Supporting a university art museum in Hong Kong: The vital role of its “Friends” explained – interview

Art Radar finds out more about the open, dynamic, multicultural organisation that is attracting people to art.

Dominica Yang, Chair of The Friends in Hong Kong, tells Art Radar about the organisation that attempts to bring people to art museums and art museums to people. In addition to supporting the university museum at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, The Friends’ activities also go further and attract a diverse audience.

Dominica Yang, Chair of The Friends of the Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong. Image courtesy The Friends of the Art Museum, Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Dominica Yang, Chair of The Friends of the Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong. Image courtesy The Friends of the Art Museum, Chinese University of Hong Kong.

The Friends of the Art Museum, the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) was founded in 1981 to promote the study and appreciation of Chinese art and culture. To that end, The Friends sponsor lectures, study groups and tours to places of interest in Hong Kong and throughout Asia. Through these and other fundraising activities, they provide annual scholarships to art students at The Chinese University and contribute to the acquisition fund of the Art Museum.

Since November 2013, The Friends have sponsored two CUHK students to study Art Radar Institute’s online course Certificate in Art Journalism & Writing 101. For more information on Art Radar’s online courses, visit www.artradarjournal.com/learning.

We spoke to Yang about her involvement with The Friends, and her hopes and vision for its future.

Flyer for an exhibition of Chinese calligraphy on now at the Art Museum CUHK, which is the museum that The Friends supports. Image courtesy The Friends of the Art Museum, Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Flyer for an exhibition of Chinese calligraphy on now at the Art Museum CUHK, which is the museum that The Friends supports. Image courtesy The Friends of the Art Museum, Chinese University of Hong Kong.

It’s November 2014, and you’re wrapping up your second year as Chair of The Friends of the Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong. How did your relationship with The Friends begin?

My relationship with The Friends started over ten years ago. I was on the board ten years ago, and I helped the organisation for at least three to five years. After that, I took a break for a few years because of family and work commitments. In the early 2000s, I was taking care of Products and Membership for the society. Hong Kong is a very small community: I was invited to some activities through friends and they encouraged me to become a member. If you like art, you like meeting people, you like being able to give and you like working hard, it really is a lovely group and you meet really nice people through it. Even when I wasn’t involved for ten years, I was still helping to design new products, and a lot of my friends are members so I’ve always stayed in touch. Two years ago, a member approached me and asked, now that my children are much older, whether I’d be free to help. So, here I am again.

The art world can feel a little intimidating at times, especially for people who are new to art. Is the idea of accessible art important to The Friends?

Yes, and the access to art that we offer is guided, it’s warm. We operate in a very relaxed way. We also don’t charge a lot of money for our events. Occasionally the fee is a little higher because of the speaker, venue and the catering, but generally, it’s all very relaxed.

The Friends is very prolific in terms of the events that you hold. Why does the organisation keep such a busy schedule?

We run all these events with the help of volunteers, and sometimes we stretch ourselves a bit too thin. We often have to slow things down a bit. We come across really interesting projects or ideas and you don’t want to lose an opportunity to organise an interesting event, but sometimes we have to spread the activities out a bit more. We have to try to balance the schedule and our resources.

How big is The Friends’ organisational team?

At the moment, we have thirteen board members and each member has specific duties. The Chair will oversee activities, but will also try to network and take care of the relationship between the museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, look for sponsors and maintain good communication with scholars.

We recently started a new group called Young Friends, which is something I initiated when I first started in the role of Chair. I’ve always wanted to engage new generations. I find, especially in Hong Kong, our local young talents are very shy. They often haven’t been abroad, and they find it very hard to step up and try to sell themselves. As an artist, that’s what you need to do. I want to create opportunities for them to meet other people, to be able to ask questions, or to just take those first steps outward. As part of this new programme, we took on on a Young Friends volunteer two years ago – Alexandra Choa. Now, our Young Friends Group has expanded. We’ve held events to help Young people network through art. We create opportunities for young artists.

Last June, we were very proud to co-host, with HongKong Land, an exhibition of artwork by five young local emerging artists at the Rotunda at Exchange Square in Hong Kong. It was an amazing achievement for us. We’ve now invited Alexandra to join The Friends’ board. Young Friends is a very important branch of our organisation. We believe in building network and opportunities for our future generation.

You mentioned earlier that you have a volunteer programme. Could you tell me more about how this part of the organisation works?

Apart from the ten board members, we also have a group of volunteers. The group is always in flux: sometimes volunteers stay with us for many years, some leave for a while because they’re travelling. When they come back to Hong Kong, they come back to us. Volunteers help us to run certain activities: some people run one-off events, some will manage our booth at art fairs and other events. They aren’t required to come to board meetings.

Could you give me an example of a typical event that The Friends would run?

There isn’t a typical Friends event as such, but we’re always looking for something unique and of interest to our members. For example, I started the Chair’s Series when I became Chair. The Chair’s Series features talks on personal and family experiences from Old Hong Kong, Old Shanghai, Old Macau – true, personal stories relating to history in the region. It has become one of the most popular series. I’m always open to suggestions; I think it’s important to offer a variety of activities.

A group of travellers on a The Friends-organised art and culture trip pose for a photograph at the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Pasargadee, in Iran. Image courtesy The Friends of the Art Museum, Chinese University of Hong Kong.

A group of travellers on a The Friends-organised art and culture trip pose for a photograph at the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Pasargadee, in Iran. Image courtesy The Friends of the Art Museum, Chinese University of Hong Kong.

How do you tie this kind of activity back to the art museum and the original aims of the organisation?

Originally, the organisational aim of The Friends was to try to bring people to the art museum and bring the art museum to the people. Since then, our mission has broadened, and we want to promote art awareness and also art educational support through the scholarships we make available to CUHK art students. We arrange art and cultural tours for our members. In the beginning, we only organised tours within the region, but we have expanded in recent years. Now we go to anywhere in the world: we’ve been to Ethiopia, countries in the Middle East and South America… We really go everywhere. We have members who join us only for the travel opportunities that we offer. We also have members who only come to the talks, we have members who only want to buy our products, and some members are not very active all, but occasionally, when they see an event or talk that interests them, they’ll attend. We have about 550 members at this time.

Are many of your members Chinese or from Hong Kong, or does The Friends’ membership mostly consist of expats?

I would say a big percentage, maybe seventy percent, are non-Chinese, but some of these members, while they could be called expats, have actually been living in Hong Kong for many years. These people call Hong Kong their home, but they may have originally come from anywhere in the world: South Africa, England, the United States, Australia, Europe… Among our membership volunteers, we have someone from Lebanon, from England, the States, India. Our former Chair was originally from Japan. It’s a very multicultural group, which makes the organisation very dynamic, because everyone brings their own culture and their own contacts to the group. It’s this multiculturalism that allows us to offer so many different kinds of activities.

You seem to attract dynamic people to The Friends: Young Friends coordinator Alexandra Choa is a good example. Why do you think The Friends attracts this kind of person?

We’re very open. We’re not restricted to the Art Museum [CUHK]. We’re very open to new ideas, and we’re very flexible. Maybe that’s it? You have to have an open mind. We always tell people why we’re holding our events, that we’re raising funds for the art museum, but we also make it clear that we’re working to raise awareness of art in general.

It seems that The Friends also taps into the international community in a positive, useful way. Would you agree?

Yes, we tend to attract expats. That could be because we don’t normally offer our activities in Chinese. Hong Kong is a very bilingual community. We wanted our activities to be accessible for most people and English is still the universal language.

Will The Friends offer more Chinese-language activities in the future?

I think, for now, we’ll continue to hold predominantly English-language events. We will consider holding translated events, but I don’t think we’d do a completely Chinese-language event. We have many loyal, long-time members and we can’t offer something that they can’t come to.

How do you connect the non-art focused events the organisation runs – the historical events, the food events, the international tours – with your role as a supporting society for the Art Museum of the Chinese University of Hong Kong [Art Museum CUHK]?

Well, art is a very big field, and the ways in which our organisation tries to engage people has evolved through the years. We still need to raise funds for the museum, so we’ve had to expand our offerings to keep people engaged. If we only focused on the art museum itself – if The Friends was limited to what the museum offers, which is just a few exhibitions each year – then we would be limited in what we could offer our members.

The museum is located in the New Territories. Hong Kong is small, but it’s still difficult for people to get out to that part of the city. If we were holding our activities only at the museum – at home, so to speak – it would be very hard to draw people out there, especially during the week. On the weekends, people have family commitments. So we tend to do things in Central, which is much more accessible for our volunteers and members. We try to hold our events from 6:30PM to 8:30PM, and we offer wine, non-alcoholic drinks and small eats. Attendees don’t have to worry about dinner because we always provide food, but the events finish early enough for them to eat dinner should they wish to do so.

We want to make our events very accessible. We’ve found that we need to offer a wide range of events, anything to do with art and culture, and because of this we’ve become a good station for people who want to explore art and culture in Hong Kong. At the same time, we make it quite clear that we’re helping the Art Museum [CUHK].

Cards are among the many products The Friends produce to raise funds for their organisation and the Art Museum CUHK. The artwork on this card is by local artist David Hu. Image courtesy The Friends of the Art Museum, Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Cards are among the many products The Friends produce to raise funds for their organisation and the Art Museum CUHK. The artwork on this card is by local artist David Hu. Image courtesy The Friends of the Art Museum, Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Aside from events, you hold other fundraising activities including auctions, and you also develop and sell products. Could you give me a little bit more information about these additional activities? For example, what sorts of products do you develop?

Traditionally, we’ve always created stationery products: charity cards, wrapping paper, plastic folders, tote bags, fans. We always use Asian art and culture influences in the designs: artwork by CUHK students or one of our speakers, or artwork from the museum’s collection. We sell these products at our events, at the museum shop, and at holiday and Christmas fairs. We normally give the participating artist credit on the back of the product, along with the sponsor’s and the artist’s information. We’ll also include a piece of paper that gives more information on the artist – their biography – in the packaging. We try to get sponsors to cover the production costs, which is good promotion for the companies that help us.

The money that the organisation makes is fed back into your activities. Does it also go directly to the Art Museum CUHK? For example, do you support artwork acquisition and, if you do, do you have any say in what is collected by the museum?

Yes, we do. Of course, we have to make sure the art that we buy is something the museum wants. It’s quite hard to buy something for the museum now. The artworks we would consider are usually very expensive. In March 2013, the Friends are very proud to have been able to present Zen Lotus, a painting by Lui Shou Kwan, to the Art Museum. This gift was made possible by funds from the Friends Collectors Circle together with The Friends reserve funds. We hope we can give the museum a large gift in 2016 when The Friends celebrate their 35th Anniversary.

We also have a range of student scholarships that we give every year; the partnership with Art Radar Institute is a good example of this kind of support. Finally, we help the museum when they have special events, such as an anniversary or a special exhibition. The museum comes to us with their funding requests and we have a board meeting to decide how much we want to give and for what purposes.

Click here to find out more about Art Radar’s Certificate in Art Journalism & Writing.

In terms of the CUHK student scholarships that you offer, how do you decide who you should offer the scholarship to, how much the scholarship will be worth and what the scholarship will be used for?

It really depends on the nature of the project, but it’s always a board decision. As the Chair, I would recommend the scholarship offer. In instances where we don’t agree on the offer or the conditions of the offer, we take a vote.

We’ve been giving out around nine scholarships a year. Sometimes they are for travel, sometimes for internships, sometimes it helps a student fund their thesis year. There’s a variety of scholarships on offer and we’re always open for suggestions from the university’s Fine Arts Department.

Dominica Yang, Chair of The Friends of the Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong (right), presenting CUHK student On Ki Angel Choi (left) with her Art Radar Institute art writing scholarship award.

Dominica Yang, Chair of The Friends of the Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong (right), presenting CUHK student On Ki Angel Choi (left) with her Art Radar Institute art writing scholarship award.

To date, you’ve offered two CUHK students a scholarship to study the Certificate in Art Journalism & Writing at the online art journalism school, Art Radar Institute. Has The Friends been involved with art journalism or art writing in the past?

We often ask our graduates, award recipients, and our speakers and academics to write an article for our membership newsletter. We really like to involve our students in our newsletter and have them write for us, even after they’ve left the university and have established themselves in the art world. We’ve asked past recipients to write articles for us for our newsletters. Some of them have moved on in the art world and it is good to hear what they’ve been doing and how they’ve benefitted from the Friends sponsorship.

Click here to find out more about Art Radar’s Certificate in Art Journalism & Writing.

You will stay in your position as Chair for a maximum of three years. How do you envision The Friends developing during your time as Chair?

Yes, I’m now in my third year as Chair. I’m very happy to see that we’ve nurtured a wonderful relationship with the new Directors at the Art Museum [CUHK], and all the staff at the Art Museum, in the [CUHK] Fine Arts Department, as well as with our Vice-Chancellor and Mrs Sung, our Patron. Our programmes have really expanded and subsequently we are also reaching out to a bigger community and making more friends. I hope that the Friends’ love of art and culture, of learning and giving will help bring the community closer together.

To wrap up, could you tell us what resources you access to find out more about contemporary art or culture in Hong Kong? Also, what advice would you give to someone considering studying art in Asia?

I think it’s all about networking. The beauty of Hong Kong is that it’s a very small community. Everything happens, you know, within a small area. You need to be out there meeting people, and Hong Kong is a great place to do that. In terms of The Friends, we create those opportunities. Our friends meet new friends, those friends bring another friend, and that brings members in. It’s like one big family. Who knows who you’ll sit next to at the next talk or tour?

Kate Nicholson

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Related Topics: art courses, promoting art, Art Radar Institute, Certificate in Art Journalism & Writing 101, interviews, art and the community, art in Hong Kong

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