Interview: M+'s new chief curator Doryun Chong

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Building a $5billion museum from scratch has to be the most ambitious arts project in recent history – so who would be fearless enough to take on the role of chief curator? In his first ever interview since taking up the position, Korean-born Doryun Chong speaks to Ysabelle Cheung about how it feels to be on the edge of a precipice

Bespectacled, bewildered and beaming – that’s our first impression of the new chief curator of the soon-to-be behemoth of a global arts museum, M+. Fresh off the boat from America and his recent posting as painting and sculpture curator at New York’s esteemed MoMA, Doryun Chong walks straight past the interview room, striding with purpose to an unknown destination. It’ll take him a little time to get his bearings; when we meet him, it’s only been three weeks since he stepped on Hong Kong soil and an even shorter 11 days since he’s joined WKCDA. The Korean-born, America-trained curator makes a turn back into the interview room, smiling sheepishly – ‘I was told to go in that general direction’. An ironic and perhaps apt introduction, considering we’re here to talk about just that: direction. So far, M+ has presented an inflatables exhibition (impressively popular), a series of engaging talks, a state-of-the-art design rendering of the building, designed by Herzog & de Meuron, and day by day, information is slowly trickling in about the museum’s host of curators and the bulk of the collection that is still being formed. All for a plot of land that is currently home to nothing more than rubble. 

Long regaled for his work in representing contemporary Asian art in America, Chong has been working inside the 84-year-old MoMA for the last four years and, prior to that, he was curator at Minneapolis’ Walker Art Centre from 2003 to 2009. Chong joins a growing team of curators that already includes Aric Chen (design and architecture), Tobias Berger (curator), Pi Li (Sigg senior curator) and the most recent addition, Lesley Ma, the first daughter of Taiwan (ink art). Chong’s role as chief curator was appointed to him by Lars Nittve, M+’s executive director (who Time Out interviewed in 2011) in July this year. Nittve recently informed the press that pinpointing the right man for the job has been a less than easy task – and securing Chong for an interview has been no mean feat either. Three months after the announcement of his role, we finally sit down with the Korean curator to discuss what, exactly, goes on behind the glass doors at WKCDA. 

Doryun – you’re a difficult man to get hold of... 
Ah, really? To be honest, I’ve only been on board for a week and a half, and prior to that I didn’t feel like I was going to speak with any authority – not that I’m going to speak with any authority now! We’re still in very early stages. 

How have you been settling in?
It’s been back to back meetings so far, but I find it to be a very collegial environment. I think of my responsibility as chief curator as not just contributing my own ideas, but looking at what everybody else is working on. 


View of M+ form the WKCDA park, imagined by Herzog de Meuron

In a conference session with Lars Nittve [M+ executive director] last week, it was announced that half the curators would be chosen from abroad and half from Hong Kong. Why not choose all curators born and raised here?
M+ is meant to be, or aspires to be, a museum or institution of visual culture in the 21st century, grounded in Hong Kong but with a global vision. This is our mantra; that’s what guides our practice every day. I have to rely a lot upon my colleagues because I’m so new here, but we as a team do think about local context constantly. M+ is not meant to be a museum of Hong Kong, only. Shouldn’t the staff then reflect that? Curators not from here are not ignorant about Hong Kong – I mean, I’m slightly ignorant right now [laughs] but I know something about it. By mixing people from different backgrounds and different experiences, we cut out assumptions about what somebody is capable of or interested in, and that’s how we can build an interesting team. We shouldn’t assume that just because this person is from Hong Kong, he or she is only interested in Hong Kong. And vice versa. 

True – it’s about not limiting your vision. In that vein, we’re also interested in the idea of a museum being a tool for displaying artworks and exhibitions and not just a building. 
This is one of Lars’ favourite things to say! That a museum is not just about a building. We are working towards having a fantastic, spacious museum, but we also want to fill it with fabulous content. I think the great pleasure and privilege of taking this very rare opportunity of starting a museum from the ground up, which we have all signed up for here, is that we get to define what the contents are going to be before the container is determined. If you ask any museum director or curator around  the world: ‘what drives you?’ I think everyone will answer, ‘the content should drive the building’. 

We have already started the process of content, and now we are developing design, in intimate and frequent discussion with the architects about how we want the building to look. We have to be out there, rather than just sitting here in the office or researching in the library, buying works, talking to galleries – we do all of those things, of course, but we also have to be testing our ideas with people out in the public. I think we should absolutely try different kinds of things, and we should allow ourselves to ‘fail’.


Herzog de Meuron's visual mock-up of Found Space, one of the areas in M+ museum, with artwork by Mike and Doug Stam

Coming from an already illustrious background in the contemporary art world, would you say this was the most important – and testing – appointment in your career? 
Hmm. Good question. Difficult question. You know, if I were to say yes, this is the most important one, maybe it is a little unfair to my previous positions. If those previous positions didn’t happen, then this wouldn’t have happened, right? I think for me, I’ve been extremely lucky to go from one place to the next, in what seemed like a natural progression. But perhaps this appointment is potentially the most challenging one. 

I am a Korean-born, American-trained curator, so for me to be in a totally different country: that’s naturally challenging. And building a museum grounds up is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for most curators. Most curators don’t even get that opportunity. But we all wanted to be a part of it because of its challenging nature. And I guess I’m of a certain age and experience, and now I have this title that comes with bigger responsibilities than I had before. It’s challenging for at least those three reasons. 

What are your personal philosophies and practices in curating? 
Well, I think curating is an overused term. People think ‘to curate’ means simply to select or shop, but that’s not where the word actually comes from. 

Like how people say they’re curating a sandwich…
Right! Or curating their wardrobe. In fact, the word is related to ‘cure’ or to ‘conserve’. Having worked for large museums with large collections, this idea is always the baseline in my thinking: to take care of the collection. And because I’m a contemporary art curator looking after living artists, acquisitions have also been a large part of what I’ve done. When you are working with living artists and then trying to get their works in your collection, it starts with conversations, getting to know them on a personal, professional and philosophical level, to gain a better understanding of this remarkable project that they have embarked upon, so-called art. Only with that understanding can you do your job properly – which is to identify or to advocate for the important artworks.  

And how do these practices apply to M+ in particular?
We have a few more years to go until the museum opens, but we’re not just doing it until the museum opens. I think we’ll need to take on the responsibility to think about the totality of the collection with each individual work that comes in. We believe that M+ is going to be an institution that is long-lasting, like MoMA, which is more than 80 years old. We want to set up and plant the museum on a firm ground in a very healthy way; that is very much the spine of what a curator should be doing. I don’t know if this is answering your question but I just wanted to emphasise that curating isn’t just exhibition making. Curating is, in this context, more germane; it is this idea of longevity, the idea of institutional responsibility that is intimately and intellectually engaged with living artists and living communities of artists.

It’s already evident that the impact of M+ will ripple throughout Asia and, indeed, the world, in ways that are unexpected and new. Is Hong Kong ready to be at the epicentre of this ripple? 
[Laughs] Why not? You have to start out somewhere; you can’t just wait for a fully formed institution to fall from the sky and start operating. You have to build it. It takes a lot of trial and error. People might be unhappy with existing institutions, but we must not forget that there are institutions here. And I think Hong Kong has already formed the top soil upon which M+ can grow, because we do have an existing museum and gallery scene here. They have all played the role of catalysts in their own way and they continue to do so. I think we at M+ have already sort of played that role of being the next catalyst. We have excited people and we have frustrated people in the community and we want to have a complex range of responses, instead of blind support. Hong Kong is absolutely the right place for this to happen. 

Each curator has been brought on board because they share one collective vision, but we’re interested to know what your personal vision for M+ is.
One vision I have is to take my responsibilities seriously as chief curator. Our team is growing. We’re acquiring junior curators and senior curators. This is not going to be a museum where the chief curator is the most experienced and knows everything and then the younger curators of lesser ranks carry out the tasks. I’m going to be in a position of learning from these curators of different positions, but at the same time I should be the one who has the curatorial oversight of what everyone is doing, creating a balance. It’s like your diet – you need to stay healthy and ensure everything is balanced. Again, not based on my knowledge, but because I’m thinking about what the curatorial institutional direction should be and how everyone can contribute to that. My vision in that way is the responsibility in finding the right balance among the many things we are going to cover. 


The exterior of M+ museum, as imagined by Herzog de Meuron

Coming from MoMA, which is a museum with a rich and varied heritage, and looking at other museums with a global vision – Tate Modern, Guggenheim – how do you think M+ will be different?
There isn’t a museum out there in the world, not just in the region, that is covering all the areas we are, but not presenting them all in different departments. For instance, at MoMA there are six curatorial departments – I used to work in painting and sculpture – and it’s one museum that is all departmentalised. 

Lars made it very clear that M+ shouldn’t be a museum with different departments. We have curators with different specialties, but we are one team. We have one conversation. And we are working towards one collection, which is an ideal that is very difficult to realise. This is not just a museum of contemporary visual art or modern art, it’s an M+, right? It’s more than just a museum – it’s going to be an institution of visual culture. There are three large areas: visual culture, architecture and design, and moving image. Within visual arts alone there are many different layers also. 

How will your personal vision affect the acquisitions being made at M+?
I like to say I am a proudly peripheral member of any curatorial team, wherever I am. I feel like my biggest contributions are not just what the places are known for. At MoMA, I didn’t feel like I needed to do an exhibition about Picasso, because there are already curators who are better qualified than I am who have dedicated their life to Picasso. I understood that I was brought to MoMA to bring new visions, new voices, and new artists into the programming and collection. And when it comes to M+, I think a lot of things that I’m interested in will be new to the community of people here.

What will be the main focus of the collection? 
At MoMA, I was bringing Asian-born artists into the American context and it’s almost like the inverse situation when it comes to here. Works by Chinese artists or Japanese artists are already in the region. We already know that this is going to be the core of our collection, but I don’t think we should just stop here. We are not only going to be about East Asia. We also have to think about this sphere of visual culture in the region and how that is related to the Middle East, to North America, Eastern Europe... because we are living in a globalised world. Why live in a cosmopolitan place and build a global museum and limit your ambitions?     

For more information on M+ check out wkcda.hk/en/museum.

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