Leading up to the recent resignation of the director of the Department of Cultural Affairs, Taipei Fine Arts Museum has been in constant turmoil for the past few years
On 23 June, after a two-hour ride on the Taiwan High Speed Rail, I arrived at Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts (KMFA) for the opening of 'Republic without People - Post-Republic of China' (《後民國》). Perfectly timed with the hundredth year of the establishment of the Republic of China (ROC), curator Wu Dar-Kuen’s (吳達坤) 'Republic without People’ is a fictional nation that raises questions regarding the island's identity and sovereignty, offering alternative solutions to Taiwan's current geopolitical situations by 24 artists. In the museum lobby, marching band members carrying a flag with the exhibition logo marched in, followed by the museum director Beatrice Hsieh (謝佩霓) wearing a body sash which said ‘interim big president’, behind her the participating artists each held a small flag in their hands, waving and smiling to the crowd. After the ostentatious entry, director Hsieh addressed visitors with a manifesto of the pseudo-republic.
The extravagant opening act was a perfect introduction for this whimsical yet reflective show; after a walk-through I was delighted by the selected works but perplexed with a thought: If the exhibition consists entirely of local artists, dealing with region-specific issues, why isn’t ‘Republic without People’ being shown at Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM) to gain more international exposure, or National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts (NTMFA) with federal resources, but instead shacked up in Kaohsiung?  It was later that I learned that curator Wu Dar-Kuen had secured funding for the exhibition but had difficulties finalising an exhibition venue. Wu originally hoped to hold the show at Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei (MOCA Taipei) but received reluctant response. He then got in touch with NTMFA, but was rejected due to the title of the show. KMFA was the only museum that accepted the title and the content. And TFAM? Wu didn’t even bother. While the Council for Cultural Affairs is preoccupied with the year-round programme for the ROC’s one-hundredth year island-wide celebration, ‘Republic without People’ was consequently considered a politically sensitive exhibition.
I imagine that the Taiwan government, prior to the 2008 election, would not have taken issue with ‘Republic without People’, but since the current administration came into office, there has been a dramatic increase in tampering with public museums. The art community fears that what seems like an effort to popularise museums is no more than a strategy to boost the number of visitors to gain political popularity. There has been ongoing concern about these changes, and none louder than the criticisms towards TFAM.
Responsible for the Taiwan Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, the hosts of Taipei Biennial, and the talents nurturing the annual Taipei Art Awards, TFAM has been the leading museum and home court to Taiwan’s contemporary art community for the past 28 years. In January 2009, Hsieh Hsiao-Yun (謝小韞), a political official with a background in foreign affairs was appointed to be the fifth director of TFAM. One of her missions in office is to comply with the Taipei City Government’s needs for the 2010 Taipei International Flora Expo (2010/11/6 – 2011/4/25), a big deal for Taipei city. In the final preparation stretch, TFAM spent nearly 140 million Taiwan dollars (5 million USD) on an additional south entrance and gated parameter of the museum, including the main entrance and the parking lot, to enable Expo crowd control. They also shortened the duration of the 2010 Taipei Biennial for two weeks to make way for the Expo’s opening, all of which agitated the art community. The general consensus: perhaps TFAM is loosing its professional integrity and becoming merely a subordinate unit of the city government.
The art community’s criticisms are also escalated with another museum matter: imported blockbuster exhibitions.
Author Lien Li-Li (連俐俐) analyses art museums with Thomas Kuhn's concept of paradigm shifts in The age of Mega-Museums of Art . She breaks the history of museums into three paradigms: one – temple, two – academia, and finally paradigm three – enterprise. Historically museums were treasure-stowing temples that have since shifted into educational and academic research institutions. However, in recent years, due to reasons that include sustainability, museums are transforming into models that resemble business establishments. With the exception of National Palace Museum, Taiwan has very few bargaining chips when it comes to exchanging collections with western museums. In an era where the Guggenheim and Louvre have become international franchises, it is not uncommon for young museums to borrow collections from well-established museums for a donation in the form of an exhibition fee.
Importing exhibitions via donation is not news to Taiwan; the National Palace Museum collaborated with a private foundation to bring in Musée Marmottan Monet’s collection in 1993. The private foundation bears the majority of the exhibition costs in such partnerships, the public museum pays for a smaller percentage but is responsible for the curatorial direction, and the final box office surplus is then divided according to the ratio of imputed funds. This was the first case and it set the model for all future imported exhibitions. During one conversation I had with a senior TFAM staff-member, she expressed that blockbuster exhibitions are like an addictive drug to museums; once you start taking them, it is difficult to reverse the model. Based on a report from ARTCO Monthly,  from 1993 to 2008, there were an average of four to six of these mega-exhibitions in public museums annually. From 2009 to 2011, this number suddenly surged to as high as sixteen; Pompidou, Pixar, Cai Guo-Qiang, Gaultier, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gauguin, and Monet flooded into TFAM.
Frustrated and outraged, the art community’s criticisms grew. During the press conference of his own retrospective ‘On the Empire’s Borders’, artist Chen Chieh-Jen (陳界仁) boldly accused TFAM of straying from their mission to be an educational and research institution, embracing international cultural production with genuine culture value, and becoming merely a site for international tourist exhibitions, and fortifying the ‘capital = cultural success’ model to legitimise cultural colonisation. 
One year and three months after becoming the museum director, Hsieh Hsiao-Yun was promoted to head the Department of Cultural Affairs (台北市文化局). By mid-September 2010, architecture professor Wu Kwang-Tyng (吳光庭) from Tamkang University (淡江大學) was appointed to be the next TFAM director. On 15 February, with the help of a private company, Universal Impression Co., Ltd (環球印象國際有限公司), TFAM invited Glenn Lowry and three of his senior staff-members from MOMA to Taipei to assess future collaboration possibilities. During the press conference Hsieh noticeably spurned Wu and spoke on the museum’s behalf. I was curious about the perceptible tension and decided to look into it.
Not long into his term, Wu became genuinely concerned by the state of the museum. On one occasion, he expressed with a reporter his apprehensions regarding blockbuster shows and plans for reform, including limiting imported exhibitions to two per year, and to possible public bidding for collaborating partners . In a normal situation this should have been a perfectly acceptable public statement; as the director of TFAM, Wu had the authority to make changes to the direction of the museum despite his predecessor’s policies. However, in this case Wu’s predecessor Hsieh became his direct superior, and she was not please to see this report.
By March, things started spinning out of control. A blackmail letter circulated on the Internet accusing Hsieh Hsiao-Yun of colluding with Universal Impression Co. for personal gains. Hsieh issued a statement defending herself from any wrongdoing; the Department of Government Ethics (臺北市政府政風處) intervened and investigated the scandal; Hsieh blamed Wu for the imported exhibitions; the Department of Government Ethics found Hsieh innocent; Hsieh recommended that the city not rehire Wu once his term was up; the art community protested against the investigation result and demanded that Hsieh step down. On 29 July, the drama came to a climax; Hsieh Hsiao-Yun handed in her resignation letter to the city mayor which stated that the recent exhibition scandal had tarnished the image of the city government and voluntarily resigned. Professor Wu Kwang-Tyng finished his term as the TFAM director two days later, in what was in my opinion unfortunate and unnecessary collateral damage.
Reflecting upon these troubles in TFAM, I thought of a talk that Fumio Nanjo (南條史生), Director of Mori Art Museum, gave during the 2009 Art Taipei Forum, urging listeners to seek out a suitable model for museums in Asia. His message was that hopefully one day policy makers would realise that short-term gain can cause long-term harm and that there are no shortcuts in cultivating cultural assets. As Chen Chieh-Jen once said, ‘I refuse to believe in a singular art history. Every place has the ability to write its own. We must be confident and generate our own knowledge and perspectives, though it may be clumsy and slow at first.’
1. Being the youngest of the three national fine arts museums (1994), KMFA has 27,122 square meters of floor space but the least resources; it has an annual budget of 163,060,000 NTD (5,656,110 USD) with total of 42 staff members. TFAM, on the other hand, has nearly two and half times its annual budget and 94 on staff, while NTMFA, with federal support, has almost three times the budget and 119 on staff.
2. Lien, Li-Li. The Age of Mega-Museums of Art, Taipei: ARTCO, 2010
3. Wu, Ouch. 〈台灣特展檔案〉 ARTCO Monthly, no. 224, May 2011: 134
4. 吳垠慧〈陳界仁轟北美館：票房化、商業化〉 www.chinatimes.com 中時電子報. available at: http://www.itpark.com.tw/artist/critical_data/10/813/73
5. 凌美雪〈吳光庭考慮改變北美館特展外包合作模式〉 The Liberty Times 自由時報電子報. available at: http://www.libertytimes.com.tw/2010/new/dec/28/today-art1.htm. 28 December 2010
- Thu, 1 Sep 2011