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  • Jul 11, 2022

Tan Boon Hui (1968–2022)

Portrait of TAN BOON HUI. Image via Instagram.  

Tan Boon Hui, Singaporean curator and executive director of the nonprofit Arts House Limited (AHL), passed away on July 7 from complications related to a stroke that he suffered in early May. He was 53. Tan’s support of Southeast Asian artists was ceaseless as he took on leading roles at museums, nonprofits, and festivals around the globe. He will be remembered for his dedication, humor, and booming laugh.

In an interview with Hyperallergic, Tan recalled his first experience of art: “As a very young child I remember being brought to the National Museum of Singapore, when it still had its natural history collection of animal specimens and bones, alongside ethnography and paintings. It was this strange, odd jumble of things that fascinated and sort of frightened me at the same time.” After graduating from the National University of Singapore with a degree in geography, Tan began his career as an editor for a series of publications on Southeast Asian heritage at Editions Didier Millet. In 1997, he became an assistant curator specializing in Southeast Asian ethnographic objects at the Asian Civilisations Museum.

Tan turned his focus to contemporary art as deputy director of programming at the National Museum of Singapore, where, from 2004 to 2009, he initiated platforms such as the Singapore Night Festival, of live arts and installations. The first edition of the popular event in 2008 made headlines for its spectacular acrobatic performance with dancers suspended midair outside the National Museum. While acting as the director of the Singapore Art Museum in 2009–2013, he organized the 2011 and 2013 iterations of the Singapore Biennale, and became a founding board member of the International Biennial Association in 2012. In 2015, he was the artistic director of Singapour en France – le Festival, which comprised more than 70 exhibitions and live presentations across seven French cities.

Tan moved to New York in 2015 upon his appointment as director of the Asia Society Museum and vice president of Asia Society’s global art and cultural programs. There, he conceived the Asia Society Triennial, with the first edition entitled “We do not dream alone.” After a five year stint, he moved back to Singapore. Until his death, he headed up AHL, a governmental agency that oversees a portfolio of art venues and two art festivals.

Tan was also a founding board member of The Institutum, which was established in 2019 to promote Southeast Asian art through outreach and education programs. As part of The Institutum, he conducted in-depth interviews with artists for the video series “State of the Arts.” He also co-edited the newly released SEA: Contemporary Art in Southeast Asia (2022), a compendium that spotlights the region’s significant practitioners.

Across his activities, Tan sought to create connection, mutual understanding, and empathy. He told Hyperallergic: “Art is today one of the most powerful ways to resist the isolation that larger social-political forces and structures push us towards. Before we act, we see and recognize, so art must help us recognize the deeper structures and networks that bind people, ideas, and goods through space and time.”

Tan’s passing is widely mourned. Speaking of Tan’s character, Wilson Tan, chairperson of AHL stated: “He never forgot that the artists, audiences and every staff at AHL have important voices; and always set aside time to look into their suggestions, comments and welfare.” Natalie Hennedige, director of the Singapore International Festival of the Arts, added, “Boon Hui’s passion and acute knowledge of the arts was extraordinary and deeply inspiring. What he has contributed to our arts scene is immeasurable.”

According to his partner, Jeffrey Ong, Tan will be cremated on Tuesday following a three-day wake. 

Chloe Chu is ArtAsiaPacific’s managing editor.