Eugene Tan

Read our interview with the director of the Institute of Contemporary Art Singapore, from the November 2013 issue of ArtReview Asia

By Aimee Lin

Cheong Soo Pieng, Drying Salted Fish, 1978, oil on canvas, 89 × 56 cm. Collection National Heritage Board, Singapore Liu Kang, Artist and Model, 1954, oil on canvas, 84 × 124 cm. Collection National Heritage Board, Singapore Artist’s impression of the National Art Gallery, Singapore, currently under construction in the former Supreme Court and City Hall buildings. Courtesy National Art Gallery, Singapore

Eugene Tan lives and works in Singapore. His previous experience includes serving as director of exhibitions for Osage Gallery and programme director of contemporary art at the Sotheby’s Institute of Art, both in Singapore, as well as director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore. He has curated various exhibitions including the Singapore Pavilion at the 51st Venice Biennale (2005) and the inaugural Singapore Biennale (2006). 

In 2010 he started to work as the programme director (special projects) at the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB) and oversaw the development of Gillman Barracks, a visual arts hub in Singapore. In April he was appointed director of the National Art Gallery, Singapore, where he is now directing key museological and curatorial aspects of the gallery’s work and strengthening its profile as a leading player in the visual arts scene. He is also playing a key role in influencing the intellectual framework that will guide the display and further development of the gallery’s collections.

ARTREVIEW ASIA The art scene in Singapore has changed over the last three years, and for a number of reasons, among them the development of Gillman Barracks, a former army camp that was reopened to the public in 2012 as an art venue to house 15 international and local galleries and the newly opened Centre for Contemporary Art(CCA). Could you tell us about your role in the Gillman Barracks project?

EUGENE TAN When I joined the EDB in2010, my role was to help develop the visual arts in Singapore by developing a vibrant international arts industry and marketplace. As such, Gillman Barracks was conceived to contribute to the specific context of the visual arts landscape in Singapore. It established elements that were lacking within the visual arts ecology and complements what we already have, such as our public museums, international events such as the Singapore Biennale and Art Stage [Singapore’s art fair], as well as our efficient infrastructure and art services such as the Freeport. 

Gillman Barracks fills gaps within the visual arts ecosystem in Singapore and the region, in terms of commercial platforms and exhibitions, art production, and research and education. I hope its creation will catalyse the further development of the visual arts industry in Singapore and the region.

The gallery is dedicated to the art histories of Singapore and Southeast Asia, and we aim to historicise the development of art in the region from the nineteenth century to the present

ARA How did you persuade galleries like ARNDT, Michael Janssen, Tomio Koyama and ShanghART to open their new spaces in Singapore?

ET The galleries that have set up at Gillman Barracks did so for a variety of reasons. The most important, perhaps, is a desire to engage with the growing art scene in Singapore and Southeast Asia. Many of the galleries have begun working with artists from the region, through solo exhibitions as well as group shows, creating interesting dialogues between artistic practices in Singapore and the region, as well as internationally. 

Some galleries were also driven in part by Singapore’s strategic location in Asia as well as the growing collector base in the region. Others were attracted by the idea of a government-driven art cluster project, where the rent is stable, and there is a good support system from the Singapore art market and institutions, with the Centre for Contemporary Art being established there. Many of them were also attracted to the site of Gillman Barracks itself, its lush natural surroundings, the restored colonial barracks with its good proportions, as well as its proximity to the city centre.

ARA Now let’s talk about National Art Gallery. What is its mission and positioning? And what is its relationship with the existing Singapore Art Museum?

ET The National Art Gallery aims to be a leading visual arts institution that inspires and engages our people and our neighbours, creating a dialogue between the art of Singapore, Southeast Asia and the world. The gallery is dedicated to the art histories of Singapore and Southeast Asia. Through our exhibitions and programmes, we aim to historicise the development of art in the region from the nineteenth century to the present day. 

This is the widest representation of Southeast Asian art among museums in the world

We aim to present that history through our research and long-term exhibitions, based on existing scholarship and an understanding of how modern art in Singapore and Southeast Asia emerged and has developed. We also aim to reflexively (re)write the art histories of the region through our research programmes and publications. Lastly, through our increased understanding of the art history of Singapore and Southeast Asia, we aim to examine the role of the region within the global historical development of art through special exhibitions.

While the National Art Gallery will focus on the art of Singapore and Southeast Asia from the nineteenth century to the present, the Singapore Art Museum focuses on contemporary art. Both museums will complement each other and work closely together in making Singapore a vibrant arts hub.

Furthermore, as focal points in the heart of the city occupying two of Singapore’s most historically significant buildings, we also seek to be a cultural and leisure destination in which Singaporeans and visitors from all over the world can enjoy and engage with art. Whether you are an art enthusiast or novice, a student or a parent looking for an activity to engage your child, we hope to offer an enriching museum experience and foster greater appreciation of the visual arts in the process.

ARA Given the fact that the National Art Gallery’s building is still under construction, what are your main tasks at the moment?

ET I have been working with my curatorial and programming colleagues on the planning of our opening exhibitions, programmes and publications, as well as developing our collection. I am also carrying out various dialogues with key partners as well as initiating new partnerships. 

Through these programmes and platforms, and by 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 art scene.

ARA The National Art Gallery is also developing a permanent collection. What is your aim and what’s your achievement by now?

ET The gallery will draw upon our national collection of Singapore and Southeast Asian artworks. 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. We are continuing to develop this collection in order for us to present 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. 

This is something we aim to reflect through our collections. Apart from collecting works that are reflective of the breadth and depth of art histories in Singapore, we are also collecting works that provide a framework of significant art-historical developments and major art practices in the region. We strive towards understanding and developing the collection through regional and cross-disciplinary research and approaches. 

The strength of our national collection lies in its comprehensive representation of Singapore art and its unparalleled holdings of works by major Singaporean artists such as Georgette Chen, Chen Chong Swee, Chen Wen Hsi, Cheong Soo Pieng and Liu Kang. Through an active acquisition policy of purchases and donations, the collection now spans from late nineteenth-century paintings to contemporary video installations.

We also have a large collection of modern and contemporary Southeast Asian artworks with significant pieces from Southeast Asian artists of international standing, such as Affandi (Indonesia), Latiff Mohidin (Malaysia), Le Pho (Vietnam), Montien Boonma (Thailand) and Fernando Cueto Amorsolo (Philippines). This is the widest representation of Southeast Asian art among museums in the world. Works from this collection have also travelled to international museums and exhibition venues in the Americas, Europe and Asia.

ARA I have some friends moving to Singapore to take up new jobs in the artworld, and more and more friends are travelling in Singapore for exhibitions, business or other art projects. Do you think Singapore is now having its time? What’s the future position of this city in the global map of art?

ET Singapore has been carefully nurturing its arts and culture scene over the past two decades, doing what has been necessary to grow and develop our art scene. This includes initiatives to develop our artists, encouraging research, showcasing local artists’ works on international platforms and audience cultivation. We can see the results of the efforts in the vibrant and still growing art scene that we now have.

Various events such as the Singapore Biennale, art fairs like Art Stage Singapore and the Night Festival in our historic civic district area have also increased the vibrancy of our art scene and made Singapore a place for cultural exchange and collaboration for the global arts community.

This article was first published in the November 2013 issue of ArtReview Asia