Why Malaysian Adeline Ooi is the perfect pick for Art Basel's Asia director

Adeline Ooi's passion for the finer things in life makes her the perfect fit as Art Basel's Asia director

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 January, 2015, 10:41pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 January, 2015, 10:41pm

On Christmas Eve, curator and art advisor Adeline Ooi received an early present: she signed on to become the new Asia director for Art Basel, the art fair where she had been VIP relations manager for Southeast Asia for two years. On Tuesday, she was in Hong Kong to meet journalists over afternoon tea at the Mandarin Oriental hotel.

In just 10 weeks, from March 15 to March 17, Art Basel in Hong Kong will be open to the public at the Convention and Exhibition Centre. The invitation-only preview begins on March 13.

"We considered over two dozen candidates for this key position and interviewed more than a dozen of them," says Art Basel director Marc Spiegler. "Although in the end we chose a candidate who had already worked with us, we considered candidates from across the world and from every sector of the art world. We feel that Adeline is best qualified to do what needs to happen next, to catalyse the show's development by bringing more collectors from across Asia and the West here to Hong Kong."

Ooi was born in 1976 in Malaysia, where she grew up on a palm oil estate. She studied fine arts at Central Saint Martins in London. "I could never imagine myself working nine to five in an office," she says with a laugh when asked what drew her to study fine arts.

"I don't really have a specific answer, say, it was that one Van Gogh painting that led me to study art, but I was always very interested in the creative field. At that time, at that age, I felt that fine art was the way I wanted to go."

At the end of the 1990s, she returned to Malaysia. "I'm very thankful for my education … and to have seen some amazing cities in the West, but Asia is where I've always wanted to be. By a stroke of luck, or maybe the stars had aligned, someone said, 'Maybe you should try out working for this gallerist because he's looking for a curator' and that's how it all started."

Someone said, ‘Maybe you should try out working for this gallerist because he’s looking for a curator’ and that’s how it all started

She joined the now-defunct gallery Valentine Willie Fine Art in Kuala Lumpur in 2000, and by 2006, she was curator and programme director. "I found that I had a lot to learn because I went to school in Singapore and London and by the time I came back I felt like I was a complete alien to my own region.

"It was a good start to work with a gallery that specialised in Southeast Asian art at that time, then I got to see the region for what it is. I got to learn the history, because someone told me that if I wanted to know what's going on, read the history and the art would follow because a lot of it is based on socio-political situations, on contemporary conditions, " Ooi says.

The timing of her ascent in the art world gave her the chance to work at the forefront of a burgeoning art scene. "Between 2006 and 2008 there was a bit of a boom in Southeast Asia. Suddenly, everybody wanted to be a gallery, everybody wanted to sell art," she says.

During this time, Ooi and two colleagues at Valentine Willie Fine Art, Beverly Yong and Rachel Ng, began to re-examine their work. "More and more we decided that actually we didn't need to sell art anymore. We were never really natural-born dealers," she says. In 2009, Ooi, Yong, and Ng co-founded RogueArt, an agency that focuses on managing strategy and organisation for exhibitions, collections, and publications. "My partners and I were always more interested in the infrastructure and looking at what needed to be done or what we could contribute," says Ooi.

"We were always more interested in the slow-burn projects: developing projects with artists, working on publications - that was the other strong point of our business.

"We decided to move away from just selling art. Also at the same time within the Southeast Asian art scene nobody believed in consultancy or advice in the sense that it was very new and when we were trying to explain to people what we did, they were like, 'How are you going to make a living?' But we tried it out, felt our way around and eventually did okay."

In addition to advising collectors, she has consulted on art management courses, worked with artists to shape proposals, written extensively on Southeast Asian art, and curated exhibitions.

Her most recent projects include curating "Media/Art Kitchen", a new-media exhibition supported by the Japan Foundation in Yamaguchi, and co-curating the group show "Turning Targets #5 - Dobrak!" at Cemeti Art House in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

Ooi's work with artists, galleries, private collectors and public institutions soon drew the attention of Art Basel and she received a phone call asking her if she wanted to work with the fair. Two years ago, Ooi began serving as VIP relations manager for Southeast Asia - Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

"I know the galleries, I know the collectors really well, and I have a very clear sense of what's going on in my region. And it's been a really good relationship ever since."

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