Singapore's Tan Boon Hui appointed Asia Society Museum director

Mr Tan Boon Hui, the newly appointed director of the reputed Asia Society Museum in New York.
Mr Tan Boon Hui, the newly appointed director of the reputed Asia Society Museum in New York.PHOTO: ST FILE

Former Singapore Art Museum director Tan Boon Hui has been appointed to head a key New York art institution known for advancing knowledge of Asian art globally.

Mr Tan has been appointed director of the Asia Society Museum as well as the society’s vice-president for Global Arts and Cultural Programs. He will lead the non-profit educational organisation’s global arts and cultural activities and oversee its art collections.

Currently assistant chief executive for museums and programmes at Singapore’s National Heritage Board, the 45-year-old Singaporean starts his New York-based role in December. More than 100 candidates were interviewed for this job.

Founded in 1956 by philanthropist John D Rockefeller III, the Asia Society is devoted to promoting a deeper understanding between Asia and the US. It has 11 centres as well as affiliate offices in both the US as well as Asia. Its New York museum presents several cutting edge shows throughout the year, the most recent being Myanmar’s Moment, a series of programmes built around their groundbreaking museum exhibition Buddhist Art of Myanmar.

Mr Tan told Life he was drawn “by the current vision of Asia Society as a global organisation”. He hopes to leverage on his strong connections in Asia and present projects and artists to represent “the global shift” in Asian art, what with growing global interest in Asian art and the increasing number of collectors moving into this area. 

On his appointment, Mr Tan says: “This is hugely exciting. This is the moment for Asian art and Asian artists to enter the narrative of global art history. I feel strongly about Asian art having spent many years of my life understanding, studying and promoting it.

“When you look at global art history, we came in much later but now in every cultural capital of the world there is an openness towards Asia.”

Calling him “one of Asia’s leading talents”, Asia Society president Josette Sheeran says: “He brings a unique blend of vision and creative leadership to our powerful footprint, built over 60 years, in Asian arts and culture.”

On Mr Tan’s departure, the National Heritage Board says “an internal replacement will be made to cover his role”.

Its chief executive Mrs Rosa Daniel adds: “We are very proud of Boon Hui’s appointment. It is encouraging that Singapore’s arts and cultural development is advancing in the right direction. Our people are increasingly recognised for their curatorship and ability to see things with an Asian yet international lens.”

Mr Tan was one of the project directors of the 2013 Singapore Biennale which went big on South-east Asian art and won nods for presenting art that had a strong regional perspective. Most recently, he led the highly successful Singapour en France festival that ran from March to June. It showcased the best of Singapore contemporary arts, culture and heritage in several French cities, including Paris, Lyon, Lille and Nantes.

The only child of a retired bus driver father and a housewife mother, Mr Tan has never felt that the lack of an art or art history degree was a handicap to his career in the museums.

After graduating from the National University of Singapore with a master’s degree in geography, his first job was as an editor at the publishing house Editions Didier Millet, where he selected and commissioned writers for an illustrated Indonesian Heritage series which got him interested in the arts. 

He joined the Asian Civilisations Museum as an assistant curator in 1997. With a strong knowledge of South-east Asian geography and history, he worked on well-received exhibitions such as one on Peranakan jewellery in 2001. From there he worked his way up to numerous leadership positions in Singapore’s museums, including deputy director of programmes at the National Museum of Singapore.

Congratulating Mr Tan on his appointment, leading Singapore performance artist Lee Wen said he was grateful to him for “helping to legitimise performance art during those difficult years for performance art in Singapore in the 1990s”.

He says Mr Tan helped to steer the Singapore Art Museum towards greater openness, bolder forms of contemporary art and recognising home-grown contemporary artists. He pushed for survey shows of Singapore artists including Lee, Amanda Heng and Vincent Leow.

Says Lee: “While some people may criticise him for his lack of art knowledge, as an arts administrator I have found him to be a risk-taker. Importantly, he is willing to listen to artists who are on the periphery. As a bureaucrat he sticks his neck out and has his heart in the right place.”

This latest appointment comes as a boost for Singapore’s art administrators as more take on leading positions in global institutions.

Former Singapore Art Museum curator and artist Khairuddin Hori, 40, is now deputy programming director at the reputed Palais de Tokyo, a Paris institution that is one of the world’s foremost international contemporary art centres. Former Singapore Arts Festival and Singapore Biennale general manager Low Kee Hong, 44, is Head of Artistic Development (Theatre) at Hong Kong’s new arts hub, the West Kowloon Cultural District.