Taipei Contemporary Art Center: A Case Study
May 4, 2013
AAA in A, '09-'21
43 Remsen St. Brooklyn, NY
Jane DeBevoise (JD): My name is Jane DeBevoise and I am Chair of Asia Art Archive, a non-profit organization based in Hong Kong. We are a library and archive focused on contemporary art in Asia. We have a very small office here, and I split my time between Hong Kong and New York. Xiaofei, our Program Coordinator, has been the inspiration for this evening’s presentation, and she is going to do the introductions. So, over to you, Xiaofei.
Xiaofei Mo (XM): Thanks everybody for coming tonight. We are really delighted to have Meiya Cheng, Director and Curator of the Taipei Contemporary Arts Center (TCAC) to speak with us tonight. TCAC was co-founded in 2010 by Austrian artist Jun Yang and quite a few Taiwanese curators and artists with minimal funding and just one paid employee. They have organized over 130 programs, exhibitions, and talks in the past three years. TCAC is also socially and politically active within the Taiwan contemporary art scene. In my opinion, they have in many ways influenced or even shaped the cultural policy there, and we look forward to hearing more from Meiya.
Another thing that we had in mind while organizing this program was to consider if it is possible to have a definitive model of sustainability for artist-run organizations, particularly in the context of Asia.
I would also like to thank Hitomi Iwasaki from the Queens Museum of Art (QMA) for inviting Meiya to co-curate the Queens International 2013, which is opening in October. Thank you, Hitomi for making this possible. I’ll turn the floor over to you now.
Hitomi Iwasaki (HI): Hi, my name is Hitomi Iwasaki. I am a Curator at the QMA and yes indeed, Meiya is here because she is Co-curator, together with me and two other individuals from Taipei who are also part of the team that is organizing the Queens International. This is a biennial exhibition by the QMA that covers recent artistic achievements in Queens. I was in Taipei not too long ago where I had a chance to visit the new location of the TCAC and became familiar with its functions. Shortly after that I revisited where I’m from, Kyoto, and spent a substantial amount of time visiting places of cultural production. I found interesting parallels between these Japanese organizations and the TCAC, although each is based on slightly different models.
The Social Kitchen in Kyoto, Japan is one such space. Some of you may have read their e-flux announcement ‘Questions to the world from small social and cultural center in far east Asia’ earlier this year. The challenges of sustainability and funding that were described by the Social Kitchen are the most pressing issues for such twenty-first century community centers. I found interesting parallels between Kyoto’s Social Kitchen and Taipei’s TCAC, and may be able to speak in detail on that. So, here’s Meiya.
Meiya Cheng (MC): Thank you for your generous invitation and introduction. I’d like to pose two questions in the context of Asia: ‘Where is the money?’ and, ‘Where does the money go?’ For many independent institutions, it is a constant struggle to seek adequate funding. Different social contexts, circumstances, and even political ideologies may change the financial configuration of cultural institutions, and I would like to talk about what I know of Asia’s situation. As you can see, the contemporary art market is thriving. So it’s not really about a lack of money, but rather, the question is where does the money go, and why?
I’d like to take the example of the Singapore Biennale. It is one of the largest biennials in Asia since it began in 2006 under the curatorship of Fumio Nanjo, Director of the Mori Art Museum. But here I’d like to discuss why it was initiated. The Singapore Biennale was created to coincide with the 61st Annual Meeting of the Board of Governors of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank Group; prior to 2006 there were no biennials in existence [in Singapore]. During that same time, Singapore also hosted a number of citywide events in support of the IMF and World Bank meetings, such as the Formula 1 Grand Prix, and it was made clear that public protests should be avoided. In the end, only a small petition group gathered outside the convention center to protest the IMF and World Bank meetings. Singapore also pulled out from the Venice Biennale [this] year, instead inviting 35 curators from Southeast Asia to participate in the Singapore Biennale. This was a very a big jump and since then fueled by a desire for economic growth the Singapore government has been investing a large amount of money in the contemporary art sector. So behind every cultural investment is a certain ideology, whether it is in anticipation of a large economic gathering, or as we have seen from the modified biennale, in response to a new direction in cultural policy. This cultural investment could also be related to changes in government; the third and current Prime Minister of Singapore is after all, the son of Lee Kwan Yew. Contemporary art in Singapore was considered to be an elite endeavor in the past, but it now drives the growth of new galleries in Southeast Asia. Along with the Singapore Biennale’s efforts to engage as many curators as possible, the country is poised to present itself as a world-class arts hub. Here, you can see how the ideology of the government can somehow change the way money is invested in the arts.
The second case in point for ‘Where is the money from?’ is China. In China, the government doesn’t encourage or invest in contemporary art. So far it remains an authoritarian regime, which means that the establishment of social groups or organizations is difficult, if not banned, and non-profit status is generally not allowed. So all art spaces are registered as corporate entities, and the market is the main driver of art production. The Ullens Center for Contemporary Art was established in 2007 and remains quite influential. It was considered to be one of the first privately established non-profit organizations and art spaces in China with a strong team of international curators supported by the prominent collectors Guy and Myriam Ullens. However in 2011, the Ullens auctioned off their large collection of Chinese art and withdrew the majority of funds that were invested in the Center. Of course there are other reasons for these drastic actions, but what I mean to say is, if an independent or non-profit arts space relies upon a single corporation or individual, then there is little margin for error. The decisions made by these sole proprietors will have a great impact on the development – or failure – of an institution, particularly if there is a lack of public support. The Iberia Center for Contemporary Art has been the focus of more recent news. It was considered the second most influential privately established non-profit art center and is owned by a Chinese businessman. However, the Spanish government arrested him on a suspected money laundering charge. The Iberia Arts Center is now known as the Hive Center for Contemporary Art. The scope of its exhibits has changed as well.
So here I will quickly say that the money for contemporary art in Asia is largely derived from the public sector with political agendas or is commercially driven, but there is very little support for the independent non-profit sector. This is a pity, because I think non-profit art institutions are quite important for art production, and we can see how it’s a completely different case here in the United States.
Next I want to talk about the situation in Taiwan. Much like how the Singapore government supports the biennial, the Taiwanese government also supports the contemporary art scene, but in a different sense. Taiwan has invested quite a lot in the cultural and creative industries in recent years. Cultural bureaucrats are sent abroad to major cities, and international scholars are invited to speak to Taiwanese audiences. Public museums have mounted many blockbuster art exhibits, and although it’s problematic for masterpieces by Monet and Picasso to be transplanted without proper art historical context, any sort of programming that could guarantee good box office results would be imported. The government is interested in raising attendance rates because the more audiences it can bring to the arts, the more votes of approval it can receive. Essentially, the public art museums are funded by money from the government. It’s not because they suffer from a lack of funding, but rather that they are constrained by political ideology: museums need funding from the government, and the government needs votes.
This is a photo of a demonstration that took place in Taiwan. After witnessing the occurrence of several blockbuster exhibits in public art museums, artists staged a protest in front of the Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM). Congressmen were encouraged by artists and curators to initiate demonstrations as well. This is a very specific political situation: Taiwan had been under martial law from 1949 to 1987, but after thirty years of democracy, the right to free speech has become clear.
In 2008 we started a gallery. This gallery was originally part of artist Jun Yang’s entry for the Taipei Biennial.
As part of Austrian artist Jun Yang’s project Contemporary Art Centre, Taipei (A Proposal) at Taipei Biennale 2008, he invited in total of 47 Taiwanese contemporary art professionals – curators, artists, and scholars – to spend 3 days together and intensively discuss issues including cultural policies, the art academy system, the populist direction of contemporary art museums in Taipei, and the necessity of an art space for professionals.
At the end we came up with a solution: the Taipei Contemporary Art Center. It wasn’t that easy, of course – we had six months to prepare. What we proposed was also a very unique model in Asia. Most art spaces or independent organizations in Asia are run by a few people, or a group of arts professionals with very similar tastes and practices. But here at TCAC we have over 60 members and try to run an art space based on the model of an association. We borrowed the idea of the Kunsthaus from Europe, but it’s actually very difficult because we do not have the sort of stable funding that is available there. It means a lot of people have to volunteer their time and labor, otherwise we have to seek funding. And who pays for the labor that seeks funding? That’s another issue. Because the TCAC is an association, this art space does not belong to me, or the previous Chairperson; it works very much like a democracy. We hold elections every 2-3 years to induct new leaders for every department in the TCAC. If the same few people continue to be in charge of a specific organization, it is likely that their ideas would become dated within 10 years or so. We like this system of electing new members to lead because it can allow different generations to participate in the operations of the institution, and consequently, it allows the institution to generate new ideas and undergo constant renewal.
At this moment we are shifting venues for our association, but from 2009 to 2013 we had about 800 sq ft of space in two buildings. As part of its Urban Core Art District program, the real estate developer, JUT Land Development Group offered us a three-year contract in a sponsored space, which we shared with other non-profit organizations and art professionals.
We used this space as a manifestation of institutional critique. Our office was on the first floor, where you would normally find the exhibition space. It had a transparent façade not because our staff members were exhibitionists, but because this allowed proposals to be delivered easily and made the decision-making process visible. In doing so, we reversed certain preconceptions about an institution. We wanted people to see who was working and feel free to approach us; sometimes it would be the office manager, other times it would be a board member. The second floor was a presentation space for all kinds of different programs, such as screenings, presentations, talks, and conferences. Curators and artists would gather here to discuss ideas and exchange concepts, usually focusing on a shortage, or something that was lacking in most Taiwanese arts institutions. The results of these discussions would be posted on the third and fourth floor, and one could proceed to view the exhibitions that were also mounted there. So as you can see, we totally reversed the logic of a regular institution.
Here you can take a look at the office and four galleries at our previous venue. For our first press conference, we invited representatives from the government and corporate sectors to share our mission and goals. The corporations responded to us instead of the government, so we had this building renovated quickly and began organizing programs.
Each Friday, we presented either a performance or panel discussion, where we invite arts professionals to come to our office for a casual gathering. So here are some examples of some of these events. One panel led by urban activists criticized the gentrification of Taipei. Our sponsor happened to be present and was heavily criticized. Later on we had to comfort them – it makes no difference to us whether the government or corporate sector backs us, because both are responsible for supporting the community. And even if you’re the entity that is being criticized, you have to accept it for what it is. That’s what democracy means. Of course, as an arts institution our role is not just to tolerate criticism; we also have to instigate dialogue. The government’s responsibility is to provide a stable support for exchange. For example, we held an event in support of Ai Weiwei when he came under house arrest.
TCAC also runs residency programs and we’ve invited arts practitioners such as Kate Fowle, Director-at-Large for Independent Curators International (ICI) to conduct a curator’s workshop. We also welcome international researchers to visit our archives for material on Taiwanese art. Working with foreign institutions is something we’ve done right from the beginning, and notable projects include Taipei-Tokyo 2010 Exploration Mission, in collaboration with 3331 Arts Chiyoda in Tokyo.
It’s actually not that easy for government or corporate sectors to support and provide funding for an arts center like the TCAC. In 2011, we had an exhibit titled Mirage: Disused Public Property in Taiwan. Led by artist Yao Jui-chung, the show was a survey of disused property all over Taiwan. Many of these abandoned spaces were in fact public property sanctioned by local politicians for parking lots, cultural centers, and so forth. This urban development had wasted lots of money. So Yao published a book based on the findings that he made with his students. This became a local scandal of sorts and the Taiwanese Prime Minister Sean Chen even requested to meet with Yao to dispute the facts, but Yao was able to provide proof through his photographs. Ultimately, the prime minster stepped down.
Here’s another example, in which a group of artists held demonstrations in front of the TFAM and contributed to the resignation of its museum director, Hsieh Hiao-yun. So it’s interesting to see how in the past few years, we’ve contributed to the change of the director of an art museum, the director of the Cultural Bureau of Taipei, and the minister of culture. I wouldn’t say that it’s pure coincidence, or completely to our credit, but I will say that if arts organizations can diversify their activities beyond simply exhibiting art, and form a social coalition of artists, curators, as probably the most critical people in the world, they can deliver strong opinions to change cultural policies affecting the art scene within a very short time. I am not saying that everything has changed for the better since these cultural bureaucrats have stepped down. But the cultural agencies did react to these voices and I believe things will change for the better over time. Therefore, I believe one needs an institution that will consistently make an effort to make noise and instigate change.
But again, where does the money come from, and who will donate to such ‘noisy’ institutions and art spaces? Unfortunately, we can only look to artists and others in similar circles. Our total budget in the past two years was 280,000 USD of which we spent half on manpower, facilities, and logistics. The other half goes towards our programming. As you can see, most of our funding comes from the sale of artwork donated by artists. We also received a small subsidy from the government, contributing about 15% of our budget. After three years, our lease ended so we turned to the government to provide us with a new arts space through its adaptive reuse scheme. However, we decided not to wait on it and quickly initiated a fundraiser. Then we signed a lease at our new space and began our programming again in February 2013. [Our new space is about 150 square meters, located at downtown Taipei.] I would say it’s probably the destiny of independent institutions to be constantly on the move!
HI: Well, after hearing her presentation in full detail for the first time, I can’t help but agree on so many points. I shall comment if there is something particularly important that I should add with reference to Japan, but in the meantime let’s open up the discussion to the floor.
Audience member: These three major people who stepped down from major institutions – who replaced them, and how were they chosen? Is the difference that you see in the long run because of any changes made by the people who have stepped into these new roles?
MC: The previous minister of culture stepped down along with the end of President Ma Ying-jeou’s first term. Since the president cannot be re-elected after two terms, our current Minister of Culture, Lung Ying-Tai is less concerned with keeping up appearances during President Ma’s second term. She has a much better outlook and mission for cultural policy, but the problem is that the civil service as a whole is ineffective. You can ask our representative, Mr Yen!
HI: Mr Yen, please stand up.
Yen-Chang Chou: Hi, I am Yen-Chang Chou from the Taipei Cultural Center, which is a branch of the Ministry of Culture in Taiwan.
MC: It’s a problem because our civil service system is behind the times. As far as I know, especially in Europe, most museum directors and cultural ministers will announce their institutional or cultural policies for the next 10 years. Museum directors should normally serve in their given capacities for 5-10 years, but that’s not the case in Taiwan. There is definitely a direct influence on museum directors by politicians, and politicians are in turn influenced by media workings. Let’s say you stage a protest on the eve of a presidential election. This receives a lot of media exposure and it could quickly spiral into a sensitive situation, causing a director or minister to step down. This may sound like a stretch, but it’s really about provoking a strong reaction through the news. Ultimately, the civil service is ineffective because it still operates like a dictatorship, due to our history of martial law. I have to say that the younger ones are the most miserable because they enter the civil service and realize it hasn’t changed in the last 20 years or so. Public museums continue to govern themselves with outmoded rules, and the new civil servants don’t know how to resolve this.
Reiko Tomii (RT): Listening to your presentation, I can see how Hitomi finds the situation in Taiwan similar to that of the Japanese, especially with regards to small non-profit organizations. But I noticed that when you explained the Singapore Biennale, you noted that there was a missing third element, that is, artistic patrons, and I assumed that it would be similar in Taiwan. Within the context of the United States, [the word] patron usually refers to individual collectors, not representatives of government sectors or corporations. What is the situation in the contemporary art scene in Taiwan when it comes to individual patrons?
MC: According to what I understand from galleries in Asia – particularly in Japan – Taiwan does have a substantial pool of contemporary art collectors. In Japan perhaps there is still a predominant interest in modern art, but there are definitely many collectors of contemporary art in Korea and Taiwan. But the question is: are there patrons? I would like to introduce a show that I curated that is my attempt to change the current state of affairs. We have very good collectors who travel to biennales, art fairs, and large events to acquire art not just in Taiwan but also from the Asian continent and beyond. But I wanted to pose the question: ‘Why aren’t there any art patrons in Taiwan?’ So I co-curated the show Trading Futures with Pauline Yao (who is now curator at the M+ Museum in Hong Kong) and we set out to challenge the distinction between collectors and patrons. We set up parameters for ourselves: to mount an exhibit at TCAC with funding from three trusted art collectors, but should they all decline to participate, the show would not materialize. In the end, only one collector responded to our request.
For this exhibit, I wanted to commission 10 Asian artists to produce new work and asked for 14,000,000 NT$ (30,000 USD). The funds were used to produce the entire show and provide commissions for the new work that was being made. I informed our collector that we could not guarantee that all of the artists would produce work, and that they were in charge of determining the number of editions. However, since none of the works were to be sold separately, the final exhibit in its entirety would go to the collector. He said, ‘Okay, I’ll give you the money, you produce the show.’
Some artists failed to deliver, but others produced notable works. Sun Yuan & Peng Yu presented a valuable collection of BB guns as part of their project. Since BB guns are illegal in China, the artists purchased them in Taiwan and offered contractual terms to the collector: ‘The BB gun set belongs to the artists, and the collector is the custodian. It is not for sale and if the artists wish to inspect the guns at any time, it is the responsibility of the custodian to present them.’ The collector was then asked to sign an agreement with the artists. Another artist presented a book in an edition of 1000, each to be sold for 10 USD. So as you can see, all the artists played with the rules of the game, creating somewhat of a challenge for the collector. But in the end, everyone was happy because we challenged the concept of collecting and sponsoring art. The difference is that as a collector, you acquire concrete artwork in terms of economic value and risk, but as a patron, you become part of the process of art production, and that’s a different type of risk.
HI: That’s a good example. Turning the collector into a gambler, yes? It’s a good experiment.
MC: I hope so! At least everyone is happy. The artists are happy. Some of them had never sold their work before.
HI: And the reason this only happened once… what year was this exhibition?
MC: Last year.
HI: 2012. Okay, so is the second show taking place soon?
MC: It’s interesting that when I approached three collectors with our proposal, two had declined to participate. And after the exhibit was produced, others started to say that we disrupted the mold of art collection. Possibly it’s because three months after the show, two artists in the show, Koki Tanaka and Lee Kit, took part in this year’s Venice Biennale, representing the Japan and Hong Kong pavilions respectively. I did not have prior knowledge of this at all. It’s ironic that the show was called Trading Futures; it was our way of describing how our patron took a risk by investing in something unknown, but maybe the payoff from this investment arrived too soon! Public criticism revolved around the fact that this collector had acquired the works of some rising art stars for a bargain, but the logic of the show wasn’t seen and considered clearly. But who knew that this would happen? Many of the artists who participated in Trading Futures were not as recognized one, two years ago. Besides, the collector is not allowed to sell works from this entire show, so it is not important to discuss the later success of the artists’ production in terms of market value.
JD: I would be interested to hear from Sree [Goswani], who’s here from Mumbai. Is what she’s describing here different from what you’ve experienced in India?
Sree Goswani (SG): Yes and no. First of all, setting up a non-profit institution in India is a bit of a new thing. So far there’s Khoj International Artists’ Association and a few others that have popped up. Fundraising is very difficult because there is no government support. There’s no corporate support either. In India these organizations are mainly artist-run.
JD: If there isn’t any corporate or government support in India, how are art spaces supported?
SG: Well, a lot of artists donate artwork, they sell their work at auctions, and they’ve created portfolios this way. They have also gotten grants from foreign institutions to run spaces for five to six years, and that serves as seed money. But the government or corporations haven’t provided funding to the arts locally. It’s very hard even for an organization like Khoj to raise money. Meiya is very right in this sense. I feel that Indians are very similar to the rest of Asia, because they want to reel in patrons. I can identify with that. When you go to a fundraiser, there are a lot of good collectors who feel that they are already supporting the art scene by buying works from young, unknown artists. To them, that is good enough, so why do they need to provide more support?
JD: Hitomi, tell us a little bit more about the Social Kitchen in Kyoto.
HI: The Social Kitchen started in 2007 with aspirations of becoming a twenty-first century community center. The notion of social practice did not exist in Japanese museum culture, traditionally speaking, though we have seen a boom in art and museum studies in the last 10-15 years. In the wake of the 3.11 earthquake and tsunami, there was a sense of widespread doubt and skepticism among the general population. And this existed not just within intellectual or artistic circles; it was sort of seeping into the national psyche and yet there was no forum for expression. Some sort of concrete civil action was required to question the state of Japan’s financial, economic, and creative well-being. So the Social Kitchen came into being [in much the same] way TCAC did, but on a much smaller scale. The five or six founding members managed to acquire private funding of just about 50,000 USD to start out. They found a very inexpensive space and turned it into a weekend café, office, co-op workspace, and exhibition space. The Social Kitchen also encouraged community supported agriculture and encouraged younger generations to organize farmers markets in the outskirts of Kyoto. At the same time after the tsunami, a sizable portion of the population moved west of Tokyo, from the Kanto region to the Kansai region, and this included many artists, intellectuals, and activists. It was an interesting social moment but there wasn’t a forum for such discussions prior to the Social Kitchen. A museum is not the right place for it, and neither are commercial galleries. The Social Kitchen exists to seize the moment and capture people’s voices, and as it comes into its fifth year of operation, it faces issues not unlike those of the TCAC. Currently they have one full-time, paid staff member who runs the café on the ground floor. The director and two other main staff are sustaining themselves on other freelance jobs and contributing as much as they can.
I visited the Social Kitchen to speak about new models of social practice at the institutional level and introduced organizational models that have propagated in the United States. What is the significance and potential for social practice in Japan? So far, I have made connections to Trade School and OurGoods, organizations currently based in Lower Manhattan. Trade School is branching out internationally and the QMA is planning to host a conference on global trade schools to cross-examine culturally specific conditions that necessitate different modes of operation. The purpose of this upcoming conference in spring 2014 is to address issues such as working with funding and institutional constraints within cultural organizations. The QMA for one is an in-between entity in the sense that the government supports us, but in terms of producing exhibition content, we have to do it completely on our own and create fundraisers with corporations. This means that we have to tailor our programming and gear it towards what people want to support. While this is not always a bad thing, there will always be constraints that can shift the orientations of any given cultural institution. It’s sort of a vicious cycle, but it’s a necessity in our socioeconomic structure and there is no quick, smart, intelligent answer to it.
JD: These are all important issues that many of you in the non-profit world are dealing with, and even [for those of you with] for-profit organizations that are trying to do alternative things. But we must stop here for now. Thank you very much, Meiya, for this provocative and interesting conversation, and Hitomi, for adding another layer to this presentation.
Meiya Cheng is an independent curator and cultural organizer based in Taipei, previously working at Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei. She has published articles in Artco magazine, Art and Investment andBroadsheet. Recent projects include Taipei Contemporary Art Center, co-founded with a group of activists, artists and curators in 2009; Augmenting the World, a curatorial project for the 6th Taipei Digital Art Festival; and Trading Futures, co-curated with Pauline Yao, TCAC.
Transcribed by Pey Chuan Tan, edited by Daisley Kramer.