Tan Boon Hui, Singaporean arts curator, steward and staunch supporter of Asian arts on the world stage, died on July 7 at the age of 53. He had been hospitalized since May after suffering a stroke.
Tan had recently returned to Singapore to run the non-profit Arts House, having previously served as director of the Asia Society in New York. He was internationally known for his dynamic approach to arts management and his commitment to artists from Asia and its diaspora.
He organized two editions of the Singapore Biennial and was instrumental in founding the Asia Society Triennial, whose inaugural edition, We Do Not Dream Alone, opened in New York in 2020 during the most devastating time of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We mourn the loss of a dynamic and innovative leader, a strong advocate for the arts, a passionate and visionary advocate, a mentor, a friend and a creative inspiration to many in the arts community and beyond,” Arts House said in a statement on Facebook. The organization added that Tan “left an indelible mark on those who knew and worked with him.”
Tan Boon Hui was born in Singapore in 1968. He joined the Asian Civilizations Museum in Singapore as Assistant Curator in 1997, having previously produced exhibition catalogs for Southeast Asian institutions.
Tan then served as Deputy Director of Programs at the National Museum of Singapore, during which time he organized the Singapore Pavilion at the 2003 Venice Biennale. In 2009, he became a much-lauded director of the Singapore Art Museum (SAM), which is characterized by a fresh focus on Southeast Asian art distinguishes. In 2013, while at SAM, he introduced a collaborative curatorial approach to the Singapore Biennale. More than 20 regional art professionals have been invited to help create “a distinctive Asian identity” for the exhibition.
“Because of his unwavering belief in and support for contemporary art and artists from this region, many local artists at the time were given a national platform to showcase their diverse art practices to audiences,” SAM said on Instagram.
In 2013, Tan left SAM to become Deputy General Manager for Museums and Programs at the National Heritage Board in Singapore, where he launched the Singapore Night Festival. In 2015 he was Artistic Director of Singapore en France, le Festival, a multidisciplinary showcase of contemporary Singaporean and Southeast Asian art and culture in French cities such as Paris, Lyon and Nantes. He later assumed the role of Vice President for Global Arts Programs and Director of the Asia Society Museum in New York.
“As a curator, I’m interested in how art is a way of seeing and navigating ambiguity,” he said hyperallergic in 2020. “On one level, my approach is socio-political – not so much in direct action, but in how art is one of the most effective ways today to resist the isolation to which larger socio-political forces and structures are pushing us. Before we act, we see and recognize, so art must help us see the deeper structures and networks that connect people, ideas, and goods through space and time.”