Plunging into the Asian art scene

In October 2011, three New Zealand curators travelled to Seoul, Shanghai and Beijing to visit leading museums, galleries, and artist spaces to learn more about art in Korea and China.

Aaron Lister (City Gallery in Wellington), Emma Bugden (Dowse Art Museum in Lower Hutt) and Karl Chitham (art collection curator at The University of Waikato) were the lucky ones chosen to take the trip.

Karl Chitham, Aaron Lister and Emma Bugden on the Great Wall.First up – let’s admit it – the curator’s tour has a packed schedule. You won’t hear any argument from participants about that, but they will tell you that what was initially a daunting feature of the programme was also part of its appeal.

“It was really nice to get such a broad sweep – and we really did – of different types of artists and different levels of galleries,” said Aaron Lister. “It was hectic – at points you sat down and this kind of blur went past you of all the things that you had seen. But then, I wouldn’t have wanted to be the one deciding what we weren’t going to see!”

One of the attractions of the tour for Lister was the chance to deepen his knowledge of artists in the region.  “City Gallery has set a bit of priority to focus on Asia, and we’ve had a couple of shows over the past few years.  That’s just scratching the surface really, so this trip was a chance to get to explore things in a bit more depth.”

Roofs at the Haiensa Triptaka TempleBoth he and Karl Chitham found Seoul to be a tour highlight for many reasons. "Seoul combined a fast-paced city with a laidback, friendly attitude," said Chitham. "I really enjoyed a visit to a gallery/café called Space of Art, Etc run by artist/entrepreneur Nam Kim. I was particularly interested in his push to make his space and projects more community focused. He talked about wanting to invite everyone in the community to make kimchi together in order to pass on the tradition and get people to interact with each other.

“Another major highlight was visiting the Haein Art Project at the Haeinsa Tripitaka Temple, about four hours’ drive from Seoul. The temple buildings and grounds were absolutely beautiful, and the integration of the artworks was an added bonus. It’s an experience I won’t forget.”

Because they visited so many galleries, studios and artists on the tour, the curators were able to get an idea of how the art scenes in Korea and China work, and they compare with New Zealand. While Lister noticed differences of size – “in Beijing, people operate on a scale that we couldn’t even dream of” – for Emma Bugden, the key difference stems from how art is funded.

Confucius sculpture by Zhang Huan"With limited state funding for the arts, much curatorial work is undertaken by commercial gallerists and patrons, particularly in China. This means the art scene is driven far more by the personal vision of individuals, rather than the larger strategic goals of institutions. It also means, as an outsider, it’s much harder to read the art scene – the roles of everyone involved are less clear-cut."

For Lister though, what shone through in both countries was the passion of the curators for their work. “Anywhere you go you find that the people operating in these curatorial roles are driven and energetic, and just keen to do as much for art and artists as they can. And that’s the bond you strike up – no matter who they are or what they’re doing.”

That bond was clearly present between the three curators from New Zealand.  All saw the opportunity to travel with their peers as one of the tour’s strengths. “We each had different perspectives on what we saw, which was particularly valuable for me as I work in relative isolation,” said Chitham.

One opportunity they may explore in the future is combining to bring exhibitions to New Zealand. However, each also has their own ideas percolating.  “We all left committed to making sure that we leverage the most from the tour, and get benefits not for us, but for our culture,” said Lister.

That extends to supporting New Zealand artists wanting to work in Korea and China. “Everywhere we went, the artists’ residencies were very much stressing about getting the right New Zealand applicant into these spaces. So being able to see those spaces, and understand how and which New Zealand artists could operate on those terms, was really useful.”

The Curators' Tour was funded by the Asia New Zealand Foundation and Creative New Zealand

Images courtesy of Karl Chitham
1.The curators on the Great Wall, L-R, Aaron Lister,
Karl Chitham and Emma Bugden.
2. Haeinsa Tripitaka Temple, Korea.
3. Q. Confucius by Zhang Huan, on display in Shanghai.

Last updated: 16 Mar 2015