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Nothing is Wasted

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The 5th Asian Museum Curator’s Conference (AMCC) was held last month in November. Jointly organized by National Gallery of Singapore, Japan Foundation and Balai Seni Lukis Negara, the event was split into two segments: Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.

For the Malaysian leg, myself and Simon Soon were called in to moderate a discussion and give a presentation respectively. Yes, it was obvious to all who attended that there were numerous problems with organization on the Malaysian side, many of them stemming from co-organizer, Balai. It’s an undeniable fact that I will declare openly here and now, and swiftly move on without further elaboration. There is a time and place to conduct fault-finding missions, and in this case, the ideas and issues brought up by the conference seem far more important than indulging in nitpicking that will do no good at all.

The participants were curators from South East Asia and Japan. For the first time, the list included independent curators alongside those from institutions like The National Museum of Art Osaka, Singapore’s NUS Museum and even Thailand’s Office of Contemporary Art and Culture. The three days over the weekend of 7 – 9 November 2009 were packed (too packed) with gallery visits, presentations and forum sessions held at Balai, Rogue Art and Annexe Gallery.

As far as I can tell, the forum discussions were intense hours where ideas, problems and strategies were thrown back and forth. There were two large bridges to cross: the differences in each participant’s local context and of course, the divide between institutions and those who operate independently.  It was precisely these differences that made the discussions fruitful. It seemed that everyone was facing the same issues: lack of resources, funding, negotiating with state and federal structures, dealing with bureaucratic hierachies, accessbility and audience development. The diverse viewpoints ultimately formed a discordantly singular chorus: somehow art matters, we are here together, and how shall we meet the future?

At the end of gatherings like this, we always ask ourselves: what do conferences achieve? What does this mobilization of resources (both human and material) translate into? Time has been spent, name cards exchanged, promises made to ‘keep in touch’ – it can feel like a stone thrown into a river that’s rushing too quickly. In this regard, Shabbir Mustafa from NUS Museum said something that rang true for me: there is no utopia, no point in the future in which the lines get less blurred or our endeavours less tricky and conplicated. The idea is to keep channels of communication open, discuss, talk, argue and brainstorm together. Perhaps in some way this nudges the river in a direction we all hope it will go. That’s the most we can hope for.

Something I would have like to see is better representation from the region. Absence of participants from the Philippines was unfortunate, and puzzling. It would have been good to hear from rapidly developing art scenes like China and India, as well less exposed places like Myanmar.

After the conference, some participants very kindly responded to my request for their thoughts and impressions on the AMCC. As I said in my email to them: nothing is wasted when people gather to talk to each other. In the spirit of keeping ideas circulating, here are their contributions below.


SHABBIR HUSSAIN MUSTAFA, Assistant Curator, NUS Museum (Singapore)

One issue that has fascinated me is the idea of the curator itself. My earliest endeavors looked to deny the very existence of the curator, but later, as time wore on, I could not help but think that rather than an overt denial, one had to engage and perhaps even interrogate the profession, celebrate it for all its problematics, lay bare the curator as a very predicament of our post-coloniality.

Such an exploration, however, is not seen in isolation; if anything, it only leads us into questions about the peculiar nature of museology in Southeast Asia, the tenuous rigidity of art history as a disciplinary paradigm and the increasing confluences between art and market. The 5th Asian Museum Curators Conference that was held in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur enabled, at least for me, such a thoughtfulness to emerge.

Given the rather postcolonial contexts from which many of the participants emerged from, the implications for the curatorial profession were quite fascinating, not as mere participants with varied and fascinating practices, but also as a younger generation reflecting quite intensely (at times, even uneasily) on the historical “accidents” and challenges that continue to plague modern and contemporary art practice.

Although, the articulation of an “Asian” voice may just be a ruse, the very discussion of cross-cultural contexts enabled particular “moments” to emerge at the conference when solidarity was achieved across the board, to only collapse again into more discussion and debate.


REIKO NAKAMURA, Assistant Curator, National Museum of Modern Art Tokyo

The event that left the biggest impression on me during this conference was a discussion for crossing a border between alternative spaces and museums. What if museum curators ran alternative spaces? What if independent curators worked at museums? Honestly speaking, these questions bothered me a lot, but at the same time, they brought to life the fact that my focus had been the museums’ standard logic in these seven years of my career as a museum curator.

It was really exciting to talk to the participants with various backgrounds. The participants with different backgrounds have different ways of committing to the art scenes in their countries, but I think we have the possibility to work together in the near future. Of course those six days of the conference were too short for us to start something. It is essential that we keep in touch to carry out our collaborations.


LIM QINYI, Assistant Curator, NUS Museum (Singapore)

Upon reflection, the conference did create an interesting platform for museum curators to discuss various issues in a more intimate setting without the limitations imposed by geopolitical boundaries. Given the introduction of non-institutional curators this round, the binary between the practices of institutions and independent art spaces was discussed extensively but with only scant references to the curators’ personal practices.

The absence of such [references] was interesting. Most of the discussions revolved around the perceived “inflexibility” and “limitations” of institutions based on their infrastructure framework, and not of the curatorial research or programming that could have been undertaken by the individual from the ground up. While the arguments delineated common issues that pervade the art world, they also had me reflecting on my own practices as a young (institutional) curator and the need to develop more creative strategies that would occupy the middle ground between two ends of the spectrum. Taking the current mix of participants in perspective and the conference as a prelude , my own curiosity is piqued by their personal positions, agencies and strategies they may have employed within and outside institutional spaces (both metaphorically and literally).


HAFIZ NASIR, Independent Curator and Researcher (Singapore)

The AMCC is a very worthwhile initiative, especially since this year’s edition included independent curators for the very first time. It is necessary to adopt an inclusive approach to this conference ie. creating discourse between institutional curators and independent ones. In an art eco-system where hiearchies and initiatives are getting increasingly blurred, we have to realise that to a certain extent, all of us are mining from the same resources. The only difference is our approach (only limited by institutional agendas) and of course, strategies adopted.

My initial observations of the Malaysian art scene is at best, cursory. Only a sustained research (or beingb ased there for awhile!) would encompass a more accurate commentary. However these initial glimpses have been encouraging so far. If I were to compare it with my own local context and summarize it in a nutshell, the scene here is more organic. Ground-up initiatives like ARTERI, Rimbun Dahan and House of Matahati provide new avenues that otherwise might not be available to young and ‘non-mainstream’ artists. (Any for young curators?)

Perhaps the next edition of AMCC could be done in a more ‘leveled’ manner? This year’s edition had been very open and ‘democratic’ but as you might be able to see, not every participant was able to engage fully. This was perhaps due to non-familiarity with the different contextual case studies. I do not intend to push for a particular formula as I believe there should still be a certain degree of flexibility, but maybe there can be one universal theme/ topic that will be able to galvanize all the participants’ efforts into one cohesive discourse? This way, the discussions would be more fruitful and hopefully churn out concrete directions that can be adopted.


HUY NHU NGUYEN,  Independent Curator/ Visual Artist/ Poet (Vietnam)

The most useful aspect of the conference to me was meeting with everyone. For someone  whose work focuses mostly on  Vietnam, those meetings are very important because I learnt about the experiences of other curators who are working in the same manner to me, and who have more experience dealing with their local contexts.

I was very impressed by the multiple alternative strategies of Ade [Darmawan] (Director of Ruangrupa in Indonesia and also a participant at AMCC) who has tried to change the status quo of his operating activities through and from many levels of everyday life. I think these strategies could be applied very well to the Vietnamese condition too.

Another thing new to me in this conference was the elimination of all black-and-white barriers between so-called institutional and independent spaces. Indeed, in the course of the conference, I have witnessed some interesting presentations from the institutional world deploying very flexible and useful activities in educating audiences and changing the top-down, epistemic model of a traditional museum. These essential tactics in distributing knowledge ensures that while audiences receive knowledge, the joy of participation is still preserved. As an independent Vietnamese curator, I learned a lot from these tactics.

One thing that I consider a slightly not-so-good aspect of the conference is the lack of time for issues that need to be debated deeply.  In fact, all issues raised in the agenda of the conference are those that need to be discussed further. However, the time frame (mostly one or two hours for each issue) seemed to be not enough. Sometime during the conference I wondered: if the frame time for each discussion must be limited to suit the general time frame of the conference, why don’t we try to find another models for discussion? For example, could we separate our big group into many smaller groups? I remember in the review section of the conference in Malaysia, someone put that idea on the table.

Anyways, I agree with you, ‘nothing is ever wasted when people gather to talk to each other’. Meeting and then being able to see each other, to listen each other and to recognize our endeavors is always an important thing. However, we all also know that the importance of meetings can only be determined by the activities that will come after.

And what matters now to me is: what would I (we?) do after our meetings? Can something further the possibilities we saw together in the conference? I mean not only in a polite manner like the words we often add to our email: ‘stay in touch’ or ‘keep in touch’, but something that is rooted in our actions.

I’m thinking about a workshop or forum among Southeast Asian young independent curators in the near future, maybe in Vietnam. What do you think?


The Malaysian segmet of the 5th Asian Museum Curator’s Conference was held from 7 – 9 November 2009.

Photos are courtesy of Balai Seni Lukis Negara.

In addition to the contributors above, participants included: Azusa Hashimoto (The National Museum of Art, Osaka), Ade Darmawan (Director of Ruangrupa, Indonesia), Richard Streitmatter-Tran (Artists and Lecturer at RMIT University Vietnam), Do Tuong Linh (Arts Manager and Researcher, Vietnam), Somporn Phanthong (Office of Contemporary Art and Culture, Thailan), Teo Rofan (Assistant Curator, Institute of Contemporary Art, Singapore), Pichaya Aime Suphavanij (Head of Exhibitions, Bangkok Art and Culture Centre), Ong Zhen Min and Grace Tng (Assistant Curators, National Art Gallery Singapore), Tan Sei Hon (Curator, Balai Seni Lukis Negara), Wang Zineng (Specialist, Christie’s Singapore), and more.

This article was first posted on the original Arteri site on 17 December 2009.

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