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Does Taiwan Suffer from a Talent Shortage in International Curation? – A Curator’s Perspective

Does Taiwan Suffer from a Talent Shortage in International Curation? – A Curator’s Perspective

Here’s the thing: Taiwan does not suffer from a talent shortage in international curation (there are plenty of curators of my generation who, like myself, are well equipped with the skills and experience to go onto the world stage). What we do suffer from, however, is the lack of understanding of our own needs within the larger, global realities.

ARTouch.com recently reached out to me to discuss the common challenges faced by young, Taiwan-based curators like myself on the global stage. While it is an issue that involves many technicalities, my observation is that most challenges are the result of the unique cultural context in which Taiwan finds itself. This article re-examines, through a more distant lens, Taiwan’s social and historical background, rather than diving directly into the technical aspects such as policy-making or the working conditions in the arts industry, in an attempt to depict more accurately the challenges Taiwan faces in international cultural exchange.

A Stranger to Globalization Due to Decades-long Martial Rule

Taiwan was under arguably the most extreme martial rule in human history in the post-World War II era, during which time only the elites and the powerful in the society had the luxury of international travel. Even with the lifting of such restrictions on ordinary citizens in 1979, few were able to do so freely, due to systemic hurdles such as foreign exchange control, existing restrictions on draftees, and the overall difficulty of obtaining a passport or visa. It was not until the mid-1990s that the idea of international travel finally became a more familiar one to the average Taiwanese.

In addition, the entrenched notion that traveling overseas is a privilege reserved only for the few contributes to a still prevailing sentiment in Taiwan: that an overseas trip is, materially, all moonlight and roses (even if a trip to Eastern Taiwan costs far more than a trip abroad).

Such a collective mindset on overseas travel remains living proof of the authoritarian history that Taiwan experienced, and throws into sharp relief the fantasy of an outside world that many in Taiwan still crave: a world full of hope and possibilities; a world that is more civilized, orderly, beautiful; a world that is simply better. And yet, it is this projection as well as the desire to escape that unnerves so many institutions in Taiwan whenever the term “international travel” comes up. Even the most generous institution where domestic business trips by the Taiwan High Speed Rail are more than commonplace would become particular about its budget when it comes to international travel.

The fantasy of a rosy outside world results in the failure of the institutions to foster talent in international communication. For example, it is common practice in Taiwan that institutions ask their employees to “take turns” going on overseas business trips, so that all have an equal opportunity to “see the outside world.” As far as it may seem, this practice serves neither the continuity of international programs, nor the cultivation of talent and professionalization in the arena. (Let’s face it: it takes skills to simply show up – in a timely and professional manner – at meetings held in a foreign country while juggling jet lag and linguistic challenges, let alone negotiating effectively while staying sharp all the way through.) To make matters worse, those who return from overseas business trips are expected to get back to the backlog of work immediately, with scarcely any rest, because official leave in such cases is somehow still perceived as “vacation”, as something enjoyable as opposed to the day-to-day desk job.

No wonder in-house staff in Taiwan would often breathe a sigh of relief upon learning that their colleagues – not them – are picked to go on overseas business trips. As for the chosen ones, they appear as if they are to die a hero.

58th Venice Biennial Taiwan Pavilion. (© The Reporter)

When Curators Pick up the Slack as Contractors

This distinct institutional culture in Taiwan, against the backdrop of rising demand in international exchange around the world, contributes to the prevalence of outsourcing at home. Contract curators are then tasked with a sacred duty: to bring the arts from Taiwan to the front and center of the global stage.

The fact that curators end up picking up the slack makes sense to some extent. For one thing, most curators are independent professionals adept at international communication. And they have been no stranger to looking for possibilities outwards, given the realities they found themselves in ten or more years ago in Taiwan. (I would add that such realities may have changed with the growing number of museums at home.)

While an “expedient” working relationship between the institutions and contract curators may have worked in the latter’s favor – considering the exponential increase in subsidies and programs for international curation in recent years – such cooperation has its own drawbacks. For instance, cooperation on a contract basis discourages curators from developing a more long-term view of a project in the interest of the institutions. As for the institutions, outsourcing (sometimes to other foreign institutions and curators) hinders the systemic accumulation of networking resources and experience. Moreover, the absence of complete authorization from the institutions poses a challenge to contract curators in carrying out their work in the real world where institutional resources are of paramount importance. 

My personal observation has been that the institutional representatives – curators, directors, and section chiefs of exhibition affairs of the globally-renowned museums and galleries in the U.S, Europe, and Japan – are often the ones actually on the frontlines negotiating curation projects, trusted with full authorization and discretion, in international settings. Picture a room where these representatives from various parts of the world meet and bond over a meal in a light-hearted atmosphere. Then contrast that with representatives from Taiwan, who are either unease about these international scenarios due in large part to an unrealistic idea of overseas travel, or simply lack the know-how to nail the job. The most troubling aspect of all, I would add, is that a lot of the practices common to our cultures at home, such as intra-organizational hierarchy and inter-institutional equivalence, are precisely what holds us back in an international context.

National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts (© National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts)

Projection of Domestic Practices onto Global Arenas Impede Efforts in International Exchange

The unexamined projection of domestic practices onto the global arenas is Taiwan’s biggest blind spot in international exchange. One example that I have observed as an experienced professional in international curation is our fixation with inter-institutional equivalence in subsidy mechanisms, oblivious to the reality that Taiwan remains a disadvantaged entity in the international cultural context. In business, it is common sense that more resource input is necessary for a disadvantaged brand to earn better collaborative conditions, whereas an advantaged brand could request that the collaborative party should fund the joint project. It is regrettable that Taiwan often thinks too much of itself, failing to acknowledge its fundamental disadvantage in the global reality, hence the vain effort to collaborate with optimal partners, including tier-one institutions from around the world.

Compare and contrast with Japan, and you will get a better picture: while hierarchy also figures prominently as basic rule of society in Japanese culture, the Japanese are careful not to project such practices onto the global arenas. In recent years, Japan has spared no effort in fostering young curators, many of whom have traveled extensively throughout Asia through the Japan Foundation, even with some of them getting to play an important role in the Japan Pavilion of International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia. The indisputable fact is that throughout Asian countries, curators of different generations are now exhibiting increasingly different worldviews and professional know-how. What can be observed – and learned – from the Japanese and Koreans is that we should not project our own practices – including our collective mindset on social hierarchy – onto the global arenas, which would impede our efforts in international exchange.

Facing the “Mortality” of a Curator’s Professional Career

No professional curator can stay at the top of their game without a keen and sustained interest in the latest trends and developments in the international arts industries. The maintenance of such an interest, however, depends critically on extensive overseas travels. The systemic inability of institutions in Taiwan to foster full-time, in-house curators with deep expertise in international exchange leaves young talent with no choice but to work freelance, to step outside of the system. But as funding eventually wanes with the project nearing its end, independent curators again find themselves having to come back under the wing of an institution in order to eke out a living.

I joke sometimes that when independent curators “return” to an institution in order to earn a living, they often feel as if it is draining rather than recharging their batteries. By draining I mean exhausting all the resources, skills, and knowledge that the curators have accumulated over their freelance career. And in the absence of an institutional mechanism to recharge their batteries, it is only a matter time before the curators ponder again whether to leave, in order to recharge again. Allow me add at this point that not all independent curators “return” to an institution solely for the sake of earning a living; sometimes – and crucially so – they return in order to earn a platform, an opportunity to put to full use their skills and talent in ways they, as independent curators, may not be able to. A kind of perilous equilibrium – if you will – has long existed between institutions and curators to render exhibitions possible.

The fundamental flaw of this system, however, is that it ignores the “mortality” of a curator’s professional career, the fact that they – as human beings – have very limited time and energy on earth. So far I do not see how the system in Taiwan would work differently so that curators would not be easily worn out (perhaps only when artificial intelligence replaces manpower). I suppose it would make sense to see the career life cycle of a curator as that of a professional athlete: there is only so much time before their strength, stamina, and agility eventually go downward. If our system in Taiwan fails to give our curators during their golden period in life a bigger platform to shine, it would be as cruel as having professional athletes line up to compete in the Olympics based on seniority – when their time comes, they might as well just get a coaching job at a training institute.

Taipei Fine Arts Museum (© Taipei Fine Arts Museum)

What Are We Really Looking for, and Why?

Ultimately, we need to answer for ourselves a fundamental question: what exactly are we – the Taiwanese people – looking for in international exchange? Aside from factors such as the contested debate around our statehood and international status, we have yet to realize what we are truly after. The way I see it is we are like a rather clueless tourist hoping to enjoy some decent French cuisine at a Big Mac’s price. And when we actually step into a decent French restaurant, we realize how improperly dressed we are. And then we get picky about the menu.

I would not want to pass judgment on such a tourist. But if I may, I would like to ask him this: “Are you really into French cuisine? What kind of meal are you really looking for?”

As the previous example illustrates, we as a society need to first understand the nuts and bolts of a particular field before we step into it. And the fact is, each case is different and may require different plans and strategies. If, say, we want to get our contemporary arts into tier-one institutions in the Western world, we would most likely have to focus our resources on raising the profile of a select few artists from Taiwan through solo exhibitions. But what is our plan to deal with potentially mixed public opinion in this case? What is our strategy to also ensure that the remaining resources are allocated to other artists in a fair fashion? To return to a familiar example of dining: if we plan to dine at a three-star Michelin restaurant, we have to cut down on daily food expenses. And if it turns out what we really want in the end is everyday dishes, then we need to come up with a plan and strategy to meet just our needs.

And of course, the world does not solely revolve around those tier-one institutions in the West. What may seem like an ideal artwork to be exhibited at the Palais de Tokyo may not work for the Echigo-Tsumari Art Field, or the Southeast Asian Biennales. We must think strategically about how best to direct and allocate resources – given the realities – to promote the modern and contemporary arts from Taiwan on the global stage.

We must also think realistically about what kind of arts – in what form and what settings – we want to pursue on the global stage right now, at a time when a pandemic is still raging and conflicts proliferating, in a way that could bring the international exchange to a halt. Asking ourselves this fundamental question can help put things into perspective. I think of the world as a mirror that reflects what we project out of our collective needs, fantasies, and imaginations, which then constitute our own worldview. Here’s the thing: Taiwan does not suffer from a talent shortage in international curation (there are plenty of curators of my generation who, like myself, are well equipped with the skills and experience to go onto the world stage). What we do suffer from, however, is the lack of understanding of our own needs within the larger, global realities.

高森信男( 62篇 )

策展人、「奧賽德工廠」廠長

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