Building a New Arts Infrastructure: Non-State Foundations in Asia

It is widely recognized that non-government foundations, private museums and vibrant NGO artist collectives and spaces provide the backbone for many of the dynamic visual arts projects currently being initiated in Asia. Even though this phenomenon has predominantly occurred in countries that lack a functioning national arts infrastructure, throughout the region in general, private foundations, museums, and artist spaces and collectives are providing vital support and energy for a range of artistic endeavours. The unprecedented level of recent interest in and financial support for visual art initiatives in the region can, of course, be read as part of the larger processes of art market forces and globalization. Notwithstanding these influences, private mechanisms are being seen as major agencies to ‘fill the gap’ — fulfilling roles usually accepted as the responsibility of developed economies’ State-funding bodies and institutions, and State-endorsed ‘alternative’ spaces. As a result, key private initiatives are increasingly performing integral roles in shaping local, regional and, to a growing extent, international contemporary art narratives.

Yet, many of these initiatives in the region are looking beyond replicating the pre-existing Euro-American structures of the funding body, institution, catalogue, festival and exhibition. There is a growing realization that while aspects of these frameworks are worth appropriating, the structures in entirety are neither attainable nor desirable. Increasingly, these various initiatives are focusing on their immediate environs; establishing operations that function effectively within the existing conditions, formulating programs matched to their particular localities. As such, it would be inaccurate to view these developments as merely mechanisms that ‘fill the gaps’. Although this is certainly one effect, these developments are building unique locale-specific systems that are assisting in the formation of innovative and diverse projects and discourses.

This text looks at some of these private support mechanisms operating in Asia. While focusing on foundations based in the region, it discusses some of the key Euro-American foundations working to significant effect with various local regional collectives. It also considers the roles being performed by private museums and other agencies that are contributing to the development of visual art discourse in Asia. Given it would be a complex and lengthy undertaking to consider all the private initiatives operating in the region, the paper draws on examples from India, although where possible examples from other countries are used to illustrate varied operations and purposes.
There are several notable regionally based independent philanthropic bodies that administer grants to artists, curators and art institutions. In India, while there has been an extraordinary art market boom this has not been mirrored in government support; Indian government policy on contemporary art remains largely ineffective and its funding inadequate. India Foundation for the Arts (IFA) — established as a public trust in 1993 and receiving assistance from local trusts, international foundations and the corporate sector — administers its grant programs similarly to many government funding agencies. IFA provides financial support for Indian artists nationwide, across artistic disciplines, and acknowledges that it ‘fills gaps in the assistance for culture and the arts in India’, stating that it provides strategic support for innovate projects and capacity building across the arts.1 The Toshiba International Foundation in Japan has also been administrating public grants for a significant period, founding its grant programs in 1989. Unlike the IFA, the Toshiba International Foundation promotes international exchange, aiming through this means to foster a greater understanding of Japanese art and culture. This is promoted through its programs, which support international research, symposia, and professional development, as well as exhibitions and festivals. The Canadian- and Hong Kong-based Annie Wong Foundation also looks to foster international knowledge and appreciation of a country-specific contemporary art practice, offering support for research grants, artistic exchanges and projects that focus on contemporary Chinese art.

Although a select number of foundations have offered residency programs for more than a decade, since 2000 there has been a considerable increase in residence grants for artists and curators created by foundations and private galleries in Asia. Sanskriti Kendra International Artists Residency Program is one example of a long-established initiative. The residency program is a key initiative of Sanskriti Foundation, a registered public charitable trust established near Delhi in 1978 by businessman O.P. Jain, but now also working with funding partners including the Fulbright program, UNESCO, and the Australian-based Asialink.

Rimbun Dahan in Malaysia and the Viet Nam Foundation for the Arts are further examples of residency programs instigated by individuals rather than corporations. Residencies for Southeast Asian and Australian artists — as well as poets, authors, performers and choreographers — have been offered since 1994 at Rimbun Dahan, situated outside Kuala Lumpur. This private initiative of architect Hijjas Kasturi and Angela Hijjas aims to provide the environment and facilities to support the making of traditional and contemporary art. Vietnamese-American artist Dinh Q. Le and gallerists Wayne and Shoshana Blank created the Los Angeles-based Viet Nam Foundation for the Arts (VNFA) in 2005. Aside from its residency grants for Vietnamese artists, VNFA supports an artist-run space in Ho Chi Minh City and provides project development grants.

As previously mentioned, numerous residency programs have been established since 2000, including initiatives by the Daeyu Cultural Foundation at their Young Eun Museum of Contemporary Art, Kwaungju City; Ssamzie Co. Ltd (the Korean fashion and accessory company) at their Seoul based project space; and Shanghai Zhendai Group’s Zendai Museum of Modern Art residency program.

Given the substantial kudos and media attention given to art prizes, there is, understandably, substantial support provided by various foundations for art prizes. These include the Taiwan-based Taishin Bank Foundation for Arts and Culture that offers prizes in visual and performing arts, Siam Cement Foundation in Bangkok, and the Sovereign Art Foundation and Philippe Charriol Foundation in Hong Kong. In the Philippines, the highly regarded Ateneo Art Award is well supported by corporate bodies and provides the opportunity for young artists to undertake overseas residencies, while the Silverlens Foundation offers prizes for contemporary photography, and the Metrobank Foundation’s art and design prizes focuses on young artists and architects. Last year, a major new prize was announced, involving a partnership between the Asia Pacific Breweries Foundation and the Singapore Art Museum. The Asia Pacific Breweries Foundation Signature Art Prize will be a series of prizes offered every three years over 15 years, with ensuing exhibitions shown at the Singapore Art Museum. The initiative carries significant prize money and the current prize is open to artists from 12 countries in Asia and the Pacific.   

Aside from prizes, there are foundations in the region that focus their support on specific artistic endeavours, often directed by personal expertise and interests. The Jindal Foundation for Performing and Creative Arts, established in Mumbai in 1984, provides financial support for a diverse range of artistic endeavours in India. However one of its major commitments is the contemporary Indian art magazine, Art India. Currently in its 13th year, the magazine has been a critical platform for contemporary Indian art and now, given the market ‘currency’ in contemporary Indian art, boasts an increasing international readership. Another Indian initiative is Apeejay Media Gallery in New Delhi, formed by the industrial and services conglomerate Apeejay Surrendar Group. Launched in 2002, the gallery provides a forum for showcasing experimental media and emerging technologies by Indian and international artists, and has become instrumental in promoting this specific field of practice through its publications and curated exhibition program.

There are also private endeavours supporting art activities in poorly resourced countries in the region. A recent initiative is the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, 2006, founded by diplomat and adventure writer Rory Steward and supported by Afghan President Hamid Karzai and by Prince Charles. This foundation sponsors a diverse range of artistic activities in Afghanistan; the primary objective being the promotion, research, documentation and the cultural preservation of Afghan art and culture. Another example is the Arts Council of Mongolia. It is government based and receives some civic support, however substantive funding is obtained from the private sector and through the sale of artworks. The Council administrates a grant program and provides support for local art institutions and artists, while the Khan Bank in Mongolia matches the Council’s grant program funding.

An area to benefit recently from private sector support is archive and resource centres. The Asia Art Archive itself is an example of a non-profit organization focusing on the collection and preservation of contemporary art material, and is reliant on grants from individuals and funding bodies. Indonesian Visual Art Archive (IVAA) is another non-profit organization that researches and archives art documentation, however its focus is contemporary Indonesian visual art. IVAA is dependent on external support but this is predominantly sourced from European foundations. Private museums are also becoming important research and archival centres, with two major new establishments, the Devi Art Foundation in New Delhi and the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, both aiming to provide considerable focus to this area.

Private museums, apart from taking on important research and archival roles, are playing increasingly significant roles implementing innovative programs and stimulating critical discourse. The Mori Art Museum in Tokyo only opened in 2003 but has already built an international reputation for its dynamic and cutting-edge exhibition program. The above-mentioned Devi Art Foundation (its first exhibition is scheduled for August 2008) is developing a substantive exhibition, publication and outreach program to help meet its objective of fostering dialogue from within the Indian sub-continent among various art practitioners and the public to enhance the understanding of shared history. The newly opened Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, established by the Ullens Foundation, has already been acknowledged as a museum able to ‘fill the gap’ in China through its professional museum services.2 In addition, a number of private museums have played pivotal roles in building major national collections and providing sophisticated levels of care for their collections. Notable examples are the Samsung series of museums in Seoul and Indonesian collector Dr Oei Hong Djien’s private museum in Magelang in central Java.   

In the commercial gallery world of late, we have seen a number of galleries establish foundational arms to their existing operations, and in the case of Sherman Galleries transform exclusively into a foundation. The highly successful Sydney-based Sherman Galleries, known for showing works by leading Australian and Asian artists, ceased operations at the end of 2007 to form Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation. This new initiative aims to support the creation of new works by innovative and influential artists from Asia, the Pacific and Australia through projects not easily realized through the museum sector or private galleries. In Delhi, Vadehra Art Gallery has established the Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art (FICA) and plans to generate private support to finance its programs and awards. FICA has already launched an Emerging Artists Award and plans to significantly develop its educational operations.  

There are numerous Euro-American philanthropic bodies active in Asia, all broadly aiming to increase international and increasingly trans-regional cultural dialogue. These include the UK-based Triangle Arts Trust, the Ford Foundation and The Rockefeller Foundation in the United States, and the Prince Claus Fund and HIVOS from the Netherlands. Many regional art initiatives survive with financial support from more than one funding body, at times including locally based support, but more often with funding from foundations that work multi-nationally and with the assistance of governments other than their own. The Reyum Institute of Arts and Culture in Phnom Penh is one such example. Through multiple international funding partners including The Rockefeller Foundation, The Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development, and the Albert Kunstadter Family Foundation and The Friends of Khmer Culture, both based in New York, the Institute acts as a forum for research, preservation and promotion of contemporary and traditional Cambodian arts. Additionally, international foundations have principally supported many well-known artists’ initiatives in Asia, including the Khoj International Artists’ Association in India and the Mekong Art and Culture Project, as well as provided the funds for Arts Network Asia to administer its Asian-based, peer-assessed grant program to artists and collectives throughout the region. 

We are, without a doubt, seeing new artistic possibilities take shape in Asia through the work of foundations and private initiatives. These private support mechanisms are geared to work within their specific locales and range from providing funds for art prizes, project development and implementation, residency experience for artists, administrators and curators, to developing purpose-built institutions, collections or specialist holdings. There are differing agendas driving these foundations and private initiatives to support the arts. While remaining mindful of the danger of generalisation, corporate foundations (such as IFA and Toyota) by their very nature are driven intrinsically by long-term developmental, economic or ideological goals. Similarly, foundations and initiatives funded by individuals or family businesses (Ullens and Devi for instance) tend to pursue more focused directions often driven by areas of interest particular to their founders.

The active development of contemporary art discourse will always be somewhat problematic in countries where progressive arts policy and supportive government infrastructure are lacking. This is not to say, however, that the State-based support structures in affluent countries are perfect, or the only way to move forward. Privately funded and non-governmental mechanisms in the Asian region are indeed providing much needed structure and energy to their respective art scenes. In the course of re-inventing processes and creating new support structures, these agencies are bound to make a significant difference at local, regional and global levels.



Christine Clark is a curator and art administrator with many years experience in Asia-Pacific contemporary visual art projects. She is currently Exhibitions Manager at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra.



1. India Foundation for the Arts website
2. Ruiz, Cristina, ‘China Gets its First Contemporary Art Museum’ in The Art Newspaper, issue 187,

For more information about the foundations mentioned above, please click here.






Christine CLARK

Sun, 1 Jun 2008
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