested. That is one of the problems with these kinds of bureaucratic, governmental structures: their lack of willingness to take responsibility, their lack of transparency, and the wrong people being at the top. I mean, that is usually the case—in Japan for instance, directors of museums often do not know anything about art; they are some kind of bureaucrat put there because of their connections.

VW: Speaking of transparency and accountability, if you look at any of the public museums in Southeast Asia, none of them have their collections online. We do not know what they have, what they are buying or how they arrive at that acquisition. So that is one of the main things we have to do in the private sector—when you are trying to set up a private museum, transparency has to be one of the key goals. Even though we are not doing it with public money.

DE: Mori, which I set up in Tokyo, was privately funded, and, technically, I was the division head of a building development company. But I only accepted the job on the condition that the Museum would have a public ethos and that, despite its private funding, there would be no extraneous pressure on deciding the program. During my five years there, that was how we did it. And it worked for Mr. Mori as well because he got far more coverage and kudos from the program we devised together than he would have from the kind of predictable, dull program that came out of commercially minded curators already employed by the company who were also independently making exhibitions. Japan and Asia are full of shopping malls, built nicely by not-bad architects, but Mr. Mori made a world-class space the center of his whole development—the raison d’être for it—and it paid him back in the attraction and attention he received.

VW: There is a disturbing development recently, where art galleries and museums such as the Marina Bay Sands or the ArtScience Museum have become a part of the tourist industry. Everybody asks me how they make money, how can we be like them, but the museum is really intended to make tourists stay longer, to spend more money, just like a park. The longer you stay in Singapore, the more money they make—developers are given a licence on the basis that they will develop the museum. It’s not really catered towards the locals.

JJ: I would like to call Wassan in here—obviously there has been a lot of investment in the Gulf states toward building up their cultural centers, presumably to a significant extent for future tourism benefits.

WK: Well, when I started working in Doha, in 2007, a museum for tourism was not part of the conversation. I think that it has entered the conversation now, probably in the last year. Doha has several museums in the pipeline as part of the Qatar Museums Authority agenda. When I arrived in Doha my focus was on a private collection that had recently been made public, but wasn’t easily accessible to the public. When I got there, I really pushed for taking the collection to the public. That was the first thing I was interested in. I think at the time they were working on the Museum of Islamic Art, which was the first museum that opened there, the first year I was there. But, similar to what Tobias was saying with M+, the vision that we were able to create through the process of establishing a museum was that same idea of trying to create a platform, coupled with other things that have been brought up like this notion of a lack of access to archives and research being very disparate across the region, and the question was how we could do our part to make it accessible. The tourism piece of the puzzle was not a big part of what I was thinking about when I was in Doha, at least not in terms of establishing the foundation for the museum.

JJ: So some of your experience could perhaps be drawn on as a model for trying to find the necessary building blocks for establishing a major public institution. Did you feel that Mathaf did actually achieve that, at least to some extent?

WK: Yes, I think it started to. I left the museum in April of 2012, so now I think it is about waiting to see what the next director of Mathaf will do.

JJ: We have not yet heard from Tsong-zung, who experience covers a wide range of institutions across the region, and particularly in China, where the notion of “disinterestedness” is a pertinent one, as can be seen by the rather mixed nature of the exhibitions on display. Do you think the situation is developing in such a way as to shift away from these difficulties ?

CT: Public space, whether it is a commercial gallery or a public museum, are equally important in the cultural world. Speaking as someone who knows the pressure of running a gallery, any institution that depends on the market for survival will find overhead costs a challenge. In China, the government puts a lot of pressure on public institutions to fund themselves and to act within certain political parameters. In that sense, it is not so different from a commercial gallery needing to pay its landlord. So, how does an art institution survive? An art institution, whether for-profit or not-for-profit, is a social institution. If we are to remake social institutions in Asia, through the model of the art institution, first we have to rethink how we might incorporate mechanisms into its structure for dealing with pressures commercial, political or social. Of course this is not so easily resolved—every country will have its own special problems. I remember starting as an independent in Hong Kong, 20, 30 years ago, with a commercial gallery because it was very difficult to find a space to show the art I wanted to show, and to persuade institutions to take it. This approach was possible though because I was doing it with a lot of passion; and because I had very, very low overhead. Government institutions should not be in the position of carrying baggage of any sort, in order to allow them to do interesting things.

TB: I think if we talk about developing a new kind of institution like M+ at the moment, we also see some things that are different. One of the things that is different in Asia and in the 21st century is the idea of fluidity. At MoMA, you have a print department, a painting department and a sculpture department, and these departments never talk to each other, which is why you get duplicate MoMA exhibitions. Asia runs differently; and the 21st century runs differently. There is a lot of moving image in contemporary visual art and a lot of photography; it is much more fluid. The second thing is that in Hong Kong and also in Asia, people themselves move much more easily. In Germany or in England, it would be impossible for an advertising guy to become an accepted artist. Here, it ii normal. It is the same with the commercial market and the independent market—or institutions—things are much more fluid. Similarly, commercial institutions like Universal Studios or Vitamin Creative Space were established because their founders needed to find independent platforms to show what they wanted, as state organizations were too biased, too politically driven and sometimes censorship-ridden. And again, ten years ago it would have been impossible for a gallerist to become a curator in a museum. Now, we hire Pi Li who was once a gallerist because he needed to find a way to work independently. We have to accept that in Asia, and also the Middle East and so on, things work differently.

DE: You’re talking about the rigidity of the state system and you come up with fluidity as the antidote. This seems to me to be quite fuzzy. There are, of course, problems with the state institutions—in China your competition is NAMOC, the National Art Museum of China, and when you see what the director of that institution says about modern art and contemporary art in China, and the lineage he gives for it, it’s not the whole story—he must know it’s not really complete. But he seems to be under some kind of pressure to give an official view. On the other hand, galleries on the mainland are equally subject to pressure and censorship, including the commercial ones. Come on, let’s not pretend that because they are individual they are free or that, as in the West, there is not as much self censorship as actual censorship.

In China, everything is “the people’s”: people’s army, people’s this, people’s that, but nothing really belongs to the people. There is no subtle idea of common good, instead a rather scary hypercapitalism linked with nationalism as well as this vague new non-Western way you talk about. This whole idea of common good has been completely shut out of the public sphere, in China, in Asia, almost everywhere in the world, over the past 30 years. And I think we need to get it back, in the arts as much as anywhere. To refashion a famous phrase with which everyone born in the Soviet Union and Maoist China would have been familiar: “art does not belong to the people, but the people should have access to it.” They should have the right of access to it—the best art of their times. Why? Because it is blindly true, authentic, occasionally confounding and sometimes beautiful. Where else can you find this? It is the disinterestedness of the artist, him- or herself, which is beyond any price. And yet we insist on reducing everything to the few bucks that it fetches in the market. The market is dumb. It speculates on what it doesn’t know and it supports what it knows. Sometimes, it overlaps with other ideas, but actually I think the public sphere should be busy with aesthetics, how good something is, as art, not as anything else. Yet politicians insist on having other sytems of valuation for it—social engineering, tourism, this, that—it is great if this happens as a by-product, but it is not so great if you are actually feeding the people with pap, rubbish instead of good art, which is often the case. Of course this has to do with the perspective of the viewer or decider—and a disinterested perspective is not such a bad thing as it will not be identical amongst disinterested people—but at least it will be transparent. In contemporary art, the market often favors art that mirrors itself. And this has been affecting some of the big museums at the moment. Contemporary art is fluid in its nature, you can never fully know what it is because as soon as you try to grab it, it moves away from you. That is part of its beauty.

JJ: Rudy, to put you in a difficult spot, you have long been intimately involved with the Taiwanese art scene, and had experience at both Mori and Tate, on top of your long business career. Do you feel that such judgments are slightly harsh? Would you defend the integrity of people across the art-world spectrum, and their ability to step aside from immediate concerns and consider wider society?

RT: Talking of tourism, a lot of people are thinking about how to navigate the situation and increase visitor numbers, especially commercial, private museums. I would like to raise an example from Taiwan: three years ago, the well-known Taiwanese artist Chen Jieren (aka Chen Chieh-jen), one night before his solo show at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, set up a big event, inviting all the media, and made an announcement that this would be his last show at the venue. The reason he gave was that the Taipei Fine Arts Museum had previously held a show funded by Disney—the Pixar show. It drew a lot of traffic to the museum, and was the number one exhibition that year. Chen told the media that the show should have been put in a shopping mall or department store—it would get visitors regardless—and the museum should concentrate on publications, programming and curators. Since then he has never shown at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. At last year’s Taipei Biennial, Anselm [Franke] invited Chen to do a project there. He refused, so they showed his video off-site, at the Paper Mill Factory.

From my travels, I think if you want to have a very good museum, with decent infrastructure, you can look at MoMA and the Mori, which get much foot traffic, yet the curators’ and the museums’ jobs are not really to increase visitor numbers, but more to focus on how to set a good model for an institution. I think that MoMA had trouble when they opened, for some time but since then they have built up the infrastructure and knowledge base, now every time they put up a show, it draws visitors. I expect M+ will also have a tourist function, but I do not think it will be the first priority. I saw the Mobile M+ show in Yau Ma Tei last year, which was really great, because it was all local artists. I assume that you will go that way in the future as well. It makes me feel sad as there are no major projects coming up in Taiwan—Singapore is developing its national museum, while there are something like 330 museums opening every year in China, and we certainly have nothing to compare to that.

CT: We are all in the art field because we believe something good can be done, but this depends very much on being left alone. Setting a framework around an art institution is already problematic; ideally it should be a utopic space. And this utopic space, with its cultural concerns and the special way by which it is created, should feedback to the real social spaces we live in, so that it may become a model for influencing social spaces at large. Maybe the issue should be looked at in reverse: an art space ought to be left outside the socio-political space. We should take all these conditions we complain about—tourism, funding, politics—and then say these are precisely the agents that should not get involved.

WK: What came to mind is another related pressure from my experience is not just tourism, but the pressure that is put upon curators because there is a sense of wishing to be legitimized by the West, so a lot of time decisions are pressed on curators in order to prove to the West that you are doing something that is worth being done, or that it is valuable, especially in these areas where we are working with artists that may not often have those exposure, or had not written in an art history books, so why would they be important.

DE: I completely agree with what you have said about institutionalization, Tsong-zung. I think the great museums have always depended on people. I mean MoMA was made by Alfred Barr. What is best about MoMA is his legacy. They have been slowly chipping away at this and have now become rather sclerotic. The Berlin museums were created by two people, Hugo von Tschudi and Wilhelm von Bode. They, in a way, were completely brilliant in thinking outside of the box, and it was the force of their personalities that made it work. Tschudi had to leave Berlin after his work displeased the Kaiser. After World War II, Ponthus Hultén in Stockholm and Willem Sandberg in Amsterdam made people reconsider what museums were for. So far, the Tate, for instance, has never had such a brilliant director and there are a number of places that haven’t, yet they are part of a general movement to make contemporary art publicly available. One of the things that has become increasingly clear over the past 30 years, is that if you are going to work as a museum you will work in an institution. But how do you prevent it from becoming staid and institutionalized? This is not easy; you have keep physically, intellectually and institutionally on the move and be prepared to rethink relationships with art and the world roughly every ten years. This is to avoid stasis. Maybe the pace will slow down a bit in future, but it has been really intense over the past three decades with the vast effects of digital revolution and profound political and economic change world wide. With the staff in an institution, you have to be flexible enough to enable the younger ones to express themselves and add what they can to the mix, together with the experience of the older ones. Institutions should serve art, rather than be its master or prisoner.

CT: To take up an inspiring point you just put forward—how an institution is made up by important individuals—and to push this logic a bit further, perhaps we should say that the interesting thing about art as a sphere is how it puts the individual forward as the institution—to put a human vision back into social institutions. When thinking about the contemporary art situation, I often reflect on the imaginary Chinese world that has been lost. One thing that was very important in the old Confucian days was all the safety valves the state put in place, so people who did not agree with the state or its social institutions, were given spaces to escape to. The genius of modernity is to close all these valves; today everything is done for you, there is no escape. So art has become one of the very few domains where there’s still some space remaining. I think we should actually look at art in these terms, rather than at the institution. Use the individual, which is volatile, sensual and aesthetic, as one of the only possible models for the institution.


JJ: To create these utopic spaces, to step away from the things that are circumscribing art, you are also stepping away from the funding. Are you perhaps better off with a possibly despotic but single-minded individual running a private museum rather than with a bland or compromised state decision on the museum’s directorship?

DE: There have been brilliant directors of public museums, and those are the ones that really flourish. Part of this has to do with research levels within each the museum. It seems to be museums of contemporary art and modern art—particularly contemporary art—that are most superficial in their structures. Their research is market led if made at all, and they try to surf on a combination of the “latest thing” with the “kindness of strangers.” Their development has coincided with the vast expansion of monetary value in contemporary art—so much so that the two have become identified. We need that identification to be less close, and defend the public sphere as the best means for presenting art on a large scale.

JJ: Valentine, where do museums in Malaysia recruit curatorial staff from? Are there internal sources?

VW: Ah, it is usually your second cousin, or someone you know . . . It is all very nascent in Southeast Asia. When I started the gallery, there was no curator. It was not so easy when you are in a country or a region where infrastructure really was not there. We built this infrastructure, essentially. Now, we are looking from writers from Australia, the Philippines . . . There are a lot of writers now, curators—even though there is still a shortage—it is improving.

JJ: Maybe we are just thinking things that are going to happen too quickly, that we’ll start seeing these infrastructural elements now—archives, curators, educational programs—when 20 years might be a more realistic timetable. Hyunjin, how long would you say that the Seoul art scene took to reach its present point? Is it still progressing? And there have been some problems on funding recently, haven’t there?

HK: Public funding is generally from ARKO (Arts Council Korea) and Korea Foundation for International Culture Exchange—it is still strong and, as far as I know, the government has promised to raise more. Until the mid-1990s, public funding was based more on one’s connection to the art councils or foundations, it was more like a local authority with nothing to do with contemporary art. So sometimes funding would go to the student shows of a professor with good connections. I only started curating in the late 1990s, after that situation. Several arts administrators had started researching the Arts Council England, and three new artist-run spaces were started in 1999, later becoming major ones. So, by the end of 1990s, we started seeing the situation that we call contemporary art in Korea, with a lot of new infrastructure and established non-profit spaces. But a sort of confused situation has been introduced by Chinese art. The Chinese have negotiated a hybrid model of private and public or profit and non-profit. This has invaded the Korean art scene. There is some concern that it is disrupting the scene that has developed over the last 20 years—that is, a relative separation between private and public practice. For me it is always difficult to understand the the mix of non-profit and profit driven practice. There are many contemporary art spaces in Seoul, with advanced infrastructure, many of which are private museums started from the collections of corporates who have little understanding of the difference between public responsibility and private investment. We need to seriously rethink what it means to have a museum as a public space.

JJ: So you would say that this is holding back the art scene to some degree?

HK: Yes—although there are definitely serious curators working to develop infrastructure and contemporary curatorial practices, there are also many mediocre and low-key ones, mostly serving political purposes. I think that because of conflicting visions, the scene is a bit polarized. I would say, we probably need to work on building a stronger middle ground and give space to curators who can lead a different model of institution.

TB: Can I just say, I think we are forgetting that the museum’s job is actually more than just to exhibit art, but to care for art, to research it—all the back-of-house facilities, which we never talk about. That is actually what’s missing in Asia, at the moment. It is super-difficult to find people who know how to set up a resource center or a library, or how to take care of paper or find an art handler. That is what a museum is good for, and what a museum should do. Sure they should have fantastic exhibitions, but we all know that 90 percent of the works are somewhere in storage and have to be taken care of. The back of house is such an important part of the museum that we really have to invest in it and look for more possibilities to get it in order.

CT: We are talking about education, public programs, the relation between a public institution like a museum and its public. But I think we should withdraw a little bit and look at art itself. Art in the modern era is a form of professionalized aesthetics; we are now living in a world where aesthetics, and aesthetic practices, have been excluded from all sanctioned professions, from all institutionalized structures. We are supposed to be engaged in this professional sphere of aesthetics, which is called art—a function that was traditionally part of social institutions in general. Art is important nowadays because all the things that involve the senses, intuition, aesthetics, have been bundled together and thrown into one professional sphere. Given this situation, art institutions have a grave responsibility to society, to disseminate culture and remind the public of its own sensibilities. Perhaps, instead of looking at contemporary art as something cutting-edge, we should actually rethink it in terms of something that has happened in specific, indigenous sites, so that the aesthetic touches and aesthetic forms that have been buried by modern life can get a second life. 

JJ: So I guess in a way we need to find a way of communicating how essential that is to wider society and get the blessing to be allowed to continue.

Hyunjin Kim and Valentine Willie going through the roundtable program.

Shahidul Alam, via Skype, from Singapore airport: This is Shahidul Alam. I am a photographer, writer and curator from Bangladesh. I run an agency called Drik, a school of photography and a festival of photography. The work that we do is primarily centered around issues of human rights . . . too short?

JJ: Succinct—thank you. We were talking earlier about how to make artistic practice sustainable, which is one thing that you, among your achievements, have managed to do in Dhaka. Have you got any recommendations, in terms of both your agency, and festival, on how to make art sustainable as well as a focal point for the community?

SA: OK. For a start, it is not easy. So I make no pretense about that. We still struggle. But it was a very conscious decision on our part, because right from the outset, we set ourselves up not as an NGO but as a private limited company. There were several reasons for that. One very important one being that, being a media organization, we wanted to have financial independence and felt that if we operated from that model we would not have that. In fact, that side of it has stayed valid, because we have been able to be far more open in our positioning than the NGOs typically have been be in Bangladesh. They have often used us as their spokesperson because they themselves felt their hands have been tied, because they require their NGO licenses to be renewed every year. They are required by law to be non-political. Our works are very strongly political, but we are able to straddle the two because of this. I think that we also have a very different work ethic from funded organizations. Everyone in our organization knows that he or she has to pull his or her own weight, that salaries have to be paid, and money has to be coming in. We really have a much more streamlined, smoothly run organization than it might otherwise have been. But the problem is that we also do a lot of work that is extremely socially engaged, a lot of it does not necessarily raise money. So we are in this position where we have to find a balance between being financially viable and being socially responsible, which is a difficult one to negotiate, particularly as we often have to tell our colleagues, “Look, you have to earn money. You have to be looking at the bottom-line,” but at the same time, we’ll often be pushing them to do things which are not necessarily generating a revenue. So, it is a mixed set of messages, and that sometimes gets confusing.

JJ: Is this non-political requirement for NGO funding something that a lot of nonprofits in Bangladesh suffer from?

SA: Well, we’ve had a situation where even human right organizations are worried about the sort of things that they might say. In 2010, we put together a major exhibition called “Crossfire,” which was on extrajudicial killings. This show was closed down by the government, we took them to court, and eventually the court ruled on our favor, or was about to rule in our favour, and the government backed down. The show was phenomenally successful, both within the country and internationally. We then produced a touring exhibition—a cheap, low-cost exhibition, which we gave away to human-rights activists in various parts of the country. We were going to be partnered with major human rights organizations, who eventually backed off—they felt it was too dangerous for them to be engaged. What happened later on was that individual activists approached us and were able to deal with us. But if that happens with human right organizations, obviously, it is an issue in other NGOs.

JJ: To tie in with what we were discussing earlier, we have just heard from Rudy Tseng here that there are 330 museums opening in China every year. Do you manage to keep your integrity and specialization in the face of such expansionism elsewhere in the region?

SA: Well, we are not a museum as such so it is a different case—we have two galleries but the difference in our case is that we pretty much do not sell. We show photography primarily, which in itself does not sell. Photography is pretty much the complete bottom of the entire hierarchy within the art field. It is very interesting, we have that Asian Art Biennale and this year it was 32 years of the Asian Art Biennale. The biennale in its entry rules prevent photography or video from being entered. So this is a bizarre situation—we are in a country that is known for its photography, and we have become a role model for photography in the majority world. Yet, in our own country, our own photographers are not allowed to enter. When international artists enter, however, it is accepted, and we’ve actually had photography given the grand prize while we still have the ruling that photography and video cannot be entered. There was a bill passed in parliament in 1989 that a department of photography would be opened, but we are still waiting for them to enact that ruling. The art scene is very much controlled by fossils, essentially—people who have an idea of pictorialist style dating 50 years back or so. Painting is seen very much as the high end. In our gallery, we’ve shown work by Sabastião Salgado, Raghu Rai, Martin Parr—the finest professionals of the world—and we never sell. Yet if we have an exhibition of mediocre watercolors we will sell out. So there is that difference that still needs to be addressed. However, there is a huge amount of interest in photography and video from the new generation of artists. But they find that they are, by and large, shut out by the mainstream. These are the people who gather around us, we have a very interesting community. Some of the most well-attended shows are in our gallery, which includes people who have only a virtual community meeting through Facebook, or something like that, who physically have their shows in our place, but are otherwise are a virtual community.

JJ: And that new generation is staying in Dhaka—it is not being lured away to “creative centers”?

SA: Well, we do not have those creative centers outside of Dhaka, really. Dhaka and Chittagong are the two major cities where artists can survive. These are people who do not rely upon their art for survival and that becomes one of the problems. What happens is that the ones who make a living essentially have a dual livelihood, in a sense that they will do commercial work that will generate an income—weddings, corporate and advertising photography. And they will do other photography that will sustain their soul. So it is that mixture which allows them to survive.

JJ: Do you see any optimistic signs, whether from the state or from private individuals, for the development of an art infrastructure in Bangladesh?

SA: There are two things that are happening. There have been patrons of the arts rising. One group, the Bengal Foundation, is now setting up its own museum, it has very fancy galleries, it regularly promotes works. When Skira approached me to publish my book, I introduced them to Bengal, and they signed a contract to produce 40 books on fine art and photography. Now, that is pretty major, this is a big investment—it is a big deal what this foundation is doing. They have galleries, they fund art workshops and many other things, so they are becoming a major player. But, although they printed my book, they do not really treat photography seriously, so there is still that problem. But there is a bigger problem, which is that they are very much patrons to specific big artists and usually they are very well-established artists. So while well-established artists are doing very well through these foundations, particularly through the sales of their work, the newer artists find they are totally shut out. So it is an interesting situation where this new opportunity provides opportunity to only a select few and excludes the rest. There is another foundation called the Samdani Art Foundation, which opened up more recently that is led by a younger couple who have been far more in touch with contemporary trends. But, again, there is the fear that only a few in the stable will get support and the general public will not.

JJ: I think we have got some questions from David Elliott, who you probably know from Oxford, Stockholm and elsewhere.

DE: OK, I have got a question about the general political situation in Bangladesh. Is there censorship of art exhibitions?

SA: Not generally, but we have been censored quite a lot. There are two issues. One, the general art community has not been that political and also photography is seen to be more of an issue than other art forms. Because we are photographic, and we show political works, our shows have been regularly shut down, and things like that. The “Crossfire” show was closed down, the “Tibet” show prior to that was closed down—interestingly, the “Tibet” show was not closed down because our government did not like it, but because the Chinese government did not like it.

DE: Oh my God.

SA: Tes, it was incredible. The Chinese government instructed our government to close down a show in a private gallery.

DE: And they did?

SA: Yes.

DE: Jesus.

SA: So we had police surrounding the place, and everything.

DE: Did the press cover that?

SA: Oh, yes. There were both very extensively covered by the press. In fact, the later show, “Crossfire,” when it was closed down, got so much media coverage that the government was defensive. We had actually been asked by the supreme court to show the work in the supreme court, because they wanted to know how, when the highest judicial body in the land was ineffective against the government, a photographic exhibition could bring the government to its knees. So that is interesting.

DE: [laughs] So basically being a private company gives you freedom, and you do not have to reapply for your license every year. Does Amnesty International operate in Bangladesh, or not?

SA: Amnesty has a wing, and Human Rights Watch also has a presence. But they are largely seen as external organizations with an occasional presence. In fact, when Amnesty launched their Bangladesh site, it was done in partnership with us, in our gallery, and we had a media roundtable in our gallery.

DE: You really seem have all the ethos of a public institution, yet the money comes privately. What are your sources of income, are you able to say?

SA: Yes, absolutely. I mean, we provide media products. We do printing, we have a photo library, so royalties for pictures. We do design, event management—a whole range of things related to publishing and campaigns. We even provide services to the government. We have an IT wing, we develop websites, so a whole string of services. And every center is a cost center in the sense that we publish for ourselves but we also publish for external clients. We do annual reports, books, brochures, those sorts of things. But having said that, it is very, very touch and go. We constantly have problems paying salaries at the end of the month, and we have to beg, borrow and steal. But we also have a lot of goodwill, so there are many, many people who will stand by us. Certainly, one very interesting thing happened earlier—remember I told you about photography being at the very lowest rung in terms of hierarchy within the arts. When we tried to do a show that was very critical of Hussain Muhammad Ershad, the military general who was in power, at that time we did not have a gallery of our own. No one was prepared to show the work. The art college refused, not because the work was political, but there excuse was that it was photography, and therefore not art. But when our gallery was closed down by the government, we had students from the art college in the streets making a human chain, saying “Closing down the Drik Gallery is like prohibiting painting.” While from an institutional point of view there is still a distance, we have actually very good support from the artists themselves, and certainly from the grassroots.

DE: Have you or any of your staff been subject to violence from the government at all?

SA: I have not been knifed since 1996.

DE: Things are getting better then?

SA: Well, I have been arrested, but not knifed. But 1996 was bad, I got eight knife wounds at that time. The government was using the military to round up oppositional activists before a rigged election. People were up in arms, they did not feel they had a space. So civil society used our gallery as a venue for protest. The following day, I got stopped on the street. They put eight knives into me, and took away my computer, my PDA, my laptop and my films. So that was a pretty clear signal. But after that—I mean, we’ve had death threats, and things like that—but we’ve turned that around. When we have the “Crossfire” show, for instance, and the police had closed us down, there was a pro-government guy making death threats to us. I actually filmed the guy with my flip camera, he did not actually know it was me. So I actually got a clip of the guy making a death threat to me, with armed police surrounding him. And of course, I incorporated that into future reincarnations. I showed the work at the Tate Modern, and it became the central part of that show.

TB: I am quite interested in how the last ten years, when the internet has changed the access to video and photography so much, how this has changed the way the artists in Bangladesh operate with those media?

SA: Firstly, it is important to tell you that we actually introduced email to Bangladesh in the early 1990s, so we were very involved in the whole process. On a commercial basis, we decided to set up shop—not in London, Paris or New York, but in Bangladesh. So we were distanced from the market and had to find some way to stay engaged with it in terms of disseminating our photographs. The other thing was the fact that we set up the Bangladesh Human Rights Network, when Taslima Nasrin was in hiding, we were able to help her get away from the country by putting her in touch with Article 19, PEN and things like that. So we were providing shelter to her. So it is both for activist reasons, and commercial reasons. But very interestingly, when we set up our festival, one of our big problems was getting work in and out of the country, because that requires government permission, and it is also expensive, and very, very slow. But now, in our festival, except for very limited bodies of work, everything is produced digitally so the submissions are online. Artists send their digital files and we produce everything here. We actually use Skype a lot for curatorial input. So it is very important for us in particular. And networking is something that everyone uses it for, even for funding and other things. But the internet is very, very important for us, maybe more than for other artists. I supposed we also use it more aggressively than others have done. When they closed down our shows, for instance, while we had riot police surrounding our gallery, I was giving a gallery walk via Skype inside the gallery to Julliard (Jean-François Julliard), the ex-secretary general for the Reporters Sans Frontières, and we live-streamed that. And that is another very interesting thing. All our major events are live-streamed, so we have a large international audience. We are the only organization who does that.

TB: Did the artists’ practices change with access to more pictures, to more international art?

SA: The older generation has been largely undisturbed, but there has been a shift in the younger generation, particularly those using video art and photography but even those doing conceptual work and installation. They draw from a wider international set of influences. But what we haven’t seen are interactive things, nor artwork that utilizes the net. That is still not happening, but I think it will. People are certainly thinking along those lines.

Roundtable moderator, John Jervis, speaking with Shahidul Alam on Skype.

Chang Tsong-zung and Tobias Berger.

JJ: Can you see signs of a workable model emerging in China, in state-backed institutions, at the moment?

Hou Hanru (HH) via Skype: I think the main model is one of chaos. China has a long history with old style, historical museums such as the Palace Museum and the Shanghai Art Museum. Another official model is the artist association system, which is kind of a Soviet-influenced model established in the 1950s, spreading from the National Art Museum to provincial art museums. Those museums in the past functioned as exhibition spaces for more or less established artists and had their own collections. Some of them have now become more open to contemporary art and also more open to commercial activities such as rental. So, it’s still in transition. There are a few exceptional places such as the Shanghai Art Museum and the Guangdong Museum of Art who have taken the lead, evolving into more contemporary museums and building up their collections through occasional events such as the Shanghai Biennale and Guangzhou Triennial, establishing a half-donation-half-acquisition system with this aim in mind. All in all, however, I think they are still looking for a new identity. Even at Shanghai, where they have developed the Power Station of Art, they are still looking for real programming.

Aside from that, there are still hundreds (though perhaps this is an exaggeration) of private museums being developed these days, especially in the last five years, starting with the Today Art Museum in Beijing, which may be one of the oldest so-called private museums—it could also be called a company museum or corporation museum. Then we have the Rockbund Art Museum and the Minsheng Art Museum, the latter of which is basically supported by the bank. In Guangzhou you have the Times Museum and a few others. We are also seeing more ambitious projects underway. I heard that in Ningxia they are building a huge art museum—a 150,000 square meters—and that the National Art Museum is also getting involved in this type of competition, building a massive museum designed by Jean Nouvel. So you have quite a chaotic situation.

I’m interested in another kind of model, not private museums but something I would call a public institution supported by corporations. I think that will be the model of the coming years. We are seeing some new museums, like Red Brick in Beijing, who are really trying to build more serious programs, and then in Shanghai you have the Himalayas Art Museum and so forth. But I think this model is still a little immature, and everyone’s looking for a way to sustain themselves. What’s interesting is that most of these museums are really relying on the same type of energy that you find in speculation, extending the same model as the art market or the real-estate industry. So I think we are getting to a period where really serious questions are being posed.

JJ: Are these funding questions or infrastructural ones?

HH: All sorts, especially from the institutional perspective, which has to do with the programming.

JJ: So it sounds like, perhaps with the help of the corporate sector, you feel that things have become significantly better since you started in the late 1980s?

HH: I would say that the situation is so new—we only started talking about real museological concerns in the last three or five years—that museums are looking to each other to find some kind of model. There are a couple of museums that are seen as having established some sort of model because they are more professional and more developed in terms of their teams and their curatorial contents. Ullens [Center of Contemporary Art] is an interesting model and, next to it, the Rockbund, the Times Museum and Minsheng Museum. From my understanding, these are the leading four or five museums, and are the immediate reference points for other new museums emerging now in China.

DE: About these as models for museums, Rockbund doesn’t have a collection, it’s more of a kunsthalle as I understand it—does the Times have a collection?

HH: No, actually the interesting thing about all these new museums is that most of them still don’t have collections. Their patrons—the heads of companies who funded the museums—often have their own collections, but these are not included in the museum and their collections are usually quite random and personal. Rockbund has maybe the most advanced, professional sort of structure with an international advisory board, including people like Lai Hsiangling, myself and Alexandra Munroe. During our discussions, there have been a few key priorities: the exhibition of course, and public programming. This has become very important to museums, especially the Rockbund, as they are trying not only to play a role as a kunsthalle but also as a gathering place for the cultural scene in the city.

Collections have become an interesting topic in our meetings at the Rockbund, in terms of whether or not a relatively systematic strategy of collection should be developed—it’s really the beginning of this discussion. Most museums now play a mixed role; they’re not really a museum in the sense of a traditional collecting institution, but are sites of production. A site of production is a place where you not only produce artwork or expressions, but also create a kind of social environment, a public sphere around artistic questions. That’s the most urgent concern for museums, the collection will come much later. Another interesting thing is that most of these museums are not very stably funded since they rely so much on private companies. There’s a whole question relating to public legislation in China, in terms of what kind of statute museums can have from which they might benefit. Collecting is also part of this, as a new legal framework may be needed in order for it to become a more regular kind of activity. So, all these questions have been discussed over the last few years. There have been a few interesting meetings among these institutions, between museum directors, to talk about the so-called private institutions and their situation. There is a regular association now in which these questions are being discussed.

DE: Well, I agree with you that the discourse in China has been much more far-ranging than in Hong Kong, for instance, but don’t you think it’s ludicrous that all these museums are being built, when no one knows what they’re going to put into them—and the governmental system is such that whatever they put into them is going to be censored anyway? I suspect that this museum boom has something to do with incentives for property speculation by developers who seem to have been playing a very large part the economy for the past decade…..

HH: Actually, I don’t think it’s depressing, it’s really exciting. It’s kind of a model of a new Chinese style of cosmopolitan culture being generated through this chaotic process.

DE: Isn’t there a Chinese expression that goes “putting the cart before the horse” or the “tail wagging the dog”?

HH:[Laughs] Yes, more or less. But you know, I really think that in this kind of chaotic situation one can see some sort of hybrid model for so-called institutions that would probably allow things to happen that would no longer or never be possible in places like Hong Kong, for example, being generated by default or by accident. For one, the political. of the actors in the field—I don’t think more mature cosmopolitan cities—like Hong Kong or Tokyo even—would be interested in pushing these. Look at how slowly institutions have been constructed in those cities, while in China things are developing so quickly. Yes, sometimes they disappear very quickly, but mostly they survive. This is also a very interesting phenomenon. Everyone thought that the Today Museum would not sustain itself for more than five years, but now they are in their tenth year or so. And on the way you can see some incredible productivity when you look at the trajectory of their programs. They may have 20 rubbish exhibitions per year, but they have another three which are highly interesting and very significant. They have also created the Chinese Art Award and so on—these kind of things are very positive for the scene. Occasionally you can do things that are totally beyond the imagination. I did a show with the Times Museum, called “Autonomous Regions,” which is an area that very few museums would be interested in or have the courage to do. But we made it happen with some very radical works.

DE: Such as? Which are the radical works?

HH: Here, I can show you. This is the catalogue, and this piece was by Claire Fontaine. The original piece was actually involved burning a European map during the crisis, but now instead they traced the autonomous regions in China and set them on fire. Everyone was a bit cautious about that, but in the end it happened without a problem. It was really only one or two pieces that were radical, but the whole curatorial concept, the symposium, the discussions at the seminar, and the writings for the catalogue have been really quite constructively radical. So these things can happen.

DE: But, don’t you think that equally radical shows happened in 1998, 2000 and 2001, with the “Fuck Off” exhibition and so on, in artist-run centers outside the institutions. Those not only made a big difference in the art world itself but also in terms of how China was regarded by the outside.

HH: Well, you’re right. In a way, it doesn’t look like the exhibition made much of a difference but, in fact, it is the accumulation of these things over time that actually helps, not only for the art world to build self-confidence, but also to create a whole media network around it, which is pretty amazing. Especially in places like Shanghai and Guangzhou, you can look at how the media has reacted to these kinds of events, they really take them seriously. And museums today are building public programs to extend their work to the community. The Rockbund Museum has a night program and the Times Museum is now organizing a community arts festival. These help to build an interesting public sphere around the art program. So I really think the situation is quite positive.

SA: I have a question that is slightly lateral. In Bangladesh there are many organizations that are collectors and not museums. Is there a similar situation in China where works are moved outside of the public domain will never actually re-enter it and become accessible to the public unless these organizations choose to move them?

HH: Yes, it’s an interesting thing that collections are moving from more speculative and accidental personal activities to more systematic collection and presentation. I was told there are a few collectors in China who have tried to build public museums with their collections. In Shanghai, Budi Tek is planning to open a personal museum of his international collection—it’s not just Chinese. There are a few other collectors who have been looking for venues and possibilities to have a museum of their own collections. Guan Yi, for example, who has a significant collection of Chinese art and a few international works, has been looking for a site to a build a personal museum for a few years. I don’t think he has succeeded yet. So it is being seriously considered but will take more time than the kunsthalle model at this point.

JJ: It seems that you’re quite positive about some of the things emerging from this model of chaos. Why have you personally decided to remain outside of any of these institutions?

HH: I am very much outside and inside, actually. I work very closely with some of these institutions, such as Rockbund, Times and Today, especially in the last three years. But at the same time, I want to remain outside to be able to come up with some kind of suggestion of how to connect all these museums into a certain sort of network so each museum can build a program according to its special context and then be connected so as to function as an ongoing dialogue emphasizing the personal singularity of each institution and its connection to its own city and funding model. In the Chinese context, it is important to emphasize the diversity of each locality, as a resistance to the unifying vision of the institution today. This may be through emphasizing particular physical and intellectual advantages of the building or of its curatorial team. The Times Museum, for example, is a museum that is grafted onto a residential building. That’s a unique situation in the world. How to emphasize this uniqueness, rather than turning it into another standard kunsthalle, is extremely important. By chance I have been working with many of these institutions simultaneously, helping to advise and curate projects for them. I think that I can help them to build a bigger picture, one where everyone has a particular position. This has been a personal concern of mine for many years, how to use the chaotic situation, in the Chinese or Asian context, to come up with another model of institution that is not an extension or copy of Tate Modern, MoMA or PS1 in New York, but one that is much more about the diversity. I want to help build one big institutional network on a national scale, but with a lot of diversity and multiple possibilities. That is why I keep my distance.

JJ: Do you think that at some point you’ll come up with some practical proposals or a network through which such institutions, despite their diversity, could converse with each other? I’m assuming that there are no conversations, other than your presence, going on at the moment. Or is there already a dialogue between them?

HH: My role is sometimes more regular—I sit on different advisory committees—and sometimes much more occasional, through random conversations. But I do think that all these conversations help to add more context—someone like me who has traveled around the world can bring in a different point of view that might not exist inside the institution. So that conversation is very important.

JJ: And are these institutions acquiring the critical kudos they need to be slightly more free in what they include in their exhibitions? Is the state recognizing that the existence of these corporate museums can be beneficial?

HH: This is a day-to-day negotiation. The Chinese system is actually very interesting. When dealing with Chinese artists, those living in China, most of the time, you don’t have to report to the authorities before having the exhibition. But when there is an international context, particularly works are being imported, that’s when they go through some censorship. This kind of negotiation has gone OK in my experience, but you do have to have a strategy. If you bring the artists on site to do works, then you can avoid the problem of importation and authorization and, because of this situation, you actually encourage the museum itself to become a site of production. This ends up being an advantage out of disadvantage as it can be used to define the identity of the museum. More and more museums are now thinking about building residency programs, which also helps develop more site-specific or context-specific projects.

DE: This model sounds great, but even the contemporary is formed by the past and, in a museum that has no narrative, no history, isn’t something lacking? It becomes basically up for grabs anytime? It’s a socialist version of a neoliberal model in which the organization not only reinvents itself periodically—which I think it should do—but also reinvents itself every time it makes an utterance. Isn’t that quite dangerous?

HH: We are in a time in which everything is new, and the narrative is really in the first stages of preparation. I think we will have to wait about ten years before we can really come up with a serious chronological resumé of those places. I’m not particularly worried about this. Maybe there will be casualties, maybe only five of those institutions will survive ten years to become some of the greatest institutions, while the others disappear or change into something else. The interesting thing, though, is the scale of things happening in China at this stage. It is so amazing that even if 80 percent of things disappear, the other 20 percent still remains really valuable, intellectually even. So I’m really quite optimistic about it.

DE: Well, it’s a result of high capitalism really. Probably, this kind of discussion would never have taken place in Britain in the 1860s had there been the opportunity, it would have been thought to be surplus to requirements.

HH: Yes, unfortunately this is how it is. It’s like the whole economic model, or even the socio-political model in China, is somehow a permanent kind of experiment.

DE: But I can’t help but feel that culture is a continuum and as soon as you deny that, for better or worse, you diminish the present and then it no longer serves as a platform for the future. You become like a new-born child, wide-eyed and vulnerable.

HH: I don’t think culture is a continuum. Maybe it is in the sense that there are multiple layers—some live longer than others and what’s important is to make sure that this continuum makes sense and that you develop a whole critical discourse around it. In China now there are a number of art magazines, books and websites and a lot of writers—all in all the numbers are incredible, and there’s been an evolution of discourses. You may not have the best art critics in the world now, but you do have a kind of media sphere around it. If you do a survey of how many newspapers are looking at contemporary art it’s pretty amazing. You may not have a Roberta Smith writing, but you have some relatively interesting young writers who are really writing.

DE: Yes I agree, the artists also tend to write well about their work. Much more so than in Britain or America.

HH: I think that over time there’s a kind of narrative that can be shared, maybe in a fragmented way. We might need to develop some strategies. Actually, the next important thing to do, which I am actually personally planning to do, is build a research organization. This organization would serve a network of institutions and also help to encourage writers and researchers. Asia Art Archive has done a great job in the past 10 years, they have really set a model, and this kind of activity should be considered in China. In addition, the Times Museum has built a new research center called the HB Station. It’s run by two artists Huang Xiao Peng and Xu Tan. Their activities are a little bit like independent studies. Every weekend they gather 15 researchers to do case studies on the cultural development in the region—all the questions of society, art and urbanism in the Pearl River Delta. It’s a little bit like an extension of the B Lab initiative in 2005 but now they’re more systematic and focused. It’s a very small organization, with a very small budget but I think it’s a wonderful beginning. This step will come as the next step in institution building. I’m in conversation with a few organizations on how to extend this, so I think it’s promising.

CT: This issue of chaos and order is very interesting, but a more important point here is about how the art institution itself is becoming a site where the narrative of culture, of our time and place, is being made. The point is about how to make a site where true openness is possible for society. Optimistically, the chaotic situation for art in China also indicates how experiments for the art institution might become an experiment for new social institutions in the future. China, being in the state of flux that it is in, exercises a lot of governmental control; but we also see a lot of things being permitted and society gradually opening up. In that sense the art institution is really fulfilling its function as an art platform, in that it is experimenting on the idea of the “institution,” and gradually building up new narratives about future Chinese society.

HH: Yes, I totally agree with you. If you look in other domains, for instance the business world, there are a few very interesting universities that have developed research centers like the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in Beijing or Fudan University in Shanghai, who offer an ongoing training program for people who have already built a career. They are training some very interesting business elites. On the other hand, there are also some cultural figures joining these programs, like Zhang Zikang, who was the director of the Today Museum, he was also part of the program. So you can see that there’s a conversation and experimentation going on concerning the whole social institution, leading toward a more relevant political and social organization in the country, and the cultural institutions are part of that process. The next step must be to somehow open up more conversations between different fields. It’s about much more than funding, it’s about creating a real public sphere around the necessity of intellectual and practical experiments. We just need some people to push this conversation a little bit further and then things will come together.

Another interesting thing is that when you look at Chinese magazines today, for instance those on celebrities, who do you see? Unlike in the West, art celebrities and business celebrities are cooked in the same pot, and this signifies certain intriguing categorizations being generated in this chaotic situation. Those people may be leading the public opinion, on this possibility of dialogue, at least to some extent. In a way this does indicate how borders are being broken down which suggests a certain kind of image that should be discussed.

CT: Well, I hope that what you are saying will lead to results. Art can be put to work in different ways, and we certainly hope that other dimensions of art, other ways of looking at things and organizing things, can filter through.

HH: I really think that at the end of the day, art is a really personal and intimate activity for anyone involved—artist, curator and collector. But institutions are actually building a public sphere in which dreams, these activities, can be even more personal. This is the dynamic that we need to build. But if you don’t have this perfect sphere that generates this kind of energy, the personal will become less and less interesting and relevant. So building institutions around this dynamic is really important. It’s not a governmental agenda, not a business agenda, but it’s really about how to look at this picture from a certain perspective, driven by this energy. I’m not so sure how to describe this yet, but I’m really trying to understand why we need these institutions. It’s not because the government or the business people need it. It’s because society pushed them to do it. This is extremely important to emphasize.

SA: I just wanted to share something else from my end, which is that in Bangladesh traditional museums have rarely taken curatorial practice seriously. They officially have a curator, but this person has never had a role whereas private collectors are actually engaging curators to put together their shows and to advise on acquisition. That is a shift where curatorial practice is becoming far more important now, with these new people coming in, than it had ever been in more traditional museums. Even today, traditional museums have not changed, they don’t yet have any curatorial policy or position.

JJ: So I guess this leads to the question of where these curators are coming from? Where are the education programs, whether in Bangladesh or China, that are designed to produce them?

HH: There are a few people who have been trained outside of China who are now curators in various museums and then some museums have actually hired European or American curators to be director or curators. Ullens Center in Beijing may not be considered a Chinese institution, but it is, and they have directors from France and from the States, some who have been living in China for a while. The Rockbund has Larys Frogier from France, and the Nanjing Museum just hired a Belgian curator-at-large. So they do have people from outside. There are also some interesting curators who are also artists, which is a new situation is quite interesting. You have people like Chang Peili and others who have become directors of museums. Zhou Tiehai, who has been with the Minsheng Museum for four years, has generated a very interesting model and program about the kind of articulation he is trying to develop. So there’s a mixture of various people. The next question is, what kind of curator do we need to train for the next step? Are we simply going to replicate the Royal College curatorial program or try to generate very diverse practices? So the curatorial approaches are very different, including people who are self-invented, from the ground. How we combine these two ways of thinking about curating is really important.

JJ: So much of that discussion and infrastructure is at an incipient stage at the moment. Are people coming out of nonprofits as well?

HH: Yes. I really value self-organized, nonprofit organizations. In a way many of these so-called museums also function as nonprofits that are not that different from artist-run spaces. For example, organizations like Arrow Factory in Beijing, or Vitamin Creative Space, which is a gallery but does many non-profit activities. Over the years, you see the coming and going of those kinds of organizations, but the people remain. These days you see the possibility for these individuals to work for museums. So it’s a question of how to help them continue to develop their original activities, as a kind of self-invented curators. For example, Pauline Yao coming to Hong Kong, it’s really important to say, “Pauline, you should continue to do things like what you did in Beijing,” and to help her prevent Hong Kong from having an institution that is not simply a replica of other international institutions. It’s really important to take help preserve and take advantage of all their individual characters.

JJ: Wassan, can you expand on your earlier idea about resisting pressures to do displays that might receive a seal of approval from Western curators?

WK: It’s more about how to get the institution that you are directing or leading to be legitimized by the West. There’s still very much a desire to get the West’s magic wand of approval, of being worthy to be written about, or talked about and engaged with in some way or another.

JJ: Is this coming from the West or from people within the local cultural scene?

WK: Unfortunately, it’s coming from within the region.

JJ: On a personal level, who did you feel you were doing your displays for at Mathaf? Who was your audience? Why do you curate?

WK: When I was working at Mathaf, we thought about our audiences in concentric circles: the local, the regional and the international. Each of the three groups had very different needs, backgrounds and understanding of art. Locally, we had a very naive public that was either very curious or sometimes didn’t care at all. Then we had a regional audience that was expecting the museum to step up to the plate and bring all the players from the region together, bring resources together, work on funding and work with artists, directly commissioning new work. So there was a different response regionally. Then, internationally there was a research and scholarship need. I think it kind of depends on how one defines what is successful. When you work in an institution there are different stakeholders and different people have different ideas of what success looks like. So it’s about managing those expectations and finding ways to go across the three levels of your audiences, and fulfilling their needs while keeping your stakeholders happy.

JJ: Can you point to any institutions that you admire for being able to achieve that?

WK: No [laughs], I think it’s a very difficult task.

SA: Can I bring in an example? Francisco Toledo, in Oaxaca, almost single-handedly has transformed that city into a city museum, if you like. Aside from making his own work available, he has actually bullied the establishment and galvanized the business and art community into all working together to revive a lot of the things that have been lost—warehouses and things like that have been converted into museums. There are wonderful residencies. It really is such a vibrant art space now because one artist has decided that that is the character that the city will have. Of course, he’s a major artist who has contributed his own artwork to the process, but it’s a wonderful example of how someone can champion that transformation, and an entire city follows and has become a very different city as a result.

DE: Also, there’s the political dimension of supporting the Indian population which is still heavily discriminated against. Toledo is really championing this underclass in Mexico and giving them a cultural space in the present. It’s incredible. He’s a great example. I don’t know of anywhere else where there are indigenous populations where an artist has made such a difference. Artists usually get involved in first people’s job creation schemes like what has happened in Australia. They steer clear of activism unless they are first peoples themselves.

JJ: I guess I had viewed it as a risk that appealing to regional and international audiences would tend to be prioritized over the local. Tobias, you were talking about development, and how you can build an institution that’s accessible and yet that can still attain what is demanded by the art world.

TB: Apart from the original idea a long, long time ago—the West Kowloon Cultural District originated from a study by the tourist board—the idea of tourism hasn’t really been part of our brief, either at the museums or at the theaters. We are strongly against the belief that we are building M+ as a museum for tourism. We are building something here that is going to be interesting, firstly, for the local people, and then it will become interesting automatically for everyone else from the outside, since that is why people go to museums: to see something local and special. We’ve started the Hong Kong development already—that’s why we are doing “Mobile M+” exhibitions, that’s why we are doing these workshops and seminars called Mobile M+, because we want to have this whole project built from the inside out, from a curatorial, professional point of view. We are not having a building built and then having professionals come in.

We have a very unique chance to do this ourselves. There are different developments: audience development, but also capacity development, which means you have to build your own back-of-house people and staff. You have to learn how to deal with your environment—the local staff and the staff coming from somewhere else. Then you have to further expand the art scene as well, the professionals. Something like Para/Site, or the place that we are here, Spring Workshop, these are not places that should develop huge, wide audiences, these are professional development places. There are different kinds of audiences—at the local, regional and international levels, people that know a lot and don’t know a lot—that are coming to the museum. There are students coming to the museum, and school children, and then people who are perfectly knowledgeable about it. So you have many different layers. Even among the knowledgeable people, there are people who come in to see one work and then people who want to walk around for a couple of hours. So you have so many layers of different audiences that you have to develop. It’s a very complicated task.

WK: I used to think of it as layers of information. When putting an exhibition together, how can we make different layers to the exhibition that can be accessible to different audiences that will visit the museum. One of the things that I used to think about as a way to measure our success was that if there was a threat that the museum would be shut down, that people in the community would come together and say, “This place made an impact on us, we don’t want you to close it down.” That was when I would know that we did a good job because that meant the museum means something to the community, it’s anchored.

DE: This seems to be the great contrast between the project that you’ve developed and the Abu Dhabi Guggenheim, which is actually creating something from scratch on site rather than bringing something from outside and dumping it in the middle of the desert. Were you thinking of that while you were working and putting your project together?

WK: When I went to Doha, it was actually right when the Saadiyat Island project was being announced. The first task I had on arrival was to register the collection, there were 6,400 objects that needed to be registered and a collection-management system needed to be put in place. The process of going through the collection itself is what made me realize that  Mathaf’s collection was unique and that’s what the story of this museum needed to be about. It needed to be about this museum’s collection and this particular individual’s vision to bring all of these works together at a time, in the early 1990s, when no one had been thinking about that. He only bought art from the Arab world because he wanted to start a discourse on modernity in the Arab world. So, with my awareness of the developing arts agenda in the Gulf region, I helped frame our situation as being the right moment to do something, instead of waiting to build a large building, which would takes years. That’s how we were able to get momentum behind the idea of taking over the school, which became Mathaf’s current building, which is considered the temporary home for Mathaf because there has always been the desire to build a bigger home for the museum and its collection. But the Museum’s current building, because it’s a school, has a scale that people can understand. People went to that school. The idea of reusing a building is very uncommon, so people didn’t think it was a very important project locally until His Highness came and inaugurated it. Then it was important in the eyes of the immediate community.

DE: Well, that seems like the perfect model. You’re actually starting with a collection and a set of ideas and networks, then occupying a building—which is what Minsheng have done. They have reused an old building, as have the Rockbund, rather than thinking about making the museum and then deciding what to put in it.


Tobias Berger and David Elliott during a break in proceedings.

JJ: I want to shift the discussion over to the role of commercial galleries. They’ve been enormously important in the development of the art scene in Malaysia, Indonesia and elsewhere, along with small nonprofits. Despite this, galleries seem to be getting themselves a rather mixed reputation—why do you think that is, Valentine?

VW: Well, only because there is a lack of alternative institutional spaces, so we are filling in for this lack. Every year when we start our programming, I start with six shows that I want to do. None of which will make money. Then I have to find six more that will make money. It always starts like that. It’s easy to have the six that you know are not going to make money, but then the other six are more difficult. A lot of gallieries are doing that. And artist-run spaces like Cemeti are very important in Indonesia. These are spaces with no government money, there’s a little bit of foreign funding, but Indonesia is relatively low-cost so it’s easy to do things there. It’s also still doable in countries like the Philippines. There are a number of artist-run-spaces coming up there. They provide a platform to artists who are doing work that is not obviously commercial. This becomes more difficult in places like Hong Kong and Singapore where you have kind of semi-government spaces like Substation, where there is a little bit of control and so you’re not that free. By contrast, Cemeti is almost completely free. For our gallery, we just have to make sure that the other six shows to pay for the first six.

JJ: Why are there are so many successful artists coming out of these countries, despite the fact that there isn’t so much infrastructure? What is it about this situation, which we are characterizing as problematic, that produces such a large quantity of strong artists?

VW: Indonesia and the Philippines are huge countries. Indonesia has 250 million people, so the basic material is there. Philippines has a history of art education that has always been a little more sophisticated than the rest of Southeast Asia—both in terms of art making and collecting. Collecting is really an integral part of the creative process. There needs to be someone who will look at art and, hopefully, eventually buy it. Even when I do show something that I know will never sell, I still dream that someone will buy it. Government institutions, especially in Singapore and Malaysia, stay away from anything that is remotely controversial. You’ll also find that some of the museums in the region are following auctions. They say, “Okay, Masriadi is doing great at auction. Let’s do a show now.” They wouldn’t have thought of him before, but because he’s done well at auction, they will consider him, and you’ll find the same with Ronald Ventura. STPI [Singapore Tyler Print Institute] is another institution that is connected with the government, and will invite artists who are doing well at auction. The ones who are not doing well at auction don’t get a chance. So we have to constantly fight against this.

JJ: So, you’re not a great fan of the massive expansion of the auction house or art fair into these regions.

VW: Well, it’s a very important part of the whole art ecosystem. One of the reasons that there is a boom in Southeast Asia is because of these two artists have reached a million. Nobody looked at Southeast Asian art until Masriadi reached a million and nobody looked at Filipino art until Ventura reached a million, it’s a sad fact.

JJ: So it’s a trickle-down process. Have the benefits reached the rest of the infrastructure?

VW: Yes, there is a plus side, people are looking at Indonesian art because if someone who is 35 can make a million, they want to know who’s going to be the next Masriadi, the next Ventura. Also, at a very early stage, a parent who is thinking of sending their kid to art school will think that he could possibly make a living.

JJ: So, why are you getting out of this right now?

VW: I’ve done it for a long time and when I first started it was really just me and frame shops. But now there are about 20 galleries in Malaysia, and two auction houses as well which opened in the last few years. It’s time to move on to a different part of the art world. The institution is really where I’m heading.

JJ: You think private museums can build up the necessary infrastructure?

VW: I think there needs to be an impetus. It should ideally all be publicly funded. At some point, when the funder runs out of money, the community will say “no, we want to keep this,” and there will be pressure for the government to take over what has become such an integral part of the community. At this point, I think it’s very important that the private collector and people with vision start, because we need to be the impetus. The government is not going to do it. The private sector must be the one providing the impetus. And we’re looking to M+, and we’re looking to Korea in terms of how the corporate world are managing this and making it sustainable.

JJ: Rudy, you were talking about how the gallery scene has changed recently.

RT: I think that in art collecting there are two layers: the primary market and the secondary market. The primary market is mainly the commercial gallery and the secondary market is usually private sales and auction houses.

I spend a lot of time in New York in order to visit commercial galleries. Almost every Thursday there’s a gallery-hopping night in Chelsea—it’s just non-stop. In the Lower East Side, there are 200 to 300 very small galleries with really good quality works at low prices. They sometimes even open on Sunday nights, with live bands and beer. Even if you’re not a collector, you can start thinking about how to collect. So many great directors and curators visit private galleries in New York because they believe that these galleries can deliver museum quality works, even for the primary market. Now, unfortunately those experiences haven’t traveled or translated to Asia.

When I started collecting I discovered that the best galleries in Asia were located in Tokyo. There are at least five to ten world-class, quality galleries there that really build their collector base and won’t sell artwork unless they know you. They want to know that you are a serious collector, not a speculator. In other cities in Asia that I’ve visited recently, like Seoul, there is a lot of support for galleries. Corporate-run galleries, like Kukje and Hyundai, they have restaurants, wine collections and wonderful shows including international artists.

When I visited Hong Kong, I didn’t know why there were so many international galleries and am honestly still a bit curious about the business model—I know it is partially a tax issue. Yesterday I was having a discussion with the directors of the new White Cube, and they told me that most of the work they’re selling is not to Hong Kong people, but outside of Hong Kong—maybe a few to expats, but not to Cantonese. So I don’t know how long the Hong Kong business model will last. But in terms of taxes, if you buy a painting in London you pay a certain percentage. But in Hong Kong it’s basically tax-free, since a collector can buy the art there and keep it here for a few years. Then, it can serve as an investment that they can sell in the US without paying any tax, as opposed to in London where you pay the tax twice: when you buy and when you sell.

In Asia, auction houses generally take the lead—in a lecture organized by a Hong Kong auction house on the subject of upcoming Southeast-Asian artists, one of the speakers had a presentation entitled “we take the lead.” But it’s different elsewhere. In New York, for example, if there’s a Spring auction at Sotheby’s or Christie’s, it is a big event, but not a major, major one in a city where there are so many other things going on. In Southeast Asia auctions are even more important because there isn’t much support from collectors for local artists. When I was in Singapore, I noticed that collectors mainly went for international works. It wasn’t Singaporean works being sold to Singapore collectors. It’s even worse in Malaysia and the Philippines because there are no good quality galleries. Five or six years ago I visited Manila for the very first time and found that the mode of transaction was with US currency, in cash, not the usual process of shipping the works and then wiring money. They still don’t have a system. I hope that in the future the art system, as it exists in New York, will travel to Asia, especially to Hong Kong, and that there will be more alternative spaces and small, successful galleries.

TB: It’s almost mean to say it, now that I’m working for the huge M+, but I said it when I was working at Para/Site as well: Hong Kong has almost too many small, nonprofit spaces—six or seven at least. So instead of supporting one, two or three nonprofits, the money gets divided into four or five and the spaces continue to operate on a small scale. Yes, it’s nice to have lots of nonprofit spaces, but the reason that projects like the Central Police Station are so important is because they provide a certain level of infrastructure, and that’s why we need something like M+ or a kunsthalle. The problem is that there are no smaller local galleries—for example, there were only a very few in Hong Kong as of last year. One just recently closed its doors, which was a disaster, and some other ones are struggling. So on the one hand, there is international art coming in, but we are not building enough of a collector base or enough support to have the smaller galleries that are so important. It’s great that White Cube is here, Gagosian, Perrotin and so on, but what’s really important for the Hong Kong infrastructure is the younger, smaller Hong Kong galleries that foster young challenging artists and give them the chance to produce. That’s the problem at the moment.

DE: I don’t think the problem is that there are too many nonprofits but more that there is a lack of any central government policy on what sort of arts infrastructure it wants to see created and how it will support it. For its population, six or seven, or even ten nonprofits is not too many. Some are going to be bad, but then that provides competition for others to come up and then you support the good ones. But a pathetic amount of public money gets spent on nonprofits. Where the money’s been going, for years, I’m afraid, is M+. Now we are at last seeing a return for it, thankfully.

TB: It’s a bit more complicated. M+ doesn’t get more money as a result of nonprofits getting less, they are two completely different categories of spending.

DE: I’m not being critical of M+, but if you look at the effect that the Tate Modern had in London, it sterilized the funding possibilities for nonprofits, not just for London itself but elsewhere in England. Yes, it’s a big tourist destination, but I wonder if there is a price being paid in terms of originality in programming and research, which presently seem pretty paltry to me. If more money were invested in nonprofits, maybe there would be a more vibrant art scene. The Tate did not create the YBAs, it surfed on their fame though.

TB: I think that money should be invested in non-profits, but it’s these big projects bring in people—the professionals and research. We have been talking about all these people, like Pauline Yao and Pi Li, who have been brought here because of this project and wouldn’t not be here otherwise. There should definitely be a better policy for nonprofits, and the more the merrier, but there should be another step also. That’s why a project like the Central Police Station should not be left solely as a non-governmental institution. There should be a little more transparency, but it’s also about building up an art infrastructure. If you look at Korea, they’ve done it almost by the book. They have the nonprofit spaces, they have the art schools and research centers. That’s why the system works, because they’ve built up these different layers. Australia and New Zealand are also success stories.

DE: Yes, I think it brings us right back to what we were talking about at the beginning, which was the idea of a public space. A space for the public good, which I’m sure M+ will be and we hope the Central Police Station will be also. Operating in the zone of the public—maybe less fluidly than in China, where the public idea doesn’t yet exist as a concept.

TB: Well that was Tsong-zung’s great line in the Hong Kong Eye book, where he basically defined Hong Kong as “the public space of China.” I thought this was one of his most brilliant ideas.

DE: It still needs to be reified in terms of buildings and self-supporting institutions. The obstacle CPS faces at the moment is not the building, which is already going ahead, but finding an operating model that will create this public space. We’re waiting to see how this will transpire. It is out in the public domain now, looking for offers. There’s no way that it’s going to operate at a sufficiently high level with zero funding. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.

JJ: Would it be fair to say that part of Seoul’s success is that both public and private money have been harnessed and maybe those are the extra resources that Hong Kong hasn’t located?

HK: I would say yes. Having two sources of funding helps. I guess we all agree on the importance of commercial galleries or collectors for the ecosystem. However, it is also a question of how and where private investors contribute. For example, Kukje Gallery, started working with Haegue Yang only as she was gaining an international reputation, and PKM Gallery also worked with artist Minouk Lim during a similar phase of international exposure. Some strong European gallery models are based on close friendships with the artists. They promote the early stages of the artist’s career, invest, make a progressive collection and finally build a solid relationship based on a certain appreciation of their qualities. Galleries find unknown, yet promising artists and promote them to institutions and curators. In South Korea, galleries mostly find their artists through independent or institutional curators, so they become the last step of the pyramid. Since galleries care more about how sellable work is to their collectors, many respectable Korean artists still don’t have representation in their country. In the Korean context, the curator and public institution have a stronger role, supporting rigorous but non-marketable artists to carry on their practices. I would say that the private sector, as a part of the ecosystem, needs to make an effort to contribute to the scene, and not only focus on limited and unpromising current market values.

JJ: You seem to be suggesting that the relationship between the artist and the curator, and to a lesser extent with public institutions, is the artist’s best route, rather than through the galleries. Whereas in Hong Kong, one might say that most artists establish a relationship with the gallery quite early, possibly too early. Would you say that there’s a relatively healthy relationship between galleries and artists in Hong Kong, Tsong-zung?

CT: It’s difficult to generalize. In Hong Kong, artists generally have a long-term relation with the gallery, but partly this is because the market has always been very small and there hasn’t been sufficient financial temptation to shop around. If you look at China or Taiwan, for example, where the market has become very active and very robust, the mercenary interest of the art object changes the situation quite drastically. Collectors would start to commission artists directly, auction houses start giving primary exhibitions. These all change the ecosystem. But the relationship between the artist and the gallery is not exactly a normal contractual business relationship. It’s more like a friendship or a marriage. To maintain the relationship you have to tolerate idiosyncrasies, disloyalties, betrayals. So art relationship works slightly differently; it is a more human sort of institution.

VW: Yes, it’s much more a human relationship than a contractual one. At the recent Guggenheim show, the curator basically bypassed all the galleries and went straight to the artists for purchases. She knew the artists, she chose the artists and went directly to them. The artists were quite happy to deal directly. It’s the same with auction houses and art fairs being primary markets, and foreign galleries turning up and offering shows to the artists we’ve nurtured, giving them shows in New York then six months later opening a gallery in Singapore showing the same artists. This means that the local guys will be eventually phased out. That’s the real danger. We don’t have branches in Berlin and New York, so we can’t compete. Often we’ll say to our artists, that if they get a show in New York to please go, because we don’t have that reach. But then we find that they sell back to our own clients. If there’s a Filipino artist showing in New York, the gallery will be selling to the Philippines. It’s the same in Indonesia. Agus Suwage is showing right now in New York, I’m sure half of the works will be sold to Indonesia. So that’s our market, our audience. We get a little bit upset, but that’s the nature of the business. At Art Stage in Singapore recently, the organizers selected 25 artists and said, “You do work for us. We take 50 per cent. We’ll pay for shipping.” These were artists already represented by galleries. As a consequence, all the galleries pulled out. There were only three from Indonesia there. That’s what we have to deal with. This wouldn’t happen in Europe, for example—the art fair competing with the galleries. It’s so nascent here. I’ve been in business here 20 years and I still use the word “nascent.”

Tobias Berger in conversation with Shahidul Alam on Skype.

JJ: Tobias, does Art Basel in Hong Kong mirror this? What is its relevance to you?

TB: This is a thing that’s very difficult for my friends in Europe to understand, that here in Asia, especially in Hong Kong, for years, art fairs and auction houses had more of an impact than any state museum ever had. If you compare the situation in Singapore and Hong Kong, you see that Singapore is really trying to do things right from the official state side while in Hong Kong the government doesn’t do anything for the art fair, in fact it almost makes things difficult for them, and it’s almost the same with the auction houses, yet both had a big impact in Hong Kong. Yes, certainly it has to do with taxes, but also just the fact that you have over 60,000 people coming to the art fair. It has to do with the fact that you have the best of the best of art being offered at fairs and auction previews. It’s about development—developing people’s eyes, giving them a chance to look at singular artworks—but it doesn’t give them the chance to look at curated shows, and that’s a big problem. It’s only the auction or gallery’s point of view. That’s why we need that museum, we cannot leave it up to the galleries and the auction houses. But it certainly helps to bring artists, curators and conversation in, and to bring interest to the local art scene. The art fair also had a big impact on the non-commercial scene. In the next art fair, the Burger Collection will do something with 1a Space. The Burger Collection is sort of inbetween, but 1A Space is non-commercial. So there are these things that are good about the art fair, and I think that without all these galleries and art spaces we wouldn’t be sitting here at a place like Spring Workshop.

VW: I also think disproportional impact of the art fair and auctions in the region is due to the fact that there is no institution. There is no one else to say what is good, so auction houses end up doing it by default. People look at the catalogue and judge based on prices. There aren’t museums to say: look at this, this is good and here is the reason why.

JJ: Were there any other subjects that we wanted to return to?

TB: I wanted to talk about numbers, I like numbers sometimes. As Rudy mentioned, they’re going to build hundreds of museums in China and I’ve been hearing that since I arrived here in 2005. Let’s compare that to the US, has around 7,500 museums. So if you calculate that China has about five or six times more people, and you calculate number of museums per person, we will have to build about 30,000 museums in China in the next ten or twenty years. That’s good news right? It’s a huge number, and it will not be that many, but it’s interesting to think about what that could bring.

DE: But without an idea of what public space is or a historical narrative—even a tradition of museology—it’s going to be a pretty tall order. There’s the Shanghai Art Museum and a couple others, but there’s a real lack of an idea of what a museum is and what it can do. Hanru has been talking about the opportunity within the chaos, and I guess when there’s nothing else on the table, that’s what you have to go for, and just hope it works out. But in my experience many people with power—politicians, financiers and property developers—are not so well known for their interest in or appreciation of contemporary art unless they think they can use it for their own ends. That’s the problem.

VW: Museums and art spaces are sites of contention, sites for debate, for dialogue. That’s I think why Hanru and Johnson are optimistic, because if you have just ten in China, that’s still better than 20 years ago.

SA: The distinction between nonprofit and profit should be re-articulated as a question of why as opposed to what. There are many different models, you’ve got not-for-profit companies, you’ve got many other things. But I think what these organizations are trying to achieve is quite different from one another, and that is the more important criteria to recognize. One thing that has been done, and which nonprofits are more likely to do than major establishments, is having public programming. We, for instance, have taken our shows and made them mobile, taking them to football fields, to school playgrounds and marketplaces. These are the kinds of engagements that mainstream institutions rarely go into. They’re far more traditional in their outlook. I think those sorts of alternative spaces are very interesting to look at.

JJ: Yes, that is something that one owes one’s stakeholders to do.

DE: I don’t think that being a nonprofit is a virtue at all, in fact the reverse. No matter where the money’s coming from, it’s actually your ethos as an organization that’s the important thing. Whether you’re privately funded or not doesn’t matter. Up to a certain point, even where the money comes from doesn’t matter. It’s what you do with it, and that you keep your freedom to do what you do with it, and what you think is necessary to do with it. I don’t think that one can pontificate because each cultural situation is quite different. At the end of the day the hope is for open, transparent, free, optimistic, public arts-based organizations that are there for art and respond to art. And not just any art, good art. Someone has to put their views on the line about this and get the debate going.

CT: Between creativity and institution, taking Hong Kong as example, there is one very important link: there needs to be an art scene of some sort, where artistic discourse gets exchanged. I think art schools make a very big difference. Without these research and educational loci of discussion, it’s very difficult for art to develop. I remember growing up in Hong Kong in the 1960s and 1970s, the situation was rather dire; there was no focal point of artistic discourse. However, political discussions in those days were very lively—the enigmatic sayings of the Chairman were analyzed daily by the public as omens of national fate, and it was political soothsaying and imaginations about China’s political and cultural fortune that shaped the character of Hong Kong art. How the art scene is being built up is important for its character; if you build up an art scene just around a market, then art mercenaries are what you will get for artists.

WK: There are many museums being planned in Qatar—which is fantastic—and there are more efforts to support commissioning artists for exhibitions and public spaces. Overall there are more spaces to exhibit, but the art scene still seems unbalanced. There needs to be a balance between the larger institutions and the spaces initiated by artists, curators and enthusiasts or patrons. This would add layers to the art scene, allowing multiple voices, and I think that’s what’s needed in order to achieve the things we’re discussing today. But we have to acknowledge that each city has its own process, or path, to getting there.