Archive opens up and looks abroad

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 April, 2007, 12:00am

The new office of the Asia Art Archive (AAA) commands spectacular views of a century of architecture, from the soaring residential high-rises leaning against green mountains to 19th-century colonial architecture and tong lau, or Chinese buildings, dotting the crisscrossing lanes of Sheung Wan.

It's against this contrasting cultural landscape that the AAA has risen. In slightly more than six years, the archive has doubled its library to 2,500sqft, housing more than 22,000 items on Asian contemporary art, including manuscripts, artists' correspondence and a variety of original materials kept in a fire- and humidity-proof special collections room. Among them are type-written articles by art critic Nigel Cameron from the 1980s and invitations to the exhibition China Avant Garde at the China Art Gallery in 1989.

Along the way, the staff have grown from four to 21, although some are part-timers. About half are research positions based in Hong Kong and other Asian cities. Research now extends to India and Pakistan. And closer to home, a project for the 10th anniversary of the handover is underway using material donated by the public.

AAA founder and executive director Claire Hsu sees the role of the organisation as being not only to collect but also to offer different and in-depth readings of Asian contemporary art.

'What we have isn't very old,' she says. 'But it will be around for many generations to come. We're an archive of the present.'

A registered charity, the AAA started with mainly private donations and a one-year grant from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council, which accounted for 80 per cent of its entire operating budget. It's now 10-15 per cent of the budget, with a lot of funding coming from corporate donations. One patron established a research grant in 2005, with an award of up to HK$80,000 for projects on Asian contemporary art. A sponsorship in kind that's also integral is the AAA's rent-free premises, thanks to Sino Group and Kerry Properties.

As the organisation grows and relies more on private funding, Hsu says it has had to learn quickly. She says she remembers feeling overwhelmed when the current landlord, Sino Group, offered the archive advertising space on the street level of the building.

'We're not used to that kind of attention,' she says. The AAA was built on personal relations, with staff bringing in various networks. Now, there's a need to expand. 'It would be a waste of money and effort and a big shame, too, if no one is using the archive,' says Hsu.

While refusing to call it an advertising campaign, Hsu says the AAA is now emphasising that its collections are open and accessible, and that the archive is a place to spend a Saturday afternoon - countering the conventional view of it as isolated and exclusive.

The archive has also made its presence felt at another level. Last year, it co-organised a series of open meetings at the 2006 Asia Cultural Co-operation Forum with the Home Affairs Bureau, Unesco, the ADC and Hong Kong Institute of Architects.

Juggling its rising profile, marketing strategies and archival responsibilities, Hsu is determined to keep the focus on in-depth research that opens up new points of view. 'Lots of things have been written about Asian contemporary art - for instance the market prices. But much of it is sensational and superficial,' she says .

That's also a reason the AAA has set its sights beyond China and Southeast Asia to India and Pakistan. Two new full-time research positions, based in New Delhi and Lahore, have been opened this year and three new recruits based in India have joined the 32-member-strong advisory board. The latest materials the AAA has acquired on India include all available catalogues of the Triennale-India organised by the Lalit Kala Academy (or National Academy of Art) since 1968.

'We can't generalise what's happening, what's important or not yet, but the level of conversation going on about contemporary art is extremely sophisticated,' says Hsu. Stressing that the AAA remains an 'alternative art space', Hsu says it's exploring the possibility of building an endowment fund, which would allow it to invest donations so that the principal remains intact. The interest would become part of the AAA budget, which Hsu hopes would allow it to do more on education.

'We want to make sure we build strong foundations for the future, developing contemporary art with or without market forces,' she says. 'Ironically, it's the market forces that make this organisation stronger. Everything is somehow related. It will be interesting to see what people think about the endowment fund model. I certainly hope they'll see the benefit.'