National Gallery Singapore Director Dr. Eugene Tan sets off to piece together Southeast Asian art history in this The Sunday Times Magazine Exclusive
For someone who has attained an impressive profile in the Asian art scene, it is quite ironic that Dr. Eugene Tan—most likely the busiest man behind the highly anticipated National Gallery Singapore—only developed an appreciation for man’s visual creativity as a student in university.
Today, as director of a gallery that is touted to have the largest public collection of modern Southeast Asian art in the world, Tan was very candid in this exclusive interview with The Sunday Times Magazine, as he admitted to be a late bloomer of sorts in the path he eventually chose to pursue.
“My degree had nothing to do with art,” he further confessed with a smile. Tan was on a brief business trip to Manila but generously devoted his time to this one-on-one interview at a Makati City hotel.
“I was studying Economics and Politics in London when I suddenly became interested in art,” he continued. “I toured all the museums and galleries they had, and it was from there and in that sense that I hoped to make Singapore just like London—a city where they have so much art that inspires people, and makes them interested, curious and even passionate to take up careers in art.”
As such, even as Tan secured his Bachelor of Science in Economics and Politics from Queen Mary University of London and gone home to Singapore, he soon found himself retuning to the English capital to pursue a Masters of Arts in Post-War and Contemporary Art from the Sotheby’s Institute of Art, and subsequently, a Doctorate in Art History from the University of Manchester.
Prior to joining National Gallery Singapore, Dr. Tan built his resume curating various exhibitions, among them the Singapore Pavilion at the 51st Venice Biennale (2005); the inaugural Singapore Biennale (2006); thematic exhibitions such as Of Human Scale and
Beyond: Experience and Transcendence (2012) and The Burden of Representation: Abstraction in Asia Today (2010), among others; as well as solo exhibitions by Singaporean artists Charwei Tsai (2012), Lee Mingwei (2010) and Jompet (2010).
He also co-authored the publication Contemporary Art in Singapore (2007), and has contributed writings to exhibition catalogues and publications by NUS Press, Hatje Cantz and Phaidon, as well as art journals such as Art Asia Pacific and Art Review, and more.
Tan has further presented at art conferences and symposia around the world, including Australia, France, Germany, Netherlands, Hong Kong, Korea, New Zealand, Singapore, Spain, Taiwan and United Kingdom.
Asked how exactly he began his career in Singapore’s art scene, The Gallery’s director said he zeroed in on the management side, serving as program director for Special Projects at the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB). There, he oversaw the development of Gillman Barracks, a visual arts hub in Singapore.
After this initial foray into art management, Tan assumed various other positions in Singapore’s most prestigious art institutions, namely director of Exhibitions for Osage Gallery; director of Contemporary Art at the Sotheby’s Institute of Art—Singapore; and Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore Director.
For all these, Tan recently and rightfully earned an inclusion in the British contemporary art publication ArtReview Magazine’s “Power 100 List”—the day’s guide to the most powerful figures in contemporary.
Nevertheless, even with his rich experience in the art scene, Tan humbly told The Sunday Times Magazine that it took a year and a half for National Gallery Singapore—or simply “The Gallery” to the passionate arts man—to select him for one of its key positions upon its inception. The lengthy period was worth the wait all the same, as Tan had initially thought his belated exposure to arts might not bode well for his application.
Officially, in 2013, Tan was appointed as director of The Gallery, beating both local and foreign candidates in an extensive search.
“It was after previous director Kwok Kian Chow stepped down [and assumed the role of senior advisor]that The Gallery started the international search for his replacement. I was invited to apply but I was also working on another project at that time in Singapore, and it was important for me to finish that project first. I did apply eventually and went through the process of selection,” he recalled.
The Gallery’s genesis
The National Gallery Singapore was the brainchild of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who, in 2005 first announced the government’s plan to convert two important heritage buildings of the Lion City into a new national gallery. These were the former Supreme Court building and City Hall, both symbolic structures in Singapore’s nationhood.
To ensure The Gallery would be worthy to occupy the historical structures, architectural design competition was launched in 2007 for the buildings’ conversion. A French firm, Studio Milou, which also operates in Singapore, won the contract to design and build The Gallery in 2008.
Subsequent planning took another three years and it was only in 2011 that Studio Milou began constructing The Gallery with Tan very much involved every step of the way.
“Another three years passed, and we’re finally opening this November,” he excitedly declared.
On the surface, the decade it took to see the birth of The Gallery seemed so smooth albeit lengthy, but Tan, honest as can be, dispelled that impression.
“Actually, construction was meant to begin in 2009 but it was delayed for two years because at that time, Singapore was going through an economic boom. There was so much construction happening in Singapore—the Marina Bay Sands, for one—that it drew up the cost of construction so the government decided to delay the project for a while,” he explained.
Asked how much The Gallery eventually cost the Singaporean government, Tan openly replied, “Converting the two buildings into the National Gallery cost the government 530 million Singapore dollars [P17.7 billion] for the structure, and for the rest, we secured quite generous sponsorships from various corporations.”
Explaining further, he said, “For example, our Singapore Gallery has been named after a bank in Singapore, so it is now called DBS Singapore Gallery. Likewise, for the Southeast Asia Gallery, we’ve named it UOB [United Overseas Bank] Southeast Asia Gallery, after another bank, UOB.
“Our center for education, which is one of the largest centers of its kind, is named after Keppel, while our special exhibitions phase has been named by Singtel,” he enumerated. “As for our roof garden gallery, which was sponsored by a private individual, we named it Ng Ten Fong.”
Come The Gallery’s official opening in November, Singaporeans and neighboring Southeast Asian nations, including the Philippines, can look forward to a rich storytelling of Southeast Asian art history through a remarkable 8,000 art pieces in total.
“We will be the only museum dedicated to and focused on art from Singapore and Southeast Asia—our key highlights. These two permanent galleries will show the art histories of Singapore and Southeast Asia through long-term and comprehensive exhibitions,” Tan explained. “They start from the 19th century until the present, so it will be the first time anywhere in the world that visitors can come and see the art histories of this side of the world.”
In addition to these permanent displays, The Gallery will also run continuous special exhibitions where they aim to explore the links and connections between the art of Southeast Asia and other parts of the world.
“You can see that we have set two clear goals, one is to further the appreciation of art among Singaporeans, and the other is to further the understanding and the appreciation of art from Singaporeans and Southeast Asians internationally, Tan enumerated.
“I think myself and all our curators have traveled widely to see many museums around the world so we kind of have a good sense of how museums operate, the levels and standards that we try to adhere to internationally. But, at the same time, we have also realized that each institution has to be rooted locally and it has to kind of grow on its own local conditions and be relevant within its more local context. So what we aim to do at The Gallery is not to copy what other museums around the world but making sure that it’s relevant in the context in which we are operating.”
PH in The Gallery
Further explaining his role as gallery director, Dr. Tan related, “As director, I oversee areas relating to the exhibitions, the research, the programming, education, as well as our visitor experience—anything that our visitors come face to face with.
“The area regarding the exhibition and the research take most of my time—working with the curators to plan and organize types of exhibitions that we will have, as well as developing our art collections, while also making sure that our education team and program team device the appropriate types of programs to engage our audiences.”
It is this very task that actually took The Gallery’s director to Philippine shores.
“As the focus of our museum is the art of Singapore and Southeast Asia, the Philippine art is very much included in our exhibits, which is why we are often here for meetings,” he enthused.
Dr. Tan and his team are in continuous collaboration with seven institutions in the Philippines dedicated to art including the National Museum, Central Bank, Cultural Center of the Philippines, Ateneo Art Gallery, Metropolitan Museum of Manila, UST Museum, and Ayala Museum.
One of the more notable artworks The Gallery has borrowed for exhibition is a painting by National Artist Jose Joya from the National Museum.
“We borrowed ‘Hills of Nikko’ by Jose Joya, so if you go there [at the National Museum]now, there’s an empty space on the wall with the label that says the work is out,” Tan jested.
Aside from these institutions, The Gallery has also been in touch with private Filipino art collectors—six to be exact—for future exhibits.
“We are very pleased that these institutions and individuals see the value that the National Gallery will bring and, we are all the more pleased that they are very supportive of our exhibits,” he added.
Asked how these collaborations began, Tan replied, “We first identified key works by Filipino artists we wanted to show in the exhibition and then we approached the institutions and the collectors and explained to them how their pieces played a part in the Southeast Asian art history we want to tell.
“I think the Philippines is one of the most vibrant and dynamic art scene in Southeast Asia and has one of the longest histories well,” he continued. “And in saying that, it is definitely an important part of the region’s art history as a whole.”
On a side note, Dr. Tan also excitedly shared that there is a Filipino curator in their pool at The Gallery by the name of Clarissa “Lisa” Chikiamco.
Asian art appreciation
“I think we’ve come a long way since the government decided that art is something important and since it invested a lot in the arts back to 1989,” Tan said of Singapore’s support for the arts.
“There was a policy paper put forward by the Advisory Council on Culture and the Arts (ACCA) on how Singapore should develop our art scene over time. As result, they set up the National Arts Council, the National Heritage Board, which in turn resulted in Singapore Art Museum and the Asian Civilisations Museum. It was after that—in 1989—that they all said we should plan for national gallery as well.”
Despite the support of government, however, Tan still does not consider Singaporeans to be among the biggest art patrons in the world.
“There’s still work to be done [in terms of art appreciation in Singapore], but I think people are more aware about art now than before. This awareness has come primarily through the market and through contemporary art, through biennales like the Singapore Biennale for example, through galleries, art fairs and auctions.”
While awareness is growing, what Singaporeans—and Asians—lack in terms of art appreciation is knowing the history behind the cultures of art within the region.
“When the public learns about art through biennale and art fairs, they don’t really get the sense of how the art developed to get to the state where we are today—and I think that’s where The Gallery comes in.”
Aptly, he took this point to round up his hopes for the National Gallery Singapore from the day it officially opens next month: “I hope The Gallery will become a catalyst for further development of art in Southeast Asia. I hope we will be able to promote Southeast Asian art in a bigger way internationally, and bring more focus, understanding and appreciation for what it is and how it got here.”
With such lofty goals and so much work to do, Dr. Eugene Tan’s parting shot proved he too is where he should be: “Working everyday with art and artists is something that is very fulfilling. Beyond that, in my role as a director now, I think what I find most fulfilling is when the curators come up with really interesting ideas, either for exhibition or for research, that reveal new areas about art that we never knew before. And finally, to see their work ultimately engage the public, that is what makes our work immensely fulfilling.”
The National Gallery Singapore opens its doors to the public on November 24. Entrance to the gallery for the first two weeks, from November 24 to December 6, is free.
For more information about The Gallery and its upcoming shows and exhibitions, visit www.nationalgallery.sg.