In Pursuit of Public Engagement with Eugene Tan

Eugene Tan has been Director of National Gallery Singapore since May 2013. He takes the lead on key museological and curatorial aspects of the Gallery’s work and also plays a key role in influencing the intellectual framework that guides the display and further development of the Gallery’s collections.

On 1 April 2019, he was appointed Director of Singapore Art Museum to guide it towards its vision of becoming a leading museum of contemporary art, while retaining his role as Director of National Gallery Singapore. Prior to this, he served as Programme Director (Special Projects) at the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB) and oversaw the development of the Gillman Barracks art district. He has also held various positions including Director of Exhibitions for Osage Gallery, Director of Contemporary Art at the Sotheby’s Institute of Art – Singapore, as well as Director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore.

Eugene has published and curated widely, organising exhibitions including the Singapore Pavilion at the 51st Venice Biennale (2005), the inaugural Singapore Biennale (2006) and Reframing Modernism: Painting from Southeast Asia, Europe and Beyond (2016) and Minimalism: Space. Light. Object. (2018) at National Gallery Singapore. He also serves as a board member of the International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art (CIMAM) and Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp.

With critical collaborations with institutions such as Tate Britain, The Centre Pompidou and Musée D’Orsay in recent years, National Gallery Singapore (NGS) is progressively poised to become more so an international than regional phenomenon. Would you say that this has shifted the curatorial ambit of the Gallery away from the specificity of Southeast Asia to a more telescopic view of global art historical developments? How would you situate this in the larger picture of the Gallery’s mission and vision? 

An important part of the National Gallery Singapore’s mission has always been to examine the art histories of Singapore and Southeast Asia within a larger global context. While our long term exhibitions of Singapore and Southeast Asian art look at the histories within the country and the region respectively, our international collaborations with institutions around the world connect and contextualise Southeast Asia into larger art historical narratives. They do so by also re-thinking established art historical narratives through the perspectives of Southeast Asia. 

The 2016 exhibition Reframing Modernism: Painting from Southeast Asia, Europe and Beyond, co-curated by Centre Pompidou, is an example of how such international collaborations can unsettle assumptions that currently ground conceptions of art history. The exhibition explored new ways of looking at the history of modernism in art through an encounter between the collections of the Centre Pompidou and National Gallery Singapore. Minimalism: Space. Light. Object., held from 2018 to 2019, shared a similar critical perspective by exploring the relationship between Minimalism, a movement pivotal to the development of art in the United States and Europe in the 1960s, and Asian aesthetics and philosophies. 

Exhibition view of Reframing Modernism: Painting from Southeast Asia, Europe and Beyond (31 March–17 July 2016, National Gallery Singapore). Left: Vassily Kandinsky, Impression V (Park), 1911. Oil on canvas, 106 x 157.5 cm. Bequeathed by Mme Nina Kandinsky. Collection of Centre Pompidou Paris, Musée nationale d’art moderne/Centre de création industrielle. © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI/Bertrand Prévost/Dist. RMN-GP. Right: André Lhote, Rugby, 1917. Oil on canvas, 127.5 x 132.5 cm. Donated by the artist, 1950. Collection of Centre Pompidou, Paris. Musée nationale d’art moderne/ Centre de création industrielle. © Adagp, Paris. Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore.

NGS has, since its establishment in 2015, mounted a number of blockbuster exhibitions that drew record numbers of visitors. Shows such as Yayoi Kusama’s Life is the Heart of a Rainbow may seem to draw heavily on the concept of ‘spectacle’ to incite visitorship. How does the Gallery negotiate this idea of the ‘spectacular’ in engaging audiences?

YAYOI KUSAMA: Life is the heart of a rainbow was undoubtedly a very well received exhibition by the public, and widely shared online and on social media platforms. While being a popular exhibition, Kusama is also a historically critical artist, whose significance has only been acknowledged and thoroughly examined more recently. The exhibition sought to show how her work from the 1950s when she was still living in Japan, to the works she made after arriving in New York in 1958, to her more recent infinity rooms, had a singular vision that made it difficult to place her within the established history of art. As such, the exhibition not only sought to introduce her work to audiences in Southeast Asia, but also to question our received understanding of art history. These aims to grow the appreciation and understanding of art and its histories sit at the heart of the exhibitions that we organise at the National Gallery. 

Exhibition view of YAYOI KUSAMA: Life is the Heart of a Rainbow (9 June–3 September 2017, National Gallery Singapore). Yayoi Kusama, THE SPIRITS OF THE PUMPKINS DESCENDED INTO THE HEAVENS, 2015. Installation, 600 x 300 x 300 cm. Collection of the artist. © YAYOI KUSAMA. Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Singapore/Shanghai/Tokyo. Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore.

Proposals for Novel Ways of Being saw NGS and Singapore Art Museum (SAM) reach out to and partner with numerous independent art spaces in a supportive and collaborative manner. How do both museums position themselves in Singapore, especially in relation to the private sphere of smaller art spaces and galleries?

As two of the largest arts institutions in Singapore, the Gallery and SAM have a responsibility to support other areas of the art ecosystem. Proposals for Novel Ways of Being was an opportunity for us to collaborate with independent art spaces, collectives, artists, and curators who were deeply affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and provide them with a platform to share different perspectives and experiences of art in such a tumultuous time. In many ways, this initiative complemented the efforts being done by others in Singapore, such as galleries, which also presented shows by contemporary artists, including recent graduates. 

In an interview in 2019, you described the ‘contemporary’ as a complexly nuanced milieu in terms of representation by both NGS and SAM, with the former taking on a far more ‘historical’ approach to contemporary art as a category. How would you describe SAM’s focus on the “art of the present” then? Is this primarily a temporal distinction? 

The National Gallery Singapore focuses on the histories of art in Singapore and Southeast Asia and its connections to the global, while SAM is a contemporary art museum. The term “contemporary” in art is complex in the sense that it not only refers both to an historical period of development – which is among the focus of the National Gallery – and to the art being produced in the present time, it is also about how we understand the relationship of our pasts to the present. SAM’s focus is on the contemporary as being about art that speaks to our contemporaneity. In addition to the focus on art that responds to the forces that shape our times and which in turn shape the art, SAM also examines art from other historical pasts that has bearing on the understanding of our present condition. As such, this does not preclude art made in a more remote temporal proximity. 

SAM recently made public its decision to start a residency programme. What inspired this momentous progression in the institution’s development? 

The SAM Residencies programme is a way for us to continue the engagement with the art community and public; it is, in many ways, a natural extension of our work. This museum-run residencies programme was developed to actively engage not only the local and international artistic community, but also the public at large. There are four different modes: the Artist Residency, Community & Education Residency, Curatorial & Research Residency, and Art Spaces Residency, called “EX-SITU”. Unique to the Southeast Asian region are the Community & Education Residency and EX-SITU: Art Spaces Residency where, through a diverse lineup of activities, residents will be encouraged to interact with or involve local communities and the public in different ways. 

On the whole, these residencies look to be an incubator for new approaches to artistic and curatorial practices for those in the arts community. The public programmes will add to the diversity of SAM’s curatorial and programming plans to engage visitors in different ways through the activities and presentations of the residencies. These programmes may take the form of open studio visits, public workshops, talks as well as interactions with artists. It will also create more spaces to support community interactions between artists and the public, and enable meaningful encounters with art. 

More information can be found on the SAM website, and we encourage those interested to apply for the coming cycle.