The Taiwanese government has, without a doubt, been the primary patron in the course of the development of the island’s contemporary art. Yet, while a government with a nurturing stance is advantageous for art practice, it can also have a disabling effect. Art professionals have a dependency on government support in Taiwan, and in a polarized political environment, policies toward the arts can be unpredictable and shift easily with each administration. On the other hand, the maturing of private philanthropy in Taiwan has been a growing resource for the arts community. In 2007, the real estate developer JUT Land Development Group established a foundation for the arts. Their latest project Urban Core Art District has transformed a cluster of abandoned apartments in a prime location of the city, into temporary homes for art groups.
In May 2008, president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) stepped into office and marked the end of a disappointing era of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the comeback of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). In a land that is unavoidably passionate about its politics, Taiwan’s art community is, like everything else, inseparable from the island’s political affairs.
In my opinion, two government trends have immensely impacted the art community in the past two years; firstly, there has been a great emphasis to generate public interest in art and cultural events; and secondly, there has been a push to improve cross-strait relations. On the surface, the direction of these objectives is clear and the intentions are seemingly constructive, however, the art community is skeptical about the motives of the administration and has become increasingly aggravated by the crude execution of these agendas.
The Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM) held a number of blockbuster exhibitions in 2009 including 'Pixar – 20 Years of Animation, Arcadie – Collection of Pompidou Centre, 25 Years Retrospect of Fang Lijun, and Cai Guo-Qiang – Hanging Out in the Museum'. These super-sized exhibitions have increased the number of annual visitors to the Taipei Fine Arts Museum from 400,000 to more than a million. This method of employing commercial assistance to massively boost visitor levels has brought a lot of criticism to the museum. Yet, despite the art circle’s concerns for the professional role of art museums and how they are perhaps being corrupted by commercialization, the city’s deputy mayor Lee Yong-ping (李永萍) unapologetically responded, saying: “TFAM is not just for a minority group of artists. This is not its function… From the perspective of a government investment – and we invest a lot of money – are we providing a service to 400,000 people, or are we providing a service to 1.1 million people?”
Since the new administration settled in, there has been an open quest for cultural and economic integration with China. Amid many policies, a quota of two exhibitions per year featuring Chinese artists was quietly implemented to the Taipei Fine Arts Museum and the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts last year. Manray Hsu, co-curator of the 2008 Taipei Biennial, is worried that when art becomes a diplomatic instrument for political purposes, quality and professionalism become discounted, and there is an imminent danger to the integrity of the museum.
As the government, the primary force in the funding of arts and culture, starts to have plans of its own, the art community begins to consider other options. In the past, private philanthropists have instituted well-known events such as the prestigious annual Taishin Arts Awards and Fuban Bank’s 'Very Fun Park' exhibition. These foundations have matured over the years and are becoming integral parts of the art community. In the midst of last year’s turbulence between the government and the art community, a new form of sponsorship quietly took shape in an old part of town.
Ximending is a popular shopping and entertainment area located in the west side of Taipei, in the city’s famous Wanhua district. Home to a theatre street, trendy clothing stores for fans of Japanese culture, cheap eateries, street performers, and stylish bars that have sprung up around a historic building, the area has been compared to Tokyo’s Harajuku. Just 500 meters away from the gateway to this vibrant neighborhood, a number of contemporary art institutions have found a temporary home in a cluster of old apartments.
JUT Foundation for Arts and Architecture is part of the JUT Land Development Group. Many buildings in Taiwan that are involved in urban renewal projects are given an idle time of three to five years, prior to the start of new construction. This seemingly useless waiting period for the development industry is valuable to many others. Unlike the preexisting forms of sponsorship, the JUT Land Development Group saw this trend of inactive real estate as a potential resource for the art community. They decided to establish a foundation in 2007 that would promote arts and culture, as a means of improving their company image. The foundation offers real estate properties that are in line for urban renewal, for studio usage, exhibitions, and cultural events. One of their first projects was 'Rice for Thoughts' – a four-month long performance and land art piece by Lin Chuan-Chu (林銓居) that involved the artist planting a rice field on a lot in the middle of a commercial district.
Urban Core Art District, JUT Foundation’s current project, has transformed half a block of old apartments into an art neighborhood in Ximending. Liu Wei Kung (劉維公), a member of the board of trustees commented that: “old neighborhoods are regarded as charming in other countries, and Ximending has been undervalued. However, urban renewal is not the same as flipping real estate, and city development cannot depend solely on big buildings: we should create new models. For this reason, creative minds are our assets. JUT has provided an environment free of rent for art professionals, and consequently these talents will bring the neighborhood an unmatchable magnetism.”
The resident parties in the Urban Core Art District include Association of the Visual Arts in Taiwan who, for the first time since their founding in 1999 have their own office space; Open Contemporary Art Center, a prominent arts collective consisting of graduates from the National Taiwan University of Arts, who have relocated from their original site in far-away Taipei County; Taiwan Photo Museum, which formed for the sake of promoting and preserving Taiwanese photography; Logico, a young and active, cross-disciplinary art collective; and the Taipei Contemporary Art Center, an art centre that set out to provide an independent venue for networking and dialogue in the art community. The area also consists of JUT’s own residency program Exploding Generation (七門町) a rental gallery space, a meeting space, and a reading room/café.
Two years from now, eight of the twelve apartments in the Urban Core project will be torn down, and a carnival-like art event will take over a 1,000-1,300 square metre temporary exhibition space to conclude the two-year sponsorship. By then, the resident art groups will need to make their own arrangements, but for now, Urban Core has initiated a new form of sponsorship for the Taiwanese art community - and as a result Ximending has become one of the hippest art neighborhoods in town.
- Sat, 1 May 2010