100 days of Eugene Tan: Singapore’s National Art Gallery Director on his first 3 months

Singapore’s National Art Gallery is set to hold the largest collection of Singaporean and Southeast Asian art anywhere in the world, and Director Eugene Tan is the man in charge of making that happen.

When it opens its doors in 2015, Singapore’s National Art Gallery will house modern and contemporary art from across Southeast Asia and aims to encourage new ways of looking at the region’s cultural production. Dr Eugene Tan looks back over his first 100 days as Gallery Director and explains why he is intent on bringing Southeast Asian art into the spotlight.

Chua Mia Tee, 'Epic Poem of Malaya', 1955, oil on canvas, 107 x 126 cm, collection of National Heritage Board. Image courtesy National Art Gallery, Singapore.

Chua Mia Tee, ‘Epic Poem of Malaya’, 1955, oil on canvas, 107 x 126 cm, collection of National Heritage Board. Image courtesy National Art Gallery, Singapore.

Once deemed a cultural backwater, the announcement of Singapore’s ‘Renaissance City’ initiative in 2000 saw the city-state begin investing heavily in arts and culture. From the launch of commercial galleries like those in Gillman Barracks to an increase in subsidies and funding for individual artists, the National Arts Council (NAC) has supported numerous projects to promote Singapore as a cultural hub. While the question of freedom of expression still hangs over the city-state’s arts communities investment in art infrastructure continues apace.

Integral to Singapore’s art development is the National Art Gallery, scheduled to open in 2015. Housed in the former City Hall and Court Building, the National Art Gallery will focus on dis­play­ing South­east Asian art, includ­ing Singa­porean art, from the modern and Contemporary periods.

In April 2013, Singapore-born Eugene Tan, who was in charge of the Gillman Barracks initiative, was appointed the first Director of the National Art Gallery. Art Radar caught up with Tan 100 days into his new position to find out how the experience has been so far and to hear about his aspirations for Southeast Asia’s most ambitious new art institution.

Jim Supangkat, 'Ken Dedes', 1975, mixed media, various dimensions, collection of National Heritage Board. Image courtesy National Art Gallery, Singapore.

Jim Supangkat, ‘Ken Dedes’, 1975, mixed media, various dimensions, collection of National Heritage Board. Image courtesy National Art Gallery, Singapore.

How have the first 100 days as Director of the National Art Gallery Singapore been? Can you describe the experience of establishing a regional centre for visual culture?

It has been a busy but interesting time getting up to speed with the developments of the Gallery. I have been continuing the various dialogues with key partners as well as initiating new partnerships. I have also been working with my curatorial and programming colleagues on the planning of our opening exhibitions and programmes.

It is very exciting to have the opportunity to play a part in shaping the direction and vision of this important gallery in Southeast Asia and to be working with passionate and enthusiastic colleagues. I am excited by the possibility of re-examining and defining the role that museums can play in societies in our region, to be an agency for change in our societies in the areas of education, [of] furthering the appreciation and understanding of art and expanding opportunities and possibilities for artists and artistic production in our societies. Through exhibitions and programmes that draw upon the Gallery’s extensive collection of art from Singapore and Southeast Asia as a point of departure, we will be able to provide unique perspectives on cultural production in Singapore and the region and make significant contributions toward the development of art globally.

What does a typical day in the life of a National Art Gallery of Singapore director look like?

I have to say that my typical workday is usually filled with meetings with colleagues on various aspects of the Gallery’s operations, as well as meetings with other government agencies and external parties. It is certainly very fast-paced as we gearing up towards the opening of the Gallery. In addition, I am also continuing in my role as Programme Director (Special Projects) at the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB) until the fourth quarter of this year, so time is usually in short supply.

Can you tell me about some of the works that will be on show and their contextual significance?

Artworks from the nineteenth century to present day will be exhibited in the Singapore Gallery and Southeast Asia Gallery. They range from paintings and sculptures to installation art and moving images. Key works from the national collection are presented in a combination of chronological, biographical and thematic approaches to highlight the historical development and interconnectedness of the Southeast Asian region. The artworks will be complemented by archival materials through which important art and historical developments are discussed in-depth.

Choo Keng Kwang, Incident 513, 1954, ink and paper, 20.5 x 15.5cm, collection of National Heritage Board. Image courtesy National Art Gallery, Singapore.

Choo Keng Kwang, ‘Incident 513’, 1954, ink and paper, 20.5 x 15.5 cm, collection of National Heritage Board. Image courtesy National Art Gallery, Singapore.

Which acquisitions are you excited about? Is there anything which you haven’t managed to acquire yet but want to?

As a national cultural institution devoted to the visual arts in Singapore, we will acquire works that are reflective of the breadth and depth of art histories in Singapore. For the regional collection of Southeast Asian art, we will collect works that provide a framework of significant art historical developments and major art practices in the region. We will strive towards understanding and developing the collection through regional and cross-disciplinary research and approaches.

A recent acquisition is a woodcut print by Choo Keng Kwang, one of Singapore’s established artists. His best-known works in the 1950s and 1960s include woodcut prints, as well as paintings of vanishing trades in Singapore. He is also a noted art educator and received the Public Service Star in 1978. This [recently acquired] work is an excellent example of the woodcut print genre, capturing a key moment in Singapore’s art history.

Museums can have a dusty reputation. As a young director, what are you doing to make museum-going appealing to younger, digital-savvy generations?

The museum can be an imposing place for some, so we are always looking for ways to make it less so. We have site-specific works that’ll confront people with contemporary art in public places, as well as restaurants, cafes and shops – a lifestyle component. Aside from showcasing artworks from Singapore and Southeast Asia from the nineteenth century to the present day, we will use books, archival materials and multimedia devices to further tell the story and to get people excited about art.

You have an academic background, with a PhD in art history and archaeology; Singapore is proverbially awash with city-slickers. Does the commercialism ever keep you awake at night?

It is true that the market has become more dominant in art than it should be, particularly in Asia, but the development of the arts ecology in Singapore has come a long way. The establishment of the National Art Gallery is one sign of this. We are reaching the stage where the various nonprofit entities do not only mediate the power and influence of commercial arts businesses, but are also able to work synergistically in tandem with the latter to further develop the ecology in a productive way. The key to a sustainable and productive development of the arts ecology is to ensure that this growth is driven by research and scholarship, which is where the National Art Gallery will play an important role through our exhibitions and programmes.

The National Art Gallery will hold the world’s largest collection of Southeast Asian art; do you feel a responsibility as director to showcase the region’s work?

Through an active acquisition policy of purchases and donations, the National Collection has grown to be one of the largest of its kind in the world. The Gallery sees its role as presenting the art history of Southeast Asia in a thoughtful and holistic manner. Singapore’s shared heritage with Southeast Asia allows us to better appreciate and understand the region’s cultural diversity, artistic linkages, and interconnections.

Cheong Soo Pieng, Drying Salted Fish, 1978, chinese ink and colour on cloth, 56 x 89 cm, gift of Trans Island Bus Service Ltd, collection of National Heritage Board. Image courtesy National Gallery, Singapore.

Cheong Soo Pieng, ‘Drying Salted Fish’, 1978, Chinese ink and colour on cloth, 56 x 89 cm, gift of Trans Island Bus Service Ltd, collection of National Heritage Board. Image courtesy National Gallery, Singapore.

Research and academic engagement seem paramount to the National Art Gallery. What kind of research programmes and projects will the institution establish?

The Gallery aims to be the authority for art in Southeast Asia through our various programmes like exhibitions and conferences, as well as platforms such as publications. Through these programmes and platforms, and working collaboratively with regional and international partners, we hope to build upon and further the accepted understanding of art historical developments in Southeast Asia, as well as explore the links and interconnections between art history in Southeast Asia and the global context.

Why does research form a key part of the institution’s focus? Has the region’s artistic development been side-lined or neglected in art historical discourse?

I think that Southeast Asian art is still rather under-researched and I think that is one area that needs to be addressed. We hope to address that not just by the artworks shown but also through the research that our curators are currently engaged in. Through our exhibitions and publications, we hope to examine important moments in the development of art, the relationships between the development of art in [both] the West and Asia, as well as significant artists and movements in Southeast Asia which have made important contributions to the development of art.

Since regional intellectual development and understanding are so important to the National Art Gallery, are you working with other Southeast Asian institutions to help improve their commercial and academic development?

The Gallery will partner leading institutions, curators and researchers to jointly develop exhibitions, programmes, and research projects. We are working with a number of local and regional art historians and curators to shape the Singapore and Southeast Asian permanent galleries as well as accompanying research catalogues that will be launched during the Gallery’s inauguration in 2015.

Over in Hong Kong, Lars Nittve and M+ Museum are also getting ready to open. Are you competitors or can you work together?

What we are developing for the Gallery is what we feel right for us, and we are not really looking at others in terms of competition. Lars and I know each other very well, and we are in discussions on possible collaborations.

Latiff Mohidin, Pago-Pago Series – Two Standing Figures, 1968, oil on canvas, 89 x 67 cm, collection of National Heritage Board. Image courtesy National Art Gallery, Singapore.

Latiff Mohidin, Pago-Pago Series – Two Standing Figures, 1968, oil on canvas, 89 x 67 cm, collection of National Heritage Board. Image courtesy National Art Gallery, Singapore.

Not so long ago Singapore was known as a ‘cultural desert’. Is it possible to shake that reputation in a short space of time, and how do you personally see your role in the effort to do so?

With the vision to become a global city for the arts, Singapore has carefully nurtured its arts and culture scene over the past two decades. In the visual arts sector in particular, our approach has been manifold, including the development of local artistic talents, encouraging research, showcasing local artists’ works at international platforms and audience cultivation.

To raise the profile of the arts in Singapore, various flagship events have been organised such as the Singapore Biennale, art fairs like Art Stage Singapore and Affordable Art Fair, Singapore, and the Night Festival in our historic civic district area. Collectively, we hope that these events will add vibrancy to the art scene and promote Singapore as an international arts hub – a place where the global arts community can come together for exchange and collaboration.

When the Gallery opens its doors, we hope to be a leading visual arts institution that will develop distinctive content, nurture a dynamic arts and culture ecosystem, and cultivate art-loving audiences. Most importantly, we hope to enrich and deepen the quality of life for Singaporeans.

Hernando R. Ocampo, 'Dancing Mutants', 1965, oil on canvas, 102 x 76 cm, collection of National Heritage Board. Image courtesy National Art Gallery, Singapore.

Hernando R. Ocampo, ‘Dancing Mutants’, 1965, oil on canvas, 102 x 76 cm, collection of National Heritage Board. Image courtesy National Art Gallery, Singapore.

One of the putative reasons for Singapore’s low cultural cache was intolerance towards artistic expression on the part of the Government. Some in the art community find freedom of expression still to be a stumbling block to the goal of turning the city into an art Mecca. What’s your take on this?

As a national museum, the Gallery has a responsibility to promote a higher level of art appreciation among the general public. This would include equipping them with the capability to approach different kinds of art with curiosity, empathy and an open mind. Art speaks to different people in different ways. What is most important is to engage in a dialogue with our visitors and provide them with the necessary information and choice to decide for themselves what they would like to see.

What will the next 100 days look like for you and the National Art Gallery?

Together with my team at the Gallery, we will continue our planning and preparations for the opening in 2015 and beyond. In addition, I will also be travelling to attend some international events and to present about the Gallery at international conferences.

 Cassandra Naji

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Related Topics: Singaporean art, Southeast Asian art, museum watch, interviews

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100 days of Eugene Tan: Singapore’s National Art Gallery Director on his first 3 months — 1 Comment

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