Illustration by Kang Joon Mo.

A Third Way

China USA
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic
As the art infrastructure in Asia continues to grow, many art-world professionals are transitioning between the commercial and nonprofit sectors. Technically, there is nothing wrong with this crossover. Historically, for-profit galleries, alongside institutions big and small, have played an important role in shaping culture. Today, however, what is interesting and challenging is the establishment of organizations in a world in which the project of democratic society is rapidly losing ground to the forces of market capitalism. This is an extremely alarming development, especially for places in Asia where there are new possibilities and ambitions for globally significant artistic communities.

From the beginning, we need to think about the big picture of what we are building, instead of just following the existing rules—namely, if we have art fairs, galleries and museums, that’s all we need—which are very misleading. The art community has long discussed the role of so-called alternative spaces, informal organizations and artist-run spaces, which have become particularly relevant today. We should see the growth in independent spaces in the same context as the global Occupy Movement and worldwide protests, and even the social revolutions in Arab countries that began in late 2010, as expressions of a demand for other models of development. One of the biggest challenges we face is that if there are only protests and revolution, without an agenda, we create an extremely dangerous situation with the potential for chaos once the excitement is gone, as we have seen in the Middle East.

In terms of the art community, we have tried to emphasize the variety and integrity of certain intellectual positions. For example, with many biennials and independent nonprofit spaces and even some for-profit galleries, the question is not simply whether they are totally nonprofit or partially commercial, because in Asia especially these organizations have to deal with certain economic and legal realities. What is more important is what is being realized there. For the same reason, what is happening at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA)—the resignations of many board members and the dismissal of chief curator Paul Schimmel—is not simply a question of which model of funding a museum ought to use, but what, in this populist era, is being programmed in the museum.

In Asia, there is a comparable situation, as most of the new institutions are being supported or encouraged (or tolerated) by government authorities, yet just as often, financial support is coming from private sources and patrons. It is a new vision for state institutions that promote nationalist cultural ambitions, and very often resort to “hot money” coming from the real-estate market in East Asian countries or energy wealth in Central and West Asia. The increased tendency of populism in museum exhibitions comes from the dictatorship of a new social elite, the new oligarchy, whose influence is much more important today compared to even ten years ago. As much of this money comes from the new generation of financiers and entertainment stars who do not have a strong cultural background, we are seeing these values reflected in the vision for new organizations.

One might be tempted to say that what happened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)—with Eli Broad promising to give his collection and then instead overseeing the construction of his own museum, under LACMA’s auspices—was an anomaly, but it was not. At first we thought it was scandalous, maybe just an accident, but it was not. As situations like this are replicated around the world, we become numb or indifferent to them. People have even begun to embrace this as a norm or a model, because it serves the interests of certain powerful individuals.

The place of the curator here is in the production of intellectual cultural criticism. Curating is not about organizing fancy events; it is about stimulating or preserving debate within a creative, dynamic space, one that is political and even contains the possibility for chaos. It is about trying to materialize an agenda, about producing difference or disruptions in the order. This process is also closely linked to working with artists themselves, with the kind of encouragement curators can provide. This is increasingly difficult for younger curators as students have to fund their own education. The system has created a culture of fear because younger curators are under enormous pressure to succeed professionally so that they can repay their student loans. In this context, it can be incredibly ironic or hypocritical to say that they should be critiquing mainstream society. However, this culture of fear is the exact opposite of what we have been seeking and dreaming about for years.

In fact, what is needed in the art world is some kind of in-between system, between the state-dominated models of the previous century and the capitalist-dominated models of today. The question of how to build this new model and what it will look like is very important and needs to be debated. Independent organizations can play a crucial role in this. We need a new strategy because not only are the old models not working, but the traditional form of revolution is not working either. The question is how to generate independent ideas and develop in-between spaces in our increasingly complex society.