Tan Boon Hui: “I Left Singapore Art Museum with the Best Collection of SEA contemporary Art”

Tan Boon Hui: “I Left Singapore Art Museum with the Best Collection of SEA contemporary Art”
Tan Boon Hui looks back on his legacy at the Singapore Art Museum.
(Singapore Art Museum)

SINGAPORE — During his time as director of the Singapore Art Museum (SAM), people have credited Tan Boon Hui with revitalising the programming of the museum to a forward-thinking institution with a contemporary Southeast Asian focus.

On May 2, it was announced that he would leave SAM on July 1 to be Group Director of programmes at the National Heritage Board, the statutory board that runs all the public museums in Singapore. In his new, specially-created role, he will oversee and coordinate the board’s exhibitions, programming and outreach activities. Now, the hunt for the next SAM director on.

 

Artinfo catches up with Tan, who is also heading this year’s Singapore Biennale (click here to read more about the list of artists taking part), to find out more about his legacy at SAM, and what he envisages his new role to be.

What are your thoughts on leaving SAM?

I don’t think any museum director should stay too long at his job (laughs.) SAM is my third museum, after Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) and the National Museum of Singapore (NMS). I’m always sad to leave a museum. I still go back to ACM regularly, to look at the gold gallery that I did as a curator.

But I believe that it’s always important in contemporary art that we have movement and there are different voices coming along.

Are there any updates on the recruitment process for the next SAM director? Is this an international search?

Sorry, I’m not involved in that, so I can’t comment.

Could you talk about your new role as Group Director of programmes at the National Heritage Board (NHB)?

Well, I will coordinate programming and exhibitions across NHB institutions. That’s all I can say for now.

Perhaps you could share a broader vision or direction for this role?

In SAM, I’m very particular about something: I’m interested in artists and how they create works. Most of my dealings in visual arts are in commissions. I like to work with artists, enter into dialogue with them, and be part of the process of creation. I’m not so interested in retrospectives.

I take the same approach whether I’m working with objects or artefacts or historical material. I’m interested in the people behind these objects, their personalities and their living legacy.

In my new appointment, the same principle will apply. In programming, we should not forget that the point of connection with audiences is the living person behind the exhibition — the quicks, the oddities of the creator of the artistic or cultural material. People relate to that.

What do you think are your most significant contributions to SAM during your three years there?

I put a lot of energy into focussing on Southeast Asian contemporary art. The museum’s not insular, it’s international. I am very militant about that. I felt it was important for us as Singapore to have our own voice, and not impart someone else’s voice. Now is the time to be confident of ourselves. As a leader in the arts and cultural industry, if we don’t believe in ourselves, how do you expect others to take us seriously?

As a result, SAM has had a new energy and life. Someone told me once that artists from the region want to exhibit with us. That’s the best compliment that someone has given me in my three years.

Second, I left SAM with the best collection of Southeast Asian contemporary art of any institution or private collection. My curatorial team worked hard. Time was short, as the market heats up much faster than you think. In a way, “Tomorrow, Today: Contemporary Art from the Singapore Art Museum (2009-2011)”, a book that lists all the acquisitions during my watch, is my legacy. That’s my statement.

Lastly, SAM has a new relationship with artists: the institution has the potential to ignite new possibilities with living artists. Museums by definition look backwards, but SAM gives the possibility of looking forwards. Our curators are not ivory-towered. I always tell them, you cannot be textbook curators. You cannot talk about artists without the artist present, so you always see our curators standing next to the artists. That’s why we hardly have any packaged or travelling shows passing through — most of the shows are put together by SAM curators.