‘Accidental Director’: The Uncurated Life of Eugene Tan

Eugene Tan is the director of National Gallery Singapore and Singapore Art Museum. He led the recent flurry of blockbuster exhibitions in Singapore such as Yayoi Kusama’s Life is the Heart of a Rainbow, Minimalism: Space. Light. Object., and Century of Light which featured the original impressionist masterpieces from Musée d’Orsay and masterpieces by Raden Saleh and Juan Luna. He has also enabled the partnership of National Gallery Singapore with iconic institutions such as The Centre Pompidou and Tate. Hannah Soh interviews the director for Tembusu’s Inaugural Dinner for Academic Year 2019/2020.

I know you manage the National Gallery, and now the Singapore Art Museum. Can you tell us more about the job?

Well, where do I start? [both laugh]

Firstly, it is a real honour and privilege to be leading two of Singapore’s art museums. I guess the reason why I was asked to head both was to try to ensure that the two museums work closely to serve our stakeholders and the public. I know it sounds kind of strange, but I think for whatever reasons the two institutions have not been working well together in the past. The National Gallery is the newer of the two; it opened in 2015. It’s remit is really to look at the history of art, to historicise the development of art in Singapore and Southeast Asia. Its focus in its collection is to document the emergence and development of modern art in Singapore and Southeast Asia from the 19th Century to the present day. Whereas Singapore Art Museum, SAM, is a contemporary art museum. Its role is to look at artistic production today, the kinds of art that is being made today, and what does it tell us about society today and the relationship between art and society.

The goal is to create a synergy between the two with each being very clear about what their remits are and what their areas of focus should be. This doesn’t mean they cannot do exhibitions or programs that cross into each other’s areas as long as each museum is very clear about its area of focus. But I guess this confusion has arisen in the past because of the term ‘contemporary’. The ‘contemporary’ in art is something quite complex because it is both a historical term, denoting a specific period in the development of art, as well as an adjective referring to the art of the present. For SAM to focus on the contemporary in all its various aspects, being a much smaller institution than the National Gallery, I suspect it is just not feasible, hence the decision for SAM to just focus on the art of the present, whereas the National Gallery looks at the history of art, which includes contemporary as a historical development as well.

Right now, the SAM is closed.

Yes, we just closed to do a major renovation. It’s a very exciting time. We will only reopen in three to four years’ time. The current buildings are quite constraining for a contemporary art museum because it occupies two premises—two former schools—neither of which are very suitable for contemporary art. So the new renovation will add additional structures which will link the two buildings and create spaces that are more suitable for it.

I remember it being quite confusing.

Yes, I think all historical buildings have this problem. National Gallery faces this problem too. Because it was not built as a museum, it is not built for this purpose, so having to adapt it will lead to these issues.

Besides structural changes, will there be other significant changes?

Because SAM is closed for the next few years, it is also a time to rethink the institution, so changes will come about.

If someone wanted to be in your position, what advice would you give them?

[laughter] I must say that I think of myself as an accidental director. Because my journey in art was—well, if I explain that then I will explain what I am trying to say. My first degree had nothing to do with art. It was economics and politics. I was studying in London at that time. It was because I was in London that there were all these museums, galleries, and I started going to art exhibitions. That’s how I became interested in art. So I studied art history only in my masters and [then subsequently my] PhD. And that is really how I got into art and art history.

I did art history against the wishes of my parents, you know. [both laugh]

Especially from economics, right?

Yes, yes. And my dad was in banking. He was very much against it. Luckily, my mom was very supportive. But I was just really interested in it; I wanted to pursue it. I had no idea where it would lead me, I must say. This interest led to the PhD, and even when I finished the PhD, I had no idea what I wanted to do.

I guess I was lucky because when I came back to Singapore there wasn’t as much going on as we have now, so there were a lot more opportunities, I got a job in the arts, and I slowly developed, I guess.

What was your first job in the arts in Singapore?

It was at the LaSalle College of the Arts as director of the Earl Lu gallery which is now the ICA [Institute of Contemporary Arts]. It was a small centre but I was curating a lot of shows there. So one thing led to another and I was then asked to take on this position at the National Gallery, which I kind of felt was my responsibility to do.

That explains what I mean by being an ‘accidental director’. I never set out to be a director of a museum, but it was through my interest and desire to improve the arts scene in Singapore that I was led to this position.

Comparing then and now, what do you think of the arts scene in Singapore? How has it changed?

I think for young people like yourself, there is now so much going on here. I have trouble keeping up with all the exhibitions. Apart from all the museum spaces, there are all these independent art spaces that are opening and doing really interesting shows.

Art now has a very vibrant feel. Even when I returned to Singapore, the circle was still very small. In fact, I knew Margaret [Dr. Margaret Tan, Senior Lecturer and Director of Programmes in Tembusu College] because she was at LaSalle at that time as well.

Was Dr. Margaret teaching?

Yeah, I think she was teaching.

So there’s a lot more going on now, but that means there’s a lot more people working in the arts, so I suppose there are less opportunities, right?—as compared to when I was starting out my career.

But I think it is good that there are so many young people interested in the arts. I think this is important because it is only through this that the arts becomes much more important to society. Not necessarily more people being artists, curators, or critics but just being advocates and understanding why art is important for us.

I was personally in SOTA for a few years, in visual arts. After SOTA, many of us didn’t do art anymore, mainly because of the stereotype that you don’t earn much from art. Do you think there are enough opportunities, especially after one gets an arts diploma or degree?

I think so. I think the whole ecology is much more fully developed than it was when I was starting out. Apart from the museums, you have all the independent art spaces, the non-profit spaces—like the CCAs and the ICAs  [Centres and Institutes for Contemporary Arts]—but also the commercial sector, all the galleries—for example, the Gillman Barracks—art fairs—I know there have been some high-profile art fairs that have left, but some are coming in as well. So I think the whole ecology is there. Once we get the ecology complete, the arts scene will grow from strength to strength; more and more opportunities and jobs created in the arts.

How does it compare to the London arts scene?

When I was doing my masters and my PhD, London was going through this vibrant period. It was the time of the YBAs—the Young British Artists—with Damien Hirst and all his friends who graduated from Goldsmiths. So at that time London was the centre of the art world. I think Singapore has that kind of potential, firstly, to be the centre of art for the region, a place where artists, curators, and collectors all congregate. It’s this kind of exchange of ideas that makes an arts scene triumph.

It’s quite hopeful.

So are you back in art now?

Sorry. [both laugh] After finishing SOTA I decided to pursue other interests as well. I’m doing sociology now.

You know, we have art history in NUS now. It is a program we started with National Gallery [Singapore] and the History department [in NUS]. A few of the curators and I teach some of the courses. I teach the contemporary art course as well as a bit on Time Traveller: The Curatorial in Southeast Asia [AH3202].

What are some topics you discuss?

On contemporary art, we look at contemporary art as a historical and ongoing development in art. So it looks at the juncture between the modern and the postmodern which became the basis of contemporary art. It starts by looking at Pop Art, then Conceptual Art and Minimalism.

For curation, you will get a sense of history of the development and evolution of exhibitions, and how specifically in Southeast Asia, some of the exhibitions connects with modernist histories as well.

If you are thinking about it, you should do some of these courses.

Are there any upcoming projects you would like to share with us?

We have the Singapore Biennale that is going to open in November which is going to be pretty exciting. It’s organized by SAM, but because SAM is undergoing renovation, it is going to be held at the National Gallery this time. The National Gallery is one of the main venues, along with Gillman Barracks and a few other venues.

The artistic director is Patrick Flores. He’s a great friend and a great curator. So I’m looking forward to the Singapore Biennale.

This article is part of a series of interviews of Singapore’s cultural icons who were guests for Tembusu’s Inaugural Dinner for Academic Year 2019/2020. See the other interviews here.

Header and Feature Image Photo Credit: National Gallery Singapore

About the interviewer

Hannah Soh is a Year 2 NUS student whose bio will be submitted soon.