The Search for an Arts Community

by Katrina Stuart Santiago

▶︎ The promise of Asia Society’s Arts and Museum Summit held in November 2016 is one worth fulfilling: a discussion on cultivating an arts community in the 21st century is not only current but also important, especially for many places in Asia and the Pacific where artists and artmaking are constantly challenged by everything from neglect to lack of funding, repression to censorship, and arguably by a gallery and art system within which artists fall at the mercy of capital.

There is also the fact that with the rise of authoritarian regimes across the world, cultural institutions and artistic freedoms are necessarily at risk. There’s the bureaucracy that allows national museums and cultural institutions to be used as cogs in the propaganda machinery of the State. There’s the possibility of art and artmaking being seen as enemies of whatever purported change. As there is the fact that art institutions and organizations can come together and take a stand against any of these forms of control and silencing, but rarely do so.

This was the necessary context of Transfuze, this year’s arts and museum summit. There was no shaking it off.

First day high

The summit was off to a good start, with a Keynote Address by Jack Persekian of Al-Ma’mal Foundation for Contemporary Art Jerusalem, who talked about the sustainability of cultural institutions given the socio-political climate across the world. He spoke of two distinct but interconnected poles. On the one hand, information technology and the challenge of new-ness and how the latter tends to be interchanged with relevance and currency; on the other, the fact that it is also this “new-ness,” this technology, that has led to the rise of fundamentalism and its contingent forms of violence.

Persekian proposes that we re-focus our energies on building communities – of artists, of the general public – with the museum functioning as common space where difficult dialogue can continue to be had. Here, it is clear that sustainability is about ensuring cultural institutions’ continued relevance, where it works towards shifting public consciousness, and responds to a changing, heavily-divided world by resisting polarization. This means going back to stakeholders, to the communities that cradle these institutions, to the artists who might use artifacts and spaces differently.

Rhana Devenport‘s response was just as well-grounded and significant as Persekian’s, focusing as she did on the need for museums to democratize, not in terms of counting the number of guests who come in, but more so how these guests are engaged by what is in the museum. Drawing upon projects of the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, of which she is Director, Devenport highlighted the need for museums to become vulnerable again, to allow its artifacts to be used differently, to let its space be utilized in new ways by varied forms of artmaking. Her premise is simple: the museum is a safe space for unsafe ideas, but in order for these ideas to be encouraged, in order for these to prosper, there is a need for cultural institutions to become more porous, less stringent about what it allows and does not allow, more open to the unfamiliar, if not the political.

Receiving questions from the audience afterwards, both Persekian and Devenport were on a roll, talking about the importance of disruption, the value of artists as curators, and the need to open up museums, refusing the idea that it is nothing more than repositories of artifacts. A pretty powerful start for an arts and museum summit in a time of authoritarian regimes, yes?

Downward Spiral

The only panel on the first day also unpacked quite successfully the ambiguous topic of “cultivating a new arts community” – because what is “to cultivate” and what is “new” and is Google Arts & Culture Lab even really doing any form of cultivating when its “newness” is borne solely of its use of technology to make art available online? Sadly, this was the exception to what would be the rule for the second day’s panels.

To some extent, it wasn’t that the panels were ill-conceived, as it was that these weren’t anchored on a clear sense of context, how on the one hand each place is different, and how on the other our similarities are far bigger than that we all have museums and cultural institutions. In fact, what we do have in common now is technology, that one that makes access easier, i.e., Google, in the same way that it has demanded of us to change the way we run our institutions, engaging with the public in ultra-specific and shallow ways such as thinking about Facebook likes and shares, but also Instagrammable spaces in our museums.

What we also have in common is national art institutions fighting for funding, as well as an arts and culture establishment that couldn’t care less about community-based art projects which are made to contend with bureaucratic processes to get any form of support. And then there’s the fact of oppressive leaders and authoritarian regimes across the world, and how the art world is expected to function in times like this one.

But alas, these panels seemed decidedly removed from the crises that we are all inevitably a part of and save for a few guests, what these panels became was nothing more than an opportunity for these art institutions and guests to put their best feet forward and sell the spaces and institutions they represent. Some panels were also thoughtlessly put together, say for Panel Three, which sought to talk about historical narratives and peacemaking in museums, but put together Mary Jane Bolunia of the Archeology Division of the National Museum, alongside Chhay Visoth of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh. The disconnect is so clear, it’s a surprise no one thought to reconfigure that panel altogether; to some extent the critical importance of a discussion on the genocide museum was diluted by the highly academic problems of an archeology division.

Panel Four, which sought to speak about autonomy and independence in artist-run spaces, and frames these to be about small-scale projects, had Jam Acuzar, whose Belles Artes Projects is not only large in scale, but is also about the creation of a gated, highly privatized, and elitist art and heritage space in Bataan. Did she admit that? Of course not. Did anyone want to raise it as a question? Not at all.

When press releases for Tranfuze first came out, artists voiced out their disagreement with the fact that it sought to speak of arts communities, yet the price to attend the summit was so steep, none of those artists who do build arts communities in the provinces and margins would be able to afford it. The solution was to send invitations to certain organizations and invite them to attend for free. Not sure how that was received, but there were few artists in attendance during the two-day summit.

The case of the missing artists

It was ironic that for an arts and museum summit, and especially for one that sought to talk about cultivating arts communities, that not only were there few artists in attendance, artists also barely spoke during the panels and discussions. Of course it’s entirely possible that this is because this summit is more for museum workers, maybe not at all the venue for actually discussing artmaking and creativity.

But that would be hard to believe given the subject of cultivating arts communities, but also in light of how the summit itself started on such a high note that put such value on artists and creativity as a critical point of discussion and change within cultural institutions. Along with moderator Boon Hui Tan, Vice President of Global Arts & Cultural Programs and Museum Director of Asia Society New York, Devenport and Persekian probably provided the best beginning for any arts and museum summit.

Tan talked about cultural production, and how the role of cultural institutions is to give artists the space to interrupt, to disrupt, to intervene in, the status quo. Persekian talked about how museums can and should go beyond the regimented and fixed, otherwise they risk losing their public altogether, how there is a need for participatory projects, and the reimagination of the space as one where those who don’t have the means but have something to say might be cradled. Devenport debunked the idea that only curators can make exhibitions, when as far as she’s concerned, artists can curate the best exhibits, and tend to be thinking ahead of museums in terms of creating and offering more memorable experiences for spectators.

These were all worthwhile discussions to have for the rest of Transfuze, but none of these were pursued. And for this particular historical juncture, what a missed opportunity. ***

Katrina Stuart Santiago is an arts and culture critic writing at This piece was previously published in Art+ Magazine in February 2018.