The rise and rise of Asia Art Archive

In the 15 years since the non-profit organisation was launched, the market for contemporary Asian works has boomed and the AAA's influence has grown across the region

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 November, 2015, 7:01am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 November, 2015, 7:01am

Jane DeBevoise, former deputy director of Guggenheim Museum, had literally just landed in Hong Kong in 2002 when she was asked to become a director of a fledgling non-profit organisation called the Asia Art Archive.

At the time, she had just stepped down after seven years as head of operations and exhibitions at the Guggenheim, an art world superpower with its network of museums around the world. DeBevoise was also a rare expert on Chinese contemporary art who had known some of the country's top living artists since the 1980s, when she was an exchange student in Beijing.

So it was rather a big ask by gallery owner and archive co-founder Johnson Chang Tsong-zung for the American to endorse the tiny, rather esoteric organisation run by a 26-year-old Claire Hsu, even if she was Ronald Arculli's stepdaughter.

"It was 15 minutes after I stepped off the plane as I was moving back to Hong Kong and I received the call from Johnson. The idea and vision were undeniably vital and critical. It was doing all the things that I thought were important and needed at the time. How could I say no?" DeBevoise recalls.

The small set-up, which documents, researches and educates about the region's contemporary art development, is still a diminutive presence in the physical sense - there are only about 35 people working in its head office - but its influence has grown considerably as it celebrates its 15th anniversary this month.

DeBevoise, who has been chair of the board for 10 years, says her former employer and other major museums now come to the archive for help on their contemporary Asian art programmes. She and Hsu, archive co-founder and executive director, have been advisers to the West Kowloon Cultural District. Hsu, ranked one of the 100 most powerful people in the art world by London-based ArtReview, still sits on the WKCD museum committee and has a say in the acquisition strategy of M+.

The genesis of the archive's success was the impeccable timing of its arrival.

It is staggering to think that as recently as 2000, the art world was decidedly indifferent to Asian contemporary art, now among the hottest categories in the market.

Hsu, who was working on a masters degree in contemporary Chinese art in London, discovered that hardly any research material existed on the subject. And so she came back to Hong Kong and asked Chang and other art experts to help her set up a free archive of books, exhibition pamphlets, auction catalogues, personal effects and other pieces that could help build up a coherent narrative.

"In 2000, we were on the cusp of this incredible flowering [of contemporary art] in China. None of us could have predicted what happened," says DeBevoise.

The Beijing 798 art district did not exist at that point. The entire "contemporary Chinese oil paintings" sale at Christie's fetched just over HK$2 million in October 2000. By 2013, a single painting by Chinese artist Zeng Fanzhi was sold for HK$180.4 million.

The sudden influx of money and interest in Asian art was spurred by China's economic development. The nation's gross domestic product was growing by 8 per cent every year up until the recent slowdown, producing huge demand for art, as well as forcing the world's leading art institutions and private collectors to question their traditional Western focus.

But Asian contemporary art still isn't studied enough, says DeBevoise. "There isn't the space and opportunities in this part of the world to slow down, to give yourself time to reflect," she says.

"In the US, that work is done by multiple organisations: universities, museums, non-profit spaces. We simply don't have the density of that kind of activities here. In the US, you have this huge ecology gathering and showcasing materials on contemporary art and creating opportunities to create dialogue around those materials. We are part of building that ecosystem in Asia," she adds.

The Asia Art Archive of today is a lot more than just a few rows of bookshelves.

Last year, it took a mobile library of art books around Myanmar and held talks and archiving workshops to a nation which was shut off from the rest of the world for so long. In India, it is compiling a bibliography of art writing from South Asia from the late 19th century to 1990 in 13 languages.

It also has a fast-growing digital library, of which the personal archive of the late, local artist Ha Bik-chuen is its most ambitious project to date. Asia Art Archive has been helping Ha's family salvage decades of records on local artists, exhibitions and letters, some of which are in a fragile condition. As part of the three-year project, it is working with the Google Cultural Initiative to extend the reach of the material online, including the creation of a 360-degree, interactive, virtual museum of Ha's materials.

In 2000, we were on the cusp of this incredible flowering [of contemporary art] in China. None of us could have predicted what happened
Jane DeBevoise, chair of the board of directors, Asia Art Archive

Despite its regional mission, the the archive has always poured significant resources into building up Hong Kong's own art history, even when local art is nowhere near as sought after as works by mainland Chinese, Japanese and Korean artists. That's because Hsu wants to remedy a history void in the Hong Kong section of the archives. "The reason why local art history has not been written is because the material had not been there," she says.

The research team under Hammad Nasar is working with the Hong Kong Museum of Art on a local art history research project that focuses on the city's art ecology in the '60s and '70s.

Since 2013, the two organisations have been recording video interviews with artists who were active at the time, as well as art dealer Sandra Walters and Nigel Cameron, the Post's former art critic. The advanced age and poor health of many from that generation has lent the project a sense of urgency. In Cameron's case, the rampage of Alzheimer's disease wiped out much of his memory shortly after the interview.

Art writing and other research based on these oral histories form an important part of the project. Nasar's team is also working with the department of fine arts at the University of Hong Kong to come up with its first undergraduate curriculum on Hong Kong art history.

Similar organisations are appearing on the scene. The soon-to-be-unveiled National Gallery Singapore will have a major Southeast Asian archive, headed by Farah Wardani, who was formerly at the Indonesian Visual Arts Archive in Yogyakarta. And in South Korea, the new Guanju Asian Culture Complex will also feature an archive.

"We are working in a landscape that will look different in a few years' time. We will need to learn how not to repeat what they are doing and how to connect with them," says Hsu.

But the independence of Asia Art Archive should give it an inherently different approach to art history than the major public projects in Singapore and Korea.

"We are not against public projects but they will come with a nation-building agenda. Their priorities may be slightly different. But these are great projects and there's room for everybody," says DeBevoise.

The archive will host a gala dinner and art auction on November 14 to raise funds for a new home and to upgrade its IT system. A generous subsidy for its 6,000 sq ft space in Sheung Wan has run out and the organisation is paying market-rate rent that is taking a big chunk out of its budget. It also needs more space.

The organisation was in talks with the Central Police Station for years over the possibility of moving there but that has not worked out, so DeBevoise is counting on the broader community to help it come up with funds and ideas.

"We strongly believe in the importance of what we do but we hope that others do, too. If you don't have the platform for building art history and independent research, it is very hard to develop a sense of the identity of the region and to contextualise contemporary art. You also need that to give people the confidence that what they are doing will ultimately be remembered," she says.