SINGAPORE - Veteran arts administrator Tan Boon Hui died on Thursday (July 7) from complications due to a stroke. He was 53.
Mr Tan, who had been hospitalised since suffering a stroke in early May, was a familiar face in Singapore's arts scene.
His latest role was that of executive director of Arts House Limited (AHL), but over the past two decades, he had held leadership posts in places such as the National Museum of Singapore and Singapore Art Museum. He took the helm of AHL in February last year, after five years in New York as the director of the Asia Society Museum.
Mr Tan was the only child of a bus driver and a housewife. He studied geography at the National University of Singapore, and later worked as an editor at the publishing house Editions Didier Millet.
He joined the Asian Civilisations Museum as an assistant curator in 1997.
“I have learnt everything on the job,” he told The Straits Times in a 2009 interview. “Right from writing the storyline for the exhibition, deciding what goes into an exhibition and finding the artefacts or the artworks. A lot of it is project management and I have done everything that goes into the job – I have even swept the museum floors.”
Mr Tan worked his way up in the scene – as deputy director of programmes at the National Museum of Singapore, and then in 2009 as director of the Singapore Art Museum.
On Friday, members of the arts community paid tribute to Mr Tan.
“He is like a passing comet,” says Ong Keng Sen, 58, the artistic director of T:>Works (formerly known as TheatreWorks), who first got to know Mr Tan when he directed Comrade Mayor for TheatreWorks in 2002.
“He loved art, and he loved artists. Whenever he talked about art, he would have a twinkle in his eye. When he talked to artists, his entire personality would soften. I have met very few civil servants with this deep love.”
The last meal they had together, Ong recalls, was in October last year, when Mr Tan spoke to him about the Singapore Writers Festival and Singapore International Festival of Arts – both organised by AHL – and asked him whom he thought might be a good next festival director for both.
“In May, they were saying he wouldn’t make it through – but he’s been such a fighter, he’s been fighting all this time, even though he had been unconscious.”
Longtime friend Mae Anderson, the chair of Art Outreach Singapore, describes Mr Tan as charismatic and one-of-a-kind.
"He gave the best advice. Straight-up, no-nonsense, he always tended to be the one who spoke the truth," says Ms Anderson, 50.
Mr Tan was an adviser to Art Outreach since its inception in 2003. He chaired the jury of the Impart Art Prize - whose curator's prize will now be named after him - and also served as curatorial adviser of their collectors' shows.
"More than that, he was really a champion of not just the arts, but artists," Ms Anderson adds. "He was very invested in making sure that artists are equipped for the business of art, not just as practitioners. He was also very passionate about getting private collectors to allow more access to their art, because the best of contemporary art lies in private hands. With his incredible connections and network, and the respect he had garnered, he put us in touch with a lot of collectors."
In a 2015 article in The Straits Times, pioneering performance artist Lee Wen, who died in 2019, said Mr Tan had helped SAM become more open, moving towards bolder works of contemporary art and doing more to recognise Singapore contemporary artists. For instance, Mr Tan had pushed for survey shows of veteran artists such as Lee, Amanda Heng and Vincent Leow.
"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," Lee said at the time. "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."
Another artist who benefited from Mr Tan’s support was Singapore artist anGie seah, 43, who exhibited at the Singapour en France – le festival in 2015, and the Asia Society Triennial in 2020. Mr Tan, she recalls, was adept at dealing with both collectors and artists – he was sharp, down-to-earth and “gutsy”.
Former Singapore Art Museum curator David Chew, 41, regarded him as a mentor, someone with “skill and expertise in navigating the private and the public sector – he was able to rally support to get things done”.
Mr Chew now works at the National Heritage Board and leads the Singapore Night Festival – which was also started by Mr Tan.
Fomer National Arts Council (NAC) deputy chief executive Paul Tan, 51, says he first met Mr Tan at the NUS Centre For the Arts when they were undergraduates.
"He struck me as someone deeply interested and committed to the arts and culture and indeed, over the years, his different roles and activities were testament to that. I caught him on stage as an actor, attended his exhibitions and worked with him when he was leading the Singapore Biennale team. He had a go-getting energy, extensive networks and always a good sense of irony. It's a loss to the Singapore art scene, and he'll be missed."
As executive director of AHL, Mr Tan oversaw the transition of projects to AHL such as the Singapore Writers Festival, management of Stamford Arts Centre, as well as the launch of the Our Cultural Medallion Story showcase at The Arts House.
AHL's chairman Wilson Tan said in a statement: "Boon Hui executed a clear strategy for our organisation and rallied the team to deliver significant events during the past year for our local arts community. He never forgot that the artists, audiences and every staff at AHL have important voices; and always set aside time to look into their suggestions, comments and welfare."
NAC chief executive Rosa Daniel said Mr Tan was a "dynamic, creative and innovative arts leader who made a significant and positive impact on those who knew him".
"In an outstanding career spanning several decades, Boon Hui held leadership positions in the Asian Civilisations Museum and Singapore Art Museum, and the Asia Society in New York. He contributed much to pinnacle arts platforms like the Singapore Biennale and Singapore Art Week. We will deeply miss him."