More than a museum: Doryun Chong on Hong Kong’s M+ – interview

M+’s chief curator on building his new team, overcoming public suspicion and curating Uli Sigg’s treasure chest. 

Doryun Chong, formerly the associate curator of painting and sculpture at MoMA, speaks to Art Radar about his new role as chief curator of M+ Museum, his curatorial approach and his vision for M+ as a 21st century model for an international museum situated in Hong Kong.

Design of M+ museum's main entrance by Herzog & de Meuron. Image courtesy M+ museum.

Design of M+ museum’s main entrance by Herzog & de Meuron. Image courtesy M+ museum.

M+ Museum, a key part of an expansive visual culture project by the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority (WKCDA), is slated to open early in 2018. Built on 57 acres of reclaimed land overlooking the Victoria Harbour, the museum will focus on twentieth and twenty-first century art, design, architecture and the moving image. According to the Los Angeles Times, “planners hope the USD642 million museum will become one of the world’s top modern and contemporary art destinations on the level of Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.” The design for the museum is well under way with Herzog & de Meuron, the architectural firm known for Tate Modern of London.

Heading the international team of executives and curators is Lars Nittve, the executive director of M+, who formerly served as the founding director of the Tate Modern. In August he was joined by Doryun Chong, M+’s new Chief Curator. Chong, who was born in South Korea, holds a BA and PhD in art history from the University of California, Berkeley and worked in major museums in the United States, including San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum and New York’s MoMA.

Art Radar caught up with Chong to talk about his role as Chief Curator, the challenges of the job and his vision for a global museum located in Hong Kong.

Image of Doryun Chong, chief curator of M+ museum. Image courtesy M+ museum.

Doryun Chong, chief curator of M+ museum. Image courtesy M+ museum.

What do you think makes you the best curator for the job of chief curator at M+?

What do I think makes me the best curator for the job? You know, am I the best curator for the job? I guess if I simply say yes, that would be a little arrogant. I think in any kind of appointment it’s a combination between the confidence of the person who gets the job and also the conviction on the part of the people who tap you. There has to be a kind of a meeting point. Clearly, there were certain kinds of expectations on the part of the selecting committee of people and on my part, it was a combination of self-confidence as well as my belief in my usefulness for what’s needed for this job, this project, for this institution and of course the excitement that comes with the prospect of this job. So I think this sort of meeting point happened between me, M+ museum and the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, which is the umbrella organisation, so we met somewhere in the middle and came to a kind of agreement that I’m the right fit.

As the chief curator of M+ museum, what does your role entail? 

The chief curator is the head of the curatorial department, which is in the process of growing and evolving. We currently have, I believe, thirteen people including me, from curatorial assistants all the way up to full curators and senior curators. It’s kind of like adolescents going through growth spurts. You know, we are constantly growing, seeking more people, and you have to understand that it’s going to be a very large museum. In terms of the physical structure, it’s probably going to exceed the size of MoMA, with very large exhibition spaces. And the collection is going to be as big as MoMA’s, which has been around for the last eighty years. We are very actively building up the collection and will continue to collect. So in order for us to handle all of our collecting activities, as well as the very active exhibitions, public programmes and education programmes that we are planning, we really need to have a very large team of talented people. One big responsibility for me is to grow this department and structure it to ensure that the curators can do their job and that it’s done in the most effective and efficient way.

Are there specific goals you have in mind while getting this curatorial team and department together? And what do you hope to accomplish short term as well as long term?

Well, short term, I guess the ongoing goal is to really make sure we have the best people, the most talented and most qualified people to join our team. It’s really important for me to establish this kind of a culture, which is already in existence, but as the size of the team grows it’s very important to ensure that this continues.

As the collection grows, it’s important for me to make sure that it has a certain coherence. Of course quality control is very important: we want to have top notch quality for our collection but also to make sure what all these disparate objects that are going to constitute the collection tell some kind of a coherent story. That’s very important. And the same can be said about programmes too, how do you accomplish diversity as well as coherence?

Design of M+ museum by Herzog & de Meuron. Image courtesy M+ museum.

Design of M+ museum by Herzog & de Meuron. Image courtesy M+ museum.

Do you have specific events planned for the inaugural opening?

Oh I think it’s a little early right now. So let me tell you a little bit about where we are. First of all, I’ve been at this job for a little under three weeks; every day is like a crash course or a boot camp, but it’s really exhilarating. I am in the stage of being a sponge, just absorbing all the information. But it’s not like I can sit here and just absorb information because decisions have to be made right away. I mean it’s at a very dynamic stage where things are literally evolving on a day-to-day basis.

But on the larger institutional side, we are in the process of designing the building, you probably already know about us having chosen the architect, Herzog & de Meuron based in Basel, Switzerland. They were chosen on the concept design, and now there’s this intense phase of us as the client workshopping and constantly discussing with the architects what our needs are, and what our expectations are. So the concept design is now being transformed into something that’s truly workable. We’re doing all these things at the same time, we’re building a building, and we’re building a collection. These two things obviously have a relationship to each other. We do not have a fully formed collection yet, the collection is at a foetal stage, so it’s not like we can say that based on this collection the gallery should be like this. We don’t have that luxury. We have a different kind of luxury, doing the two things at the same time.

To be honest, there’s a lot of guesswork that’s happening. But I think that comes with any kind of mega project like this, and I think we are very realistic about these projections; this is guesswork, there will be many trials and errors. We are going to try these things, and we are going to be ambitious, we are going to be audacious and we are going to try these things and people may not like it. But you know, building an institution and running an institution is meant to be a discourse with the public. So we hear back from them and then we incorporate it, and sometimes we have to insist on what we believe in, which the public may not see immediately. So it’s really a long term process: long term here means through next year, but it also means through 2017 and 2018. The building will probably be finished around late 2017, so we will probably open in early 2018. And then we are also trying to imagine what’s three years, five years, ten years after that. So all these things are happening all at the same time.

Can you tell me more about the curatorial team?

The curatorial department is not sub-departmentalised. We have curators who focus on contemporary art, ink art, design and architecture and we are in the process of recruiting a moving image curator, so all these people have expertise in different areas or disciplines, but we all work together as a team rather than departmentalising. And education is another area that’s not separate like many other museums, but education staff are called curators, and they are always at the same table with us thinking about education in integrated ways.

What are some of the themes you are planning to curate? 

You know, I have a very long list of ideas that I want to consider, but at the same time I don’t have a short list that’s definite yet. I think what M+ can do and will do is to become an institution that tells you about various strengths of development in modern and contemporary art, design and architecture, and the moving image. Of course, it’s not to say that this topic has not been covered by anybody, there are many scholars, curators and writers and institutions around Asia that have done this job, but I don’t think anyone has done it at this scale and in an integrated way.

I’m sounding too abstract and institutional, so I will have to give you some examples, but bear in mind that I don’t intend to be the chief curator who decides what all the programmes and the collection are going to be. So, this is going to be very much all on the table. I’m just giving you a little preview. For instance, one thing Hong Kong is known for is it’s uniquely dense form of urbanism, a very specific kind of architecture that has happened here. I would be very curious to have an exhibition that highlights that. How did this very unique form of architecture, and very dense form of urbanism, which isn’t just about building which is also about the roads, about the organisation of space, how did this come about? There could be a series of exhibitions about this topic that highlight the singularity of Hong Kong as an urban model. You don’t see any other example of this. There are many other densities around the world but no other place looks like Hong Kong, and not only looks like Hong Kong but is as efficient. So, how is this accomplished? You can do a whole series of projects about that. Our collecting activities are already addressing that.

Think of another area when you think about Hong Kong cinema. Of course, Wong Kar-wai is one of the masters. And the way in which he developed his unique visual language also has a lot to do with this very specific urban spatial organisation of Hong Kong. Do you see what I mean? I think there is a close relationship between how the space has been organised and developed and how this singular cinematic vision of Wong Kar-wai emerged; it was only possible in Hong Kong, I think.

Not to make it sound like the museum is only covering Hong Kong, we are collecting very broadly. I am also very curious to bring together these different pockets of movement that have happened in Hong Kong and China and neighbouring countries in an integrated way. So for instance, now let’s talk about contemporary Chinese art. When you think about the first phase of the development of contemporary Chinese art, first or second phase, I guess in the 1980s in Beijing, before the art market, before any kind of institutions, where all the artists were living essentially living in a large commune in East Village. The iconic works that these artists made many of them were performance based – you can think about people like Zhang Huan, Ma Liuming and all these people – in a sense [these works] came out in a very indigenous context, but I would be curious to see how that can connect to very important performance tendencies in Tokyo in the 1960s. I don’t know if you realise that I did a show at MoMA called “Tokyo 1955″. A lot of that exhibition was dedicated to this performative action based tendencies. So, twenty years apart, two different countries, very different socio-political economic settings. The Chinese artists probably were not aware of what the Japanese artists did twenty, thirty years ago but I think there are ways in which to connect these two, in the larger matrix of art history, that is more than national art history, that is more than regional art history, and of course we have to connect this to even outside world, these Japanese artists working in the 1960s were very much in exchange with artists working in New York at the same time, and I think these Chinese artists find themselves in New York later. And there’s also very close connection separately between China and Europe, different European capitals especially Paris, and same thing with the Tokyo art scene, with European art scene, with Paris as well. And I think we can begin to chart these things and create some kind of a diagram or network of travels of ideas and sharing of tendencies that happened across many different borders.

This is the kind of project that can be done in a fantastic exhibition, but it can also be done as a digital project, it can be done as publication or display as collection. These are the kind of things that I would be interested in doing.

Innovative museum practices of the future

The Gutai retrospective at Guggenheim also tried to make connections between different areas in Asia as well as Europe and New York. Do you feel that by linking all these together at M+ you are doing something that hasn’t been done before?

No, I don’t think it hasn’t been done before. It’s certainly part of the development of art history and exhibition making that has been going on for a while. And the example of Gutai exhibition is a very good one, and almost at the same time, my exhibition of Tokyo at MoMA was trying to do the same thing. Although they come from very different approaches, we share the goal of talking about this art scene or art movement as not limited to one place, one country, or one group of people. This approach is very much au courant, if you will. I think this is how every innovative museum practice has to go.

Perhaps what is going to distinguish M+’s curatorial approach is, first of all, it’s going to be based here, in Hong Kong, in China, you will have a different perspective. You are situated here which will allow you to look at the local conditions in a much deeper way. Also thanks to proximity we can look at what had happened in China, what has happened in Japan, in Korea, and also different places in Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines of course. We will take advantage of our proximity and location so that we can go much more in depth than extra-Asian institutions were able to do. I think it’s generally already the trend that museums previously not known for doing that much on Asia, such as MoMA and Guggenheim, the Tate Modern or the Centre Pompidou, are now making what has come out of Asia as part of their programme. This is an irreversible trend. This is something all these museums are going to do. But where they start is also just like what M+ is doing: it is based on where they are located. If you look at what MoMA and Guggenheim is doing, their collection and programming activities are very much North American and western Europe focused. Or maybe we should say, New York and certain parts of western Europe focused. If you look at Tate Modern or Centre Pompidou, of course their core and their basis are where they are, London and Paris. So they go from there outwards, you can’t do everything but you try to grow from your core to the wider world, and reaches and coverage of that world are all different but we all share our approach as we start from where we are based. We are doing the same thing, so in a sense we are not totally inventing things anew, but it is a totally new thing because no one has done that in this region.

Zhang Peili, 'Series X?' No. 4 (Gloves) 1987. Oil on Canvas, 180 x 200 cm. Courtesy the artist and the M+ museum and Uli Sigg's Collection.

Zhang Peili, ‘Series X?’ No. 4 (Gloves), 1987, oil on Canvas, 180 x 200 cm. Image courtesy the artist, M+ museum and Uli Sigg’s Collection.

Hong Kong: the epicentre of art’s concentric circle

How will the museum differentiate itself from other international museums around the world in terms of collection and exhibitions?

The collection: the core of it is going to come from here. From Hong Kong, Mainland China and wider East Asia including Japan, Taiwan, Korea and Southeast Asia. So it’s like this concentric circle, Hong Kong is the epicentre, and it ripples out. And I think that again all major museums do that. I think you can say that about MoMA for instance: the very beginning of the collection was very much about Paris, that’s the birthplace of modern art, but by the time the institution matured the centre had moved to New York, and that became the core of the collection. I actually think that it’s a very similar kind of a concentric model, and this is a very natural and proven way for an institution to build its collection, and also programmes, as well.

I should add how we are going to differentiate ourselves on top of this natural way of working. It’s called M+ because it is suppose to be more than a museum. That’s not to say that we are not going to be a museum. We are going to be a museum, but we are going to be an institution that does more than the established mode of being a museum. So what does that mean? There can be many different things and this is the big question that we have to answer, but we are meant to be an institution of visual culture which is defined by three areas: visual arts, design and architecture and the moving image. But we are not going to departmentalise; MoMA is departmentalised, and here we are committed to keeping it as one team. That’s not to say that a painting is same as an architectural model, an object and an object, there are literally apples and oranges. But while recognising that there are specific conditions or requirements for different areas and different disciplines, all the curators are going to be at the same table.

I think that strategy is especially cogent for Hong Kong because there hasn’t been an established art market for instance or museum culture, so a lot of the people have been very fluid. An architect is often an artist. They move fluidly, they could be a sculptor, an ink artist or a photographer. And this is in many ways the beauty and the fascinating part of being in a place that hasn’t been overly capitalised and institutionalised. And while we are building a large institution, we have to respond to the unique condition that is here. Let’s not put them in rigid boxes where you belong only in design and architecture, but we have to respond to how these creative people have moved in this fluid way. So if we do this successfully, I think this will be the innovative aspect that will distinguish M+ as a twenty-first century model for a museum.

Image of West Kowloon Cultural District site. Image courtesy M+ museum and WKCDA.

Image of West Kowloon Cultural District site. Image courtesy M+ museum and WKCDA.

Meeting expectations and challenges

What are some of your challenges in realising the vision for M+ museum?

There are many, many expectations about M+. And there are many many criticisms about M+ too. And to be honest, I don’t quite understand what they are yet because I haven’t been here long enough. But I know it’s a highly anticipated and highly contentious project. I think I can say that outright. But my impression is that because this is a governmental project some of the local people are suspicious, just because they have general suspicion about government in general. So it’s not seen with any kind of trust; but what I meant to say is that it’s a government project that I see as being done with great thoughtfulness and transparency. The whole West Kowloon Cultural District project has been around for many years. I was told that this has been around since mid to late 1990s. We are being built on a reclaimed land so this large plot of land has been there for many years. The reason why it is taking so long is because they have gone through these stages and put a lot of thought and consideration into it. I think they thought about this in a really serious way. And they have hired extremely talented people, starting from the executive director Lars Nittve, someone who knows how to build a museum.

So from the very beginning through these conceptual stages to actual implementation, this is being done is a very thoughtful way, which is what convinced me to come here. But I was warned, and it was already clear that there are voices out there in the public arena that are still not convinced, not trustful of what we are doing, so this is obviously going to be a challenge, and I am realistic and pragmatic about these things.

People have already asked me often about public opinions and all these criticisms, but my position is that there is not one voice, the public is not a one dimensional, monolithic entity. I think the discussion is only a sign that this is clearly a place where people feel they can voice their opinions, and they do it in a very vocal and very rambunctious way. That’s the very definition of building a cultural institution; we are not building a place where people come through and people have one opinion. We are not building a Roman Colosseum. We are not doing bread and circuses. We are trying to build a palace and laboratory of ideas, where some ideas are going to be pleasurable, some ideas are going to entertaining, and some ideas are going to make you think and maybe even provoke you. This is meant to be an intellectual organisation, so it’s with that belief that I am approaching this big challenge. And this is a big challenge for everyone, public criticism, and it is our job to deal with it, to constantly converse with people, discourse with people but without the expectation that we are going to convince and convert every single person. We can only try to build a deep level of public trust by being serious, by being genuine and doing our job as curators in the most professional way.


Wan Keping, 'Chain' 1979. Wooden sculpture, 53 x 35 x 13.5 cm. Image courtesy the artist and M+ museum Uli Sigg collection.

Wang Keping, ‘Chain’, 1979, wooden sculpture, 53 x 35 x 13.5 cm. Image courtesy the artist and M+ museum Uli Sigg collection.

Uli Sigg’s treasure chest

Recently it was reported that Uli Sigg donated a major contemporary Chinese art collection to the museum. How do these works fit into the broader vision for the museum’s collection?

Uli’s collection of contemporary Chinese art is well known not only because of its size but perhaps because of its unparalleled quality.  I think it was such a coup for M+ to acquire this collection. And Uli has gone on record a number of times saying that he has always hoped to return this very important collection of Chinese art to an institution in Mainland China, but he just could not find one. M+ is the best prospect, and this is one country, two systems, separate from Mainland, but still a part of China. You probably have heard about how many tourists and temporary visitors there are in Hong Kong from Mainland China, so this is there for the Mainland Chinese audience. By having this collection as the springboard of our collection, we are very well poised to tell an authoritative story about the development of contemporary Chinese art from the late 1970s to the present. This is a very important portion of what the collection is going to be and it certainly does a very good job of establishing the core. Are we going to stop here? No, we are not.

Before I came on board, the curatorial team had already done a very good job of also acquiring works by Hong Kong artists. In the last few years, there’s been back and forth between Hong Kong and the rest of China, but until recently these were quite separate developments. That was another area that was very important for the collection to go into, we have already started doing that and have done quite a lot. We have already also begun to go into what has happened in Taiwan, Japan and Korea, three major art scenes, and we are going to go into that more seriously. It is really helpful to have this one major collection of almost 1500 works to come in to tell one very solid story because then there are either art histories or design histories that can intersect with it or parallel to it in a much easier way. We are starting with a treasure chest already.

Wang Guangyi, 'Death of Marat' 1986. Oil on canvas, 150 x 200 cm. Courtesy the artist and the M+ museum Uli Sigg collection.

Wang Guangyi, ‘Death of Marat’, 1986, oil on canvas, 150 x 200 cm. Image courtesy the artist and the M+ museum Uli Sigg collection.

Will you be collecting only Asian art or will you be collecting outside of Asia? 

I think the core of our collection is going to be Hong Kong, China, wider East Asia and even Southeast Asia. But that will make up sixty or seventy percent, but the rest of [the collection] should cover the rest of the world. Artists, if you are dealing with modern and contemporary period, were constantly travelling and networking with people outside. If Hong Kong artists or Japanese artists went outside of their own countries, they often went to Europe or America. It is important for us to follow these connections and chart the communities that artists were a part of, who were the important influences on these people, and to make sure that we represent that in our collection and programming. So no, we will not be exclusively Hong Kong, Asian or East Asian museum. We will do much more than that.

Stanley Wong, 'Lanwei 04 Fly Away Guangzhou' 2006. Archival inkjet print. Image courtesy M+ museum.

Stanley Wong, ‘Lanwei 04 Fly Away Guangzhou’ 2006. Archival inkjet print. Image courtesy M+ museum.

How will the museum acquire works? From artists, collectors and/or through auctions?

All of the above. As you know, many of us are contemporary art curators, so we see what is happening with gallery exhibitions, non-profit spaces, biennales, and what is happening in museum not only in Hong Kong, New York, Paris and London. All of these places, and of course we follow that. But, again because the art market in Asia has grown exponentially but is not as established, sometimes you have to go directly to the artists, and sometimes you have to go to collectors who collected directly from the artists, and in certain areas, say for instance in Southeast Asia where gallery scene is even less developed, auction houses play even bigger roles. Sometimes works go directly to auction houses. So we haven’t done that so much after all, we have been essentially collecting for about a year, so everything is new at this point, but I would imagine that we will go directly to auction houses. We will go anywhere where the most important works will appear.

M+ museum Found Space. Design of interior. Image courtesy M+ museum.

M+ museum Found Space. Design of interior. Image courtesy M+ museum.

Mapping the intellectual landscape

How do you see the museum developing in the next ten years?

It’s a wide open question. What we do know is that we are going to aggressively build our collection while doing what we call offsite exhibitions and programmes, which we are already doing for the next four years till 2017. Then we are going to open the museum with probably a large part of it dedicated to showing the collection, and starting the exhibition programme right away.

Do you have a theme for the opening exhibition? Or is it in the process of coming together?

We are in the process of charting dozens and dozens of areas that we can go into. We don’t know if we can cover all of that. I am kind of a bit of a map or chart nerd and this is exciting for me. I do this sitting down with curators in my team and really kind of see what are the areas that we should go into collection-wise, and beginning to build our intellectual landscape in a structured way. So I would imagine that I would like to intensely do that in the next six months or so, and that will give us some kind of clarity and also serve as some kind of a roadmap. And sometimes roadmaps are wrong and you have to make corrections. So I think these things will happen at least for the next three or four years in a really intense way. But maybe one or two years before the opening of the exhibition we will really seriously have to sit down and say how we are going to display the collection? What are the exhibitions that we are going to show? And these exhibitions some of them may cover something very obscure, but very innovative kind of scholarship, and some of exhibitions are going to be blockbuster. But what does a blockbuster show mean? I have yet to figure out because there are many different forms of blockbuster. I think the last blockbuster that happened in Hong Kong was a Warhol show from the collection of Warhol museum in Pittsburg. I think that’s one model of blockbuster but you can deal with a Hong Kong artist or an Asian designer and still make a blockbuster exhibition. This is what people who run a museum have to think about. Come back to me maybe in a few months or maybe in a couple of years, and we will talk about the progress.

Christine Lee


Related topics: curatorial practiceAsia expandsinterviews with art curators, museumswhat’s happening in Hong Kong

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